On Science and Skepticism

It appears that in the past few decades another divide has been developing in the United States. This time, however, the divide is not economically or socially based, but rather it encompasses a fundamental conflict between intellectuals in the field of science and laymen. America’s scientific community is one of the most prolific in the world, and its developments have vast impacts on global society. However, from the perspective of some of those untrained in the field the group can seem exclusive and disconnected from reality, which leads to the scientific community and their studies being viewed with skepticism by a significant portion of the populace.

Science can be such a polarizer that politicians such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have run campaigns on the idea of questioning the scientific “socialist agenda” when the discipline tackles topics such as climate change and healthcare. Bachmann even went so far as to make the foolish claim that, “There isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” While the Dedman College chemistry major in me wants to rant about carbonic acid increasing ocean acidity and the greenhouse effect for the remainder of this article, I will restrain myself for now. The point I want to make here is that when over ninety percent of trained professionals agree on something it is wise for those untrained in the field to at least acknowledge the veracity of their claims. When people will readily accept the accuracy of the diagnosis of one or two doctors, buy toothpaste based on the testimonies of a dentist in an advertisement, and, dare I say it, accept the word of one local pastor as the word of God, why is it that it takes 97.1% of the nation’s scientists1 to get a mere 50% public acknowledgement2 of the human effect on global climate?

So why is scientific consensus so controversial, and when did it become that way? Polls by the Pew Research Center show that views of climate science are largely predictable by partisan and ideological factors, with strong conservatives being most skeptical. While 68% of strong liberals believe that scientists understand very well that Earth’s climate is changing, this number is only 18% for strong conservatives.3 Conservative resistance to science seems to be caused by a mixture of two ideas. The first of which proposes that since conservatives have the largest percentage out of any ideological group of people who say religion is very important to them (70%),4  an inherent conflict arises out of some people’s view that scientific discoveries are contradictory to their steadfast religious convictions. This clash between religion and science is not new. From Galileo Galilei’s conflicts with the papacy in the 17th century to Bill Nye’s debate with Ken Ham back in 2014, it is easy to see how people can view science as the antithesis of religion. The second idea that causes conservative resistance to science is that politicians often feed upon its quasi-inherent connection to socialism. Many right-wing politicians tend to reject climate science on fiscal grounds, such as when Sarah Palin said that the benefits of CO2 emissions reduction policies are “far outweighed by their economic costs.” While this claim sounds like a noble attempt to save the economy, it literally means that priority is being placed more on cutting costs than saving the very planet that allows the economy to exist in the first place. The unfortunate truth remains that there is no profit to be made that is worth a dying ecosystem.

This demonization of science by politicians seems to have no concrete basis for its occurrence, and that leads me to my next observation. There appears to be a feedback loop in the denial of science by politicians and their supporters that is kept alive by one force: lobbyism. According to the Center for Responsive Politics in 2016, 89% of the political contributions from oil and gas companies went to Republicans.5 The largest recipient of these contributions was none other than Texas senator and prominent climate change denier Ted Cruz. The scary part of this is that Cruz currently chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness. This means that the same man who has repeatedly rejected the beliefs of the scientific community is the most powerful person in the senate on matters related to science. The oil and gas industry is using politicians as puppets to manipulate conservative voters and government policy, and our planet is going to pay for it.

President Trump recently released his budget proposal for this year and, regardless of whether it passes, it reveals our president’s terrifying priorities in government. The budget proposes many large, damaging cuts to a myriad of government agencies, but the 16.2% cut to the Department of Health and Human Services, the 13.5% cut to the Department of Education, and the 31.4% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency are some of the scariest. While these vital programs are receiving cuts, the Departments of Defense (which already accounts for 54% of discretionary spending) and Homeland Security are getting boosts. This shows that our president would rather cater to the needless and excessive militarization of our nation than ensure that America’s future is preserved through healthcare, research, education, and environmental protection. These should not be partisan or ideological issues. The future of our nation cannot be sacrificed in the interest of cutting costs, and, for the sake of posterity, the denial of scientific consensus must not be allowed to manipulate government policy.

This article was written by Alec Mason. Click here to see more of Alec’s work.