The Science of Sustainability

In Defense of Science: An Interview with NCSE’s Eugenie Scott

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Eugenie Scott

Eugenie Scott, president of the Bay Area Skeptics and executive director of the National Center for Science Education. A physical anthropologist by training, Scott has spent the past three decades defending sound science and the teaching of evolution in schools. (Photo: Liza Gross)

A few weeks ago I wrote about what happens when people respond to well-established science with disbelief or mistrust. As I noted, this is an occupational risk for researchers who work on vaccines (and journalists who write about them), which is why I told a cautionary tale about rejecting science in the face of super-bugs. The piece resonated with readers, but not in the way I’d hoped. Of nearly 220 comments, the vast majority opposed vaccination, for various reasons, rejecting the science.

As I considered how to respond, I wondered how science educators might deal with the chasm between scientific facts and public opinion. Then it struck me: who better to consider rebukes of mainstream science than the Bay Area’s own Eugenie Scott?

One of America’s most revered science guardians, Scott has long taught rational thought and “science as a way of knowing” as president of the Bay Area Skeptics and as executive director of the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education.

Best-known for defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, Scott led NCSE into the climate wars in January, when the center launched its climate change education initiative to help educators under attack for teaching students about climate change.

I spoke with Scott last week about the challenges of communicating science when evidence runs headlong into ideology, belief, and denial.

Gross: One thing I noticed in some of the comments last week was a tendency to glom onto rare events, like adverse reactions to vaccines, to reject an entire body of science. NCSE hasn’t taken on the anti-vaccination issue, but do you see something similar with those who reject evolution and climate change?

Scott: This kind of anomaly mongering is something that we’ve dealt with for decades with evolution. We’re starting to learn more about it with climate change. One such anomaly is the fact that 1998 was an unusually warm year. So if you measure from 1998 to 2008–the line goes down–cooling has happened, therefore global warming is not taking place. Now, this is exactly parallel to the kind of anomaly mongering you get with creationism. Where they’ll point to the live mollusk that carbon 14 dating indicated had been dead for 3,000 years, and say, therefore radioisotopic dating is not valid, therefore the Earth is young, therefore, evolution didn’t take place. It’s a logical series of arguments in one sense except the premises are all wrong because these are anomalies.

Darwin as ape

This satirical cartoon depicting Charles Darwin as an ape, published in 1871, following the publication of Darwin's "The Descent of Man," typified reactions of those who rejected Darwin's contention that humans and apes shared common ancestry.

In the case of the 1998 year, that’s cherry picking the data in a most egregious fashion, because if you pick just about any other year, you’ll find that the climate is getting warmer. And with the living mollusk, that article was not an attack upon radioisotopic dating, but a methodology article showing the difference between carbon absorption in lacustrine [lake] versus riverine environments and how you must consider the source of your sample.

You find the same thing with people who object to vaccines. They’ll pick some anomalous observation and say, “See, see, we told you vaccines are dangerous,” or “We told you they’re ineffective,” or something along those lines.

To understand this phenomenon you really have to dig deeper into what is motivating people. First of all, I’d like to distinguish between the people who lead these movements versus the people who follow them. They’re not the ones generating the vaccine anomaly, so to speak, but they’ve read this literature and they’re parroting what they’ve heard. And your heart goes out to them. They’re concerned about their children. They don’t want their kids to get sick. But as many admit, they don’t fully understand the science. And your decisions are obviously going to be influenced by your emotions. We’re human beings, not automatons. But you need to temper them with good information, empirical information, dare I say scientific information, in order to make the best decisions.

Gross: Another parallel with the evolution and climate change denial narrative, which seems to relate to motivation, is the changing rationale for doubting the science. The reasons change but the doubt doesn’t, as if doubt itself is a motivation. How do you counter doubt with science?

Scott: Well, I think one of the things to remember is that, like Gaul [Julius Caesar’s Gallic conquest], the public is divided into three parts. You have the people who are perfectly okay with vaccines. You have the people who are really, really concerned about vaccines, and you have the vast majority of Americans who are in the middle. They haven’t thought about it very much. They are reachable with information.

I think we are unwise as scientists or as people who want to help the public understand science to ignore motivation. But we have to remember that different audiences are open to a different kinds of information. And I just can’t imagine that knowledge and information and the empirical evidence and the results of good studies are immaterial, especially for that middle group. They may be less likely to persuade the people in the category of, “I’ve got my fingers stuck in my ears and I don’t want to listen,” who have a really strong emotional, ideological investment in a position.

NCSE has always aimed at that big middle. In the case of evolution, the people who are not conservative Christians, who don’t have a religious or ideological reason to object to evolution but who just don’t know very much about it and who are reachable. I think with vaccines that should be the target for those of us who want to improve the understanding of vaccines and help communicate the importance of why you need to vaccinate your child.

Gross: How do you reach the people in the middle when organized groups routinely perpetuate the myths? For a nonscientist it’s very difficult to figure out what to think, especially when the so-called “debates” on these issues become so emotionally charged. How do you cut through the emotions to help people think rationally?

UCMP evolution creationism cartoon

(Credit: University of California Museum of Paleontology – Understanding Evolution – www.berkeley.edu)

Scott: Our experience with the evolution and climate change issues has been to recognize that there is a huge amount of dichotomous thinking going on. In the case of evolution you’re either a good guy Christian creationist or you’re a bad guy evolutionist atheist. Those are the packages that many students come into classrooms with. So breaking apart these dichotomies is very important because they’re false dichotomies.

With Christians, there’s really a huge range of views about evolution from the most extreme creationists to theistic evolution, which is a position that God created [humans] through evolution. This is actually mainstream Christianity. The most extreme creationism goes from flat-Earthism through geocentrism to young-Earth creationism to old-Earth creationism to theistic evolution.

There’s also dichotomous thinking going on in terms of climate change that doesn’t have anything to do with the science but with ideologies that prevent people from listening to the science. You’re either a good Republican, anti-global-warming person or you’re a pro-big-government, political liberal, global warming accepter.

Finding the people who think ideologically but still accept the science is what we would like to do. Our job at NCSE, at least in global warming and evolution, has been to point out that these dichotomies are false. And to find the people in intermediate positions who hold those ideological positions, find the conservative Christians who accept evolution, find the Republicans who accept global warming, find the libertarians who accept global warming and say, “See, you don’t need to let ideology get in the way to accept the science.”

Gross: There seems to be a similar dichotomy with vaccination.

Scott: Well, it’s different. It’s people protecting their kids. That’s the ideology. Go back to motivation. Why is it that people are rejecting vaccination for their kids? It’s obviously an emotional thing, I’m not criticizing that. People love their kids but they’re just hyper, hyper worried. I think that’s probably the motivator. So, when they hear something that is on the other side of standard science, they don’t know whether it’s credible or not but the more things they read they talk themselves into believing it. And, yes, there’s this kind of dichotomous reasoning: "You’re either a good guy who really loves your kid or you’re a dogmatic scientist trying to cram this stuff down our throats."

The intermediate position that we try to invoke in the other two controversies we deal with is in this case people whose children have autism or perhaps other conditions people ascribe to vaccines but who still support vaccination. They have a credibility with other parents that scientists don’t. A scientist who is a parent can obviously wear two hats, but parents who can speak the language, so to speak, parents who are coping with an autistic child or a child who has suffered one of the diseases that are attributed to vaccinations can have more credibility.

Again, I think we shouldn’t abandon the people who are in that one segment of society who are bound and determined not to accept vaccinations but we should really focus our attention more on keeping people from slipping down into that category. Certainly, that’s what we’ve done with evolution and that’s what we are likely to be doing with climate change as well.

Gross: Do you think the fact that scientists argue over some aspects of science, like when to get mammograms, feeds into people’s doubts, so they think scientists don’t really know any more than they do?

Scott: I think so much of what people misunderstand about science is this balance between science being very reliable in explaining the natural world yet it’s expandable. It’s the idea of core ideas of science, of frontier ideas, and then fringe ideas. We can expand our understanding of nature by testing new ideas against nature and throwing out the ones that don’t work, tentatively keeping the ones that do work because we need more and more tests before that tentative explanation goes into the core. But once we get that consensus, once scientists have arm wrestled over this new explanation and we’ve tested it up one side and down another and it goes into that core, then we stop arguing about it. This is where we are with evolution and climate change and the basic theory of vaccination—the basic understanding of antigens and antibodies and how you can prevent antigens from causing disease by zapping them with antibodies, which you acquire by getting a vaccination or getting the disease. Which do you want? Believe me, a vaccination is much more benign.

That basic understanding about what makes vaccinations work is a core idea of science. We’re just not debating whether that works or not any more than we’re debating whether living things have common ancestors or the planet’s getting warmer.

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Category: Biology, Blog, Climate, Education, Health, Sustainable Health

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Liza Gross

About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Ike McCaslin

    Thoughtful piece on an eloquent spokesperson for science and reason. Color me outraged.

  • Barry

    Outstanding piece. I've often wondered if some people think of science almost like a legal case. If you can find a piece of evidence that goes against the case, then the case won't hold up. Of course the difference is that the science is expandable as your interviewee said.

  • Ephraim7

    If pastors, priests. rabbis, and "so called" Christians would stop their
    false (old Earth) and foolish (young Earth) teachings, and start promoting the
    truth of Genesis (Observations of Moses), then there would hardly be any room
    for the ridiculous teaching of evolution.

    Collectively, Bible believers are so "blind", that their approach to
    Genesis is a joke. Instead of seeking the truth, they continue to support the
    current lies and foolishness of Creationism. Genesis does not have any
    "Creation accounts". When you keep telling a person that their car is
    running out of gas, and they refuse to look at the fuel gauge and go to the gas
    station, you begin to wonder how "dumb" they are.

    Perhaps they are just like the Jews, who value tradition over the truth of
    scripture.

    Nevertheless, Dr. Scott refuses to meet me in a public forum, to compare the merits of evolution with the truth of Genesis, namely the "Observations of Moses" (not the falsehoods of Creationism). She says she wants the truth taught to students, but fails to bring that "truth" to the table. She is just as afraid of Genesis as the Clergy is.

    Herman Cummings
    ephraim7@aol.com

    • http://www.facebook.com/neil.terry.98 Neil Terry

      Nobody is "afraid of Genesis", particularly people of a skeptical and secular outlook. It's just that most of us prefer the more creative progressive rock Genesis of the 60's and 70's, before Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett left the band, before Phil Collins replaced Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford with androids. But none of us do or will ever "fear" Genesis, unless they start going door to door rounding up old copies of "Selling England by the Pound" and putting old hippies in concentration camps where they are forced to listen to "Invisible Touch" 24 hours a day.
      I will admit that personally, Atomic Rooster makes me a little uneasy from time to time.

      • http://twitter.com/CheyenneWay Fire

        +1 Sir, great job!

  • paul5of6

    You write: "They may be less likely to persuade the people in the category of, 'I’ve got my fingers stuck in my ears and I don’t want to listen,' who have a really strong emotional, ideological investment in a position."

    Ironically, the "fingers in my ears" people in this statement could describe vaccine apologists who refuse to acknowledge the problems that arise from vaccines. In a sense, many scientists have nailed their colors to the mast of vaccines, and consequently suffer from confirmation bias. Ask yourself, if you heard of a case where an infant died shortly after vaccination, would your first gut reaction be to preclude that vaccines could be involved?

    • Tyrosine

      "if you heard of a case where an infant died shortly after vaccination,
      would your first gut reaction be to preclude that vaccines could be
      involved?"

      Only if you labor under the delusion that correlation shows cause.

      • buffonelder101

        blah blah blah

        • Billy

          That's the most cogent thing you've written so far…

    • buffonelder101

      your last part lost me.

      • Dennis L. Smith

        You truly are a creep and a troll, aren't you? Know who I am? I have no problem identifying myself, as I've nothing to hide. I'm Dennis L. Smith, in Des Moines, IA, and last year won at trial a judgment against Iowa State University for $1.3 million for retaliation for whistle blowing, and for some reason you have a problem with that. Have you read this?Then tell us who you are. If not, then just STFU, creep.

  • Frank the Tank

    Recent research has shown the empirical evidence for globalization of
    corporate innovation is very limited. And as a corollary, the market for
    technologies is shrinking.

    As a world leader, it is important for America to provide systematic
    research grants for our scientists. I believe there will always be a
    need for us to have a well-articulated innovation policy with emphasis
    on human resource development. Thank you.

  • novaccineforme

    I dont think most people really question the science behind Immunizations. What they question is their government, who, through freedom-of-information-act requests have proven that the government has used the guize of "immunization shots" to experiment on the public, and do some pretty horrible and terrible things.

    Furthermore, people question the for-profit mega-industries who produce these vaccines. Who, as have been proven in the past to have use questionable/dangerous ingredients simply to increase their profit. These are are the same industries who infected thousands of Africans with AIDS by using tainted items that were removed from the US.

    It is not a distrust of science, but a distrust of our government, our corporations and our complete system of society.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      A litany of unsourced claims which are untrue–but I'm sure that no amount of link slinging would matter to you.

      So if you distrust all sources of information, how do you make the call on who you do trust? Random people with web sites? Folks who raise money for their agenda? Quacks selling detox potions along with their conspiracy theories?

      Really–I'm curious: what is the basis for your decision making if all sources are untrustworthy? And how to you have confidence in those decisions? How do you come to the conclusion that those folks have your childrens' best interests in mind?

      • novaccineforme

        I dont trust the government at all.
        If you do, you are naive and historically uneducated. And, since big multinational corporations basically run the government, it is really them that I do not trust. These companies are in the business of profit, not in the business of the public good.

        So, as long as Im not sick, and have nothing wrong with me, I will not partake of this sick for-profit industry that we have.

        You can bury your head in the sand, and talk make up straw man "conspiracy" arguments, but reality is not a theory.

        Just one example from Wikipedia :

        "From 1963 to 1966,Saul Krugman of New York University promised the parents of mentally disabled children that their children would be enrolled into Willowbrook in exchange for signing a consent form for procedures that he claimed were "vaccinations." In reality, the procedures involved deliberately infecting children with viral hepatitis byfeeding them an extract made from the feces of patients infected with the disease."

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unethical_human_experimentation_in_the_United_States

        Go ahead, and be a guinea pig if you want. Dont bother me because I refuse to.

        • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

          Not what I asked. I asked how *you* decide to trust specific sources. Who do you trust, and why do you trust them? How can you be confident they have you and your family's health as their goal? What do you use as evidence in decision making?

          • buffonelder101

            surety is overrated and minimal at best. One day the sun won't raise in the eastern sky, but every other day we will be "trust" that it will. science is as much of a religion as religion itself.

          • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

            Non-answer. It's not hard. Tell me who you trust for information, and why you trust them.

          • buffonelder101

            you never asked me who i trust, that was asked to someone else. But I will humor you and answer your question: i don't trust… i just experience… if patterns that emerge through my experience lead me to a conclusion that a to b will give c, that isn't trust. that is a learned trait.
            when people ask me my birth date, i tell them that it is such and such a day and that was the day i was told. i don't remember. I don't believe my parents would lie to me, but I also don't believe them to be infallible. so to get my point: my life is my life. If i choose to live it foolishly or wisely is my choice, not yours or anyone else's. To want to impose your will or your science or religion on me is a sign of truly weak soul that can't live with contradiction. Life is a contradiction. Live to die… Even vs odd. Positive vs negative. Yin and Yang. If you can't understand that disagreement exist, but is also necessary, you will have a long life of unnecessary frustration ahead of you.

          • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

            Limiting your knowledge to your own experience is a very narrow way to live. It will also leave you to draw the wrong conclusions because of too small of a sample. And you'll also have very poor assessments of situations such as what sorts of policies to support if you should want to vote, or work with your local school committee, or anything beyond your front porch.

            I think that is a sad way to live. And dangerous. And reeks of Dunning-Kruger.

        • buffonelder101

          Don't bother with the "science is infallible" types…

          • http://twitter.com/ejwillingham Emily Willingham

            Aaaand…. now we apply Godwin's Law.

        • MrC

          The government tells you to *not* get the anthrax vaccine nor the smallpox vaccine. Are you going to go demand them? After all, your decision is determined by your distrust of government, not the science.

    • buffonelder101

      question all science and question all religion. heck even the Bible commands this in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. and without questions science would have none of its "facts"

  • http://twitter.com/noteasy2begreen Jennifer Mo

    Terrific piece. I think one of the problems with science communication is the lack of empathy for the emotions that are driving people to act in ways that science doesn't support. Being able to understand the importance of emotional, peer-group, and cultural pressures

  • buffonelder101

    Galileo questioned what was thought to be well established science. Pasteur, Tesla, Pons and Fleichmann, Faraday, Maxwell, Heaviside (do I need to name more) Science is limited by human reasoning and will always be just as fallible and corruptable. These "skeptics" that make claims such as "….
    when people respond to well-established science with disbelief or mistrust," don't understand that it is out of this distrust that all discoveries spring forth. Blind condemning the blind. The Bible is old and must be erroneous, but no one reads it to see for sure. Easier to condemn and rely on instruments than our own perceptions perhaps. Fools perish like fools.

    • MrC

      "
      Pons and Fleichmann"

      Did you really mean to put the cold fusion team in there? They were wrong, after all.

      Questioning something doesn't make you correct. You can't say, "These people questioned the existing situation and they were right. Therefore, since I question the current situation, I must be correct".

      You may want to be kinder to fools….

  • Graham

    I'm very uncomfortable with the way climate change is thrown in here, especially the use of the politically loaded word "denier", and in similar sci comm pieces, as if it is the same as vaccine-doubters and evolution: it is completely different. Thus, the purported link between autism and vaccines is a pretty straightforward single-variable issue than can be readily cleared up with good science; evolution on the other hand is a Grand Theory essentially about the past x million years of life, with multiple streams of evidence, and no counter-evidence; "climate change" needs first to be defined- there are few people who actually dispute that CO2 is a warming gas, so your point only applies if you are referring to this fringe minority; the issues around climate change are far more complex than say vaccines or homeopathy, involving multiple variables, complex modelling- "post-normal science" – and tentative predictions of the future based on multiple scenarios; you are also dealing with the interplay between two complex non-linear systems, the atmosphere and human economies. Saying "the climate is changing" means nothing; even saying "the planet is warming and humans are (partly) responsible" is largely uncontroversial; the issue is a) potential impacts and b) policies of mitigation and/or adaptation. On a) the science is very uncertain, according to IPCC lead author Richard Betts: http://skepteco.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/climate-consensus-sensitivity/

    It is on b) that the political differences, rather than scientific differences, emerge, but clearly the "anti-science" position is just as prevalent on the "alarmist" side as on the skeptics side- I would say more so in fact: starting with Al Gore, the issue of climate change has been routinely exaggerated with apocalyptic visions in order to promote a particular policy of carbon taxes and Kyoto-style emissions reductions treaties. These are political disputes, not scientific ones; in addition, and most uncomfortably, there is evidence from the climategate emails of "gate-keeping"- other reputable scientists like Judith Curry and Richard Miler have also condemned some of the behavior of some scientists around the Hockey Stick etc..

    The unthinking use here of the ad hominem "denier" is quite wrong; it is routinely used to undermine those who accept AGW but question the policy responses being proposed by the "consensus".

    "One such anomaly is the fact that 1998 was an unusually warm year. So if
    you measure from 1998 to 2008–the line goes down–cooling has happened,
    therefore global warming is not taking place." But who of any significance is saying no warming is taking place? The issue is, how bad, how fast, how much is from burning fossil fuels, what should we do etc.. Is the flat period we are currently experiencing in line with models? Unfortunately, I feel that the author here does not understand, and has failed to explain the issues of uncertainty in climate change science, the political nature of the debate on both sides, and this does rather bring into question their role as a science communicator.