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Darwin Day and the Science of Science Denial

• February 07, 2014 • 10:00 AM

Charles Darwin. (Photo: three_point/Flickr)

Why Charles Darwin is the perfect figure for an international celebration of science.

Next week is Darwin Day. February 12, Darwin’s birthday, is the occasion for an “international celebration of science and humanity.” To celebrate, museums, municipalities, civic clubs, and other groups are holding lectures, essay contests, readings, and other educational activities focused on science. According to the list of events maintained by the International Darwin Day Foundation, among the many Darwin Day events are a science workshop for high school students and teachers in St. Louis, a family scavenger hunt at the Smithsonian, two plays about Darwin in London, a Darwin movie night in New Brunswick, a Darwin Day potluck in Oakton, Virginia, and a party in Buenos Aires, where Darwin spent much time during his five-year voyage on the Beagle. Last year the city of San Diego issued an official Darwin Day proclamation, and this year, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt has introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives to recognize Darwin “as a worthy symbol on which to celebrate the achievements of reason, science, and the advancement of human knowledge.”

What’s not to like about a day that brings people together for education and science? It’s a wonderful idea, but Darwin Day is not as innocuous as it seems. Out of the tiny handful of scientists who are household names—Einstein, Newton, Galileo—the founders of this celebration of science and humanity have picked the one who is hands-down the most socially controversial. Darwin’s scientific accomplishments unquestionably place him among the world’s great scientists, but they still generate fierce resistance in society at large.

Darwin Day is a deliberate response to that resistance.

Despite our intellectual achievements, we’re not natural scientific thinkers. Science will always generate some tension in our society. The best way to deal with this is to recognize that its source is not ignorance, but features inherent in our minds.

IT’S NO SECRET THAT the conflict between creationism and evolution continues to simmer in our society, despite the tremendous cultural authority of science. Last month, shortly before researchers published two studies showing that Neanderthal genes have contributed to our evolutionary success, Slate reported that Texas spends tens of millions of dollars on charter schools that teach an error-riddled, creationism-inspired curriculum that questions the scientifically accepted age of the Earth. In January, two bills aimed at allowing creationist parents and teachers to sabotage evolution in the public school curriculum were introduced in the Missouri legislature, making this year a typical one for the Show Me state. The International Darwin Day Foundation is a product of the social controversy over evolution, and the foundation is directly tied to the American Humanist Association, whose tagline is “Good Without a God.”

Evolution isn’t the only science flash point in our society. Leaving aside issues that are genuine controversies among scientists, many conclusions that are largely uncontested in the scientific community are resisted by some parts of society, including anthropogenic global warming and the safety of GMOs and vaccines. Intriguingly, those who resist almost never frame their doubt as a deliberate opposition to science. Few people in our culture want to be pegged as anti-science, and so even those who are uncomfortable with a major scientific finding will invoke scientific evidence to justify their skepticism.

If science is considered so authoritative in our culture, why is resistance to some of its results so common? This is not a new question. Back in 1620, the philosopher Francis Bacon argued that human nature is inherently ill-suited for science. In Novum Organum, Bacon wrote that “the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.” Bacon’s idea is now a well-established field of study.

The findings of this field show that we’re not natural scientific thinkers. There is the problem of “cultural cognition,” which, as Yale psychologist Dan Kahan and his colleagues have shown, is the common tendency to make our beliefs conform to those of the groups we belong to. We do this, subconsciously, because of a strong drive to maintain our social ties. In a 2012 study of public belief in climate change, Kahan and his colleagues found that, surprisingly, higher levels of science literacy were not more likely to make people accept the scientific consensus. Rather, the most scientifically literate people in their study “were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.”

A subconscious tendency to conform is not the only source of friction between science and the operation of our minds. Researchers have discovered a variety of ways (PDF) that we intuitively distort evidence: We overemphasize facts that support our beliefs and de-emphasize ones that conflict with them; we wrongly judge something based on our feelings toward other associated ideas, settings, or objects; and we’re not very good at intuiting probabilities.

BY RECOGNIZING THESE COMMON mental failure modes, we can apply the science of science denial to overcome resistance to important scientific ideas. Josh Rosenau, who works for the National Center for Science Education, a group that defends the teaching of evolution and climate change in public schools, argues that we should use what we’ve learned about cognitive biases to take a scientifically informed approach to science communication, and thereby minimize the social pressures that lead to science denial.

From this perspective, the founders of Darwin Day are doing it right by engaging communities in a discussion about science, including religious communities. Right before Darwin Day is Evolution Weekend, an occasion for religious congregations to discuss scientific issues, and possibly eliminate one source of cognitive bias by dispelling the perception of conflict between members’ religious community and science.

Despite our intellectual achievements, we’re not natural scientific thinkers. Science will always generate some tension in our society. The best way to deal with this is to recognize that its source is not ignorance, but features inherent in our minds. Darwin, more than any other famous scientist, symbolizes the tension between our science and our humanity, and so he’s a fitting figure to honor as we celebrate both.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Find him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

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