When Science Doesn’t Matter

This article was originally published by the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine on March 3, 2015. Read the original article here.

 

Science matters, says John Hagan. Except when it doesn’t.

 

Take climate change, he challenges. Despite an ever-growing body of scientific evidence supporting the fact that human activity leads to global warming, the issue remains as polarizing as ever. The U.S. Congress, for example, has been unable to agree upon or pass major legislation to deal with the growing threat to the nation and the planet.

 

“We didn’t really evolve to be correct or right, we evolved to win,” said Hagan, President of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Brunswick, Maine. “The facts really don’t matter. We just want to win. If you ever watch political debates, it’s not about facts. It’s about who’s the most persuasive.”

 

Hagan was at UMaine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions last week to discuss a matter at the heart of science: the human heart. In a seminar titled “The Science of When Science Doesn’t Matter (and What to Do About It)”, Hagan presented study after survey after chart showing scientific facts do not move the crowd, especially on hot button issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods and vaccinations, for example.

 

"We’re all attracted to information that reinforces our values and we tend to avoid information that disagrees with our values or threatens something that’s important to us,” Hagan said.

 

As a powerful example, Hagan presented a study by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). A survey compared responses from members of the public to those of scientists. The results were consistently lopsided. One of the biggest disparities: the survey found that though 88 percent of scientists polled said they believe genetically modified foods are safe to consume, only 37 percent of public respondents felt the same. On the question of whether climate change is due to human activities, 87 percent of scientists accepted the statement as true while members of the public came in at 50 percent. In other words, half of those surveyed do not believe fossil fuels, aerosols, deforestation, and other causes generally accepted by scientists, are responsible for global warming.

 

And lest scientists be exempt from the pull of emotion in the face of research findings, Hagan doesn’t let them off the hook. Belief in a certain set of facts or conclusions can cloud anyone’s judgment.

 

“The deeper we care about something emotionally, the less able we’re to intake new, novel information. Scientists too. We all do it, even those of us who are trained in sciences and think that we don’t do this, we really do this and we don’t know we’re doing this usually,” Hagan said.

 

And that’s the thing. Our emotions are often a blind spot, Hagan said. We may think we are basing conclusions on a set of solid, incontrovertible facts, but, chances are, we’ve selected findings that satiate our hearts rather than our minds: “There’s a lot of emotion even though we might not feel a lot of emotion, a lot of values driving what we think and how we feel about particular issues,” he said.

 

Hagan said it’s common to assume better education is the key to a broader worldview. But that assumption is dead wrong. A 2012 study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that people with greater scientific literacy perceived less climate change risk than those with less scientific exposure. In fact, Hagan said, those with scientific literacy are experts at cherry-picking facts that match their values.

 

Our modern day ability to join social networks of like-minded people can actually further isolate us from diverse ideas and viewpoints: “When we come together in groups of like minds, we tend to get isolated, more polarized. Studies show that when we’re in groups we can actually take on more extreme views,” Hagan said.

 

The way forward, he said, involves a lot of pulling back and listening with an open mind – all while understanding that a person’s viewpoint is colored by emotions, values and personal experience. A lot of the resistance comes down to fear of the unknown, Hagan said.

 

“You have to build trust with someone who thinks differently, acknowledge their fear. Their fear is real,” Hagan said.

 

And while this all may seem grim, the first step is to understand whom we’re dealing with on all sides: very real human beings.

 

Said Hagan: “It was in 1739 that the philosopher (David) Hume said that reason is the slave of passions and can never pretend to be any other office other than to serve and obey them.