Is There Something Peculiarly American About the Rejection of Science?

Sharon Begley, a superb science writer and senior editor of Newsweek, has a recent article on an issue I’ve been curious about for years: Why scientists are losing the PR wars.  Why do Americans, and especially evangelical Americans, ignore and distrust science so much?  In my early years as a minister in Pasadena, Boulder, Colorado, and Flagstaff, I occasionally met people who distrusted science, but the issue didn’t seem so widespread then.  Part of the reason was that those were college towns and there were a lot of faculty in the congregations.  Scientists tend to trust science. But by the mid 1970s a number of the “religious” were gaining attention for their views on (against) evolution.  Inevitably, the scientist/physicians caught hell from the anti-abortion movement, and from there the conversation around climate change became more raucous.Begley offers a number of intriguing reasons for the American rejection of science.  Scientists are lousy communicators. They mimic their training and appeal to people’s heads, not their guts.  So when smarter-than-thou condescension by scientists surfaces in arguments between evolutionary biologists and creationists, the latter almost always win.  It’s a rare scientist who understands persuasion and can tell good motivational stories.The statistics against climate science (and other sciences), for example, show there is far less backlash in Europe and Japan.  The U.S. is 33rd out of 34 developed countries in the percentage of adults who believe that humans evolved.  There really is something peculiarly American about the rejection of science.Charles Harper, a devout Christian and scientist who ran the program bridging science and faith at the Templeton Foundation thinks he knows why Americans reject science.  We Americans are anti-elitist and anti-authoritarian, so when we’re told we have “to think in a certain way there is a backlish.”  And as with climate science and evolution, we refuse to bow to authority.  As an immigrant nation, we are fed up with hierarchy, and so it’s the American way to distrust those who set themselves up as authorities.  It’s the American way to reject authority.A final reason for the rejection of science is the growing belief in polling, the growing belief in the wisdom of crowds.  Americans seem to have decided  it doesn’t take any special ability to pick apart climate science or evolution, and so they don’t respect well-trained scientists.  They do, however, respect the smarts of the ordinary guy, but there’s a lot of difference in their minds between the ordinary guy and the elitist.  Polls, therefore, are a trustworthy barometer for most any important issue.My business, in contrast to most consultants in personal development, is heavily research oriented.  I emphasize behaviors from the standpoint of research, challenge conventional wisdom, and am quick to pooh-pooh a client’s ideas when they won’t stand up to scrutiny.   I reject client ideas with a smile and a laugh, but I do it.  That’s part of our initial social contract.  Clients know my reputation and I suspect there’s quite a bit of self-selection of my services as a result.  Indeed, occasionally a client will ask whether an idea I’m propounding has a research basis.  My hope, for their sake, is that they continue to ask that question, and that evidence-based management and behavior becomes their modus operandi.  Good theory makes for good practice which makes for good profit.  And when it doesn’t, the thoughtful person can explain that failure from a research perspective.
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