I recently posted in support of the March for Science by calling out and debunking several prevalent myths in our society. Unfortunately, I did not follow George Lakoff’s advice about what happens when you say things like “Don’t think of an elephant.” It makes people think of an elephant! For example, saying “Corporations are not people,” still makes people think about why corporations might be people. It would be nice if saying “Corporations are not destroying all life on earth,” caused people to think of the well-intentioned (mostly San Francisco-based) corporations, which, if they are in fact destroying the planet, at least it’s only by accident, or those which, even if they do bad things, they allow billionaires to do good things with the money through their foundations. Luckily, we have cognitive scientists to resolve such conundrums.
In the face of now-accidentally-reinforced myths that should have been debunked, it is more important than ever to participate in the March for Science next month. Scientific literacy has become a matter of life and death. Anti-intellectualism seems to be on the rise, with leaders and their followers rejecting scientific facts and consensus, especially around climate denialism and putting Christian creationist theology in place of scientifically-proven Darwinian evolution.
In the interest of scientific literacy, here’s a quick review of the scientific method. Different scientists around the world develop hypotheses, do studies, and follow methodologies that are vetted through peer review. Their conclusions are based on evidence, results must be verified, can be corrected, and reinterpreted.
In the case of evolution, scientists have discovered a voluminous fossil record, dinosaur bones, and carbon dating. About 150 years ago an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel described scientifically how plants can be bred to exhibit certain characteristics, later described as “genes.” Dog breeders do same thing.
This is not magical thinking. This is not “because my parents taught it to me when I was five years old and it is forever unquestionable.” This is not because certain moral values are important to me or were important to my parents. Respecting your parents in a good thing, but sometimes you can question what you were taught and draw your own conclusions. Some of the things you were taught may have been wrong, for example, the existence of angels, literal Biblical creationism, and the idea that the world was created by an Old White Man with a Beard sitting on a cloud. These ideas are prevalent in our culture, and it takes a certain amount of courage to stand up and refute them in public. Speaking of old men with long white beards, that famous picture of Darwin may be so powerful because here we have another old man with a white beard telling us that life on Earth came about (evolved) in a different way.
The March for Science provides an opportunity for scientists, or really anyone with a certain amount of scientific literacy, to get the word out to the (frankly, less-educated) masses about what science is, what we know about the world, and the implications for our democracy and economy. Knowledge can help dispel the fear that is driving the anti-planet, anti-life agenda.
Fossil fuel companies fear going out of business. Coal miners fear being left to fend for themselves. White men fear being overshadowed by women who are leaning in, and immigrants who are willing to work harder for less pay. Symptoms of this fear are manifested in rural America in the opioid epidemic, racism and xenophobia. In the economic sphere, the scarcity mindset must be replaced with an abundance mindset. Middle-class jobs are scarce and becoming scarcer, but basic income could provide a new type of economic stability, if people can get beyond the idea that having a job is their only, or their most important, contribution to society. Basic income has been referred to as “helicopter money,” dropped like manna from Heaven.
To combat anti-intellectualism, we will also need “helicopter books.” Increasing literacy in order to reduce fundamentalist ideologies has a history in places like Afghanistan. But now, after the 2016 election, we may need to helicopter-drop science books here in the USA in rural areas, the South, and the Midwest. Books away!