I find it intriguing when some of my fellow engineers, doctors or scientists take view-points that do not agree with science. A classic case is that of climate change. There are several deniers in my cohort group, and they are firm in their convictions that either it is a hoax or human beings have very little to do with it. Unfortunately, such denying is not restricted to climate change, other scientific or historic findings are also under assault form these folks who one would consider to be supporters of science.
What is really mystifying to me is how they started on this journey of denying science. (May be not all of it, but some aspects of it.) Once they start the journey, there is little they can do or anyone else to bring them back to reality. They slide into their echo chamber and only read/listen/view only those who agree with them. The social media makes sure of that. Such confirmation bias is too difficult to overcome.
I can think of several reasons why they started:
1. They think of themselves as independent thinkers. Yes, the world will not survive without independent thinking, but that does not mean that you start disagreeing with well-established facts just to demonstrate your independence. There still are flat earth societies in existence, I am sure, with members who are proud of their independent thinking. It could also be that they started on the slippery slope due to some other reason, as articulated below, and then call themselves “independent thinkers” as a boost to their egos.
2. They slide into taking the opposite viewpoint because it comes as a package with something else. So, for instance, if you are a conservative, you find the platform of a certain political party more appealing than that of others. However, belonging to that party means listening to broadcasts or TV show that deny science or provide simple explanations for complex phenomena. You eventually end up buying the whole package, hook line and sinker.
3. They have a strong religious background. Now, it is possible for scientists to be religious, however it must be quite difficult to strike the balance. Many folks who belong to Jain religion in India do not eat things that grows underground because they carry germs. One can argue that such non-scientific stand cannot coexist with their professional training. However, it does. Being a member of the tribe, and following traditions to do so, take priority over their science background.
4. They have taken the view that any research done by a (fill-in-the-gap) is suspect because all those people want to do is to perpetuate their view points of the world. The candidates for the class of scientists/historians/writers who are suspect include — -those who live in the West, white folks, Jewish people — — you name it. Anyone who comes up with a historic research on your country, your tribe, or your ethnic group who does not belong to your country/tribe or ethnic group, is a suspect with a hidden agenda. As it is with reason number 1 above, this can be an excuse to justify what they have come to believe due to another reason.
5. They take the opposite viewpoint because their place of work encourages them to do so. If you are working for an oil company whose profits are going to be harmed if people switch to alternate energy, the employer will convince you that Climate Change is hogwash. Not believing in the company’s view point may be harmful to your employment.
Compounding the problem is the situation that most scientists are generally not savvy in marketing. They call their findings hypothesis or theories, not facts, even when there is little doubt that they are not true. Another issue is that these theories are often dealing with overall trends and not short-term fluctuations, including those that appear to be contrarian. For example, global warming can include days of freezing cold without violating the overall trend.
Either of these issues allows the deniers with an opening. “See, the scientists are not sure of their own work, how can I believe it?” Or, “aha, how can there be global warming when I am freezing in record cold?”
When an average Joe, not trained in a scientific discipline, takes such a stand, I understand (sort of). I find it disappointing when someone who has a similar background as mine and had a successful career does that.
PS: Thank you, my friends, who I shared these thoughts with, for your contributions.