Discussing the psychology behind science denialism and its impact on MVHS.

To some of us, science is simply a fact, but to others, science is something people can choose whether or not to believe. While the scientific method involves careful experimentation and data analysis, and the process of publication of peer-reviewed journals ensures that scientific consensus is of the highest caliber, science denial is found in discussion surrounding numerous scientific topics.

Over the past several months, hundreds have flooded the streets in London, protesting their government’s COVID-19 lockdown and demanding that it reveal the “truth” regarding the pandemic. This alludes to the conspiracy that the pandemic is not as harmful as it seems. 

Additionally, although a majority of U.S. citizens agree with the scientific consensus behind climate change, a survey conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project found that 13% of Americans believe that climate change was not fueled by human activity — the third largest percentage of denialists, indicating that science denialism is ever-present in American society.

The Psychology Behind It

Professionals have spent many years discussing the idea of science denialism and where it comes from. According to Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University Naomi Oreskes, part of the reason denialism around science is so prevalent is because science itself has “logical fallacies.”  

A common example would be a scientist hypothesizing that if some factor is true their experiment will produce a given result, and then concluding that the factor was true because the experiment produced their expected result. This logic is inherently flawed because there could have been other reasons that the expected result was found.

Shivani Verma, a Junior at MVHS, recounts her personal experience with science denial that was fueled by the logical fallacies existing in science. “I’ve always been kind of like a skeptic. When we were learning stuff about atoms [I found it] really hard to learn things because I couldn’t believe [them],” Varma said, “I was like, ‘If you’ve never seen an atom, how would you really know?’ And people were like, ‘Well, you don’t.’ I was like, ‘Well, you don’t really know anything [then, since at any time] anything can be disproven.’ Everyone was like, ‘Well, yeah.’ And I’m like, ‘Then how is this science? It’s just like guessing!’”

Verma’s thought process parallels the idea that those who deny science often have trouble coming to terms with the validity of the scientific process. As Oreskes puts it, the amount of logical fallacies in science means that scientific fact is not always intuitive. This allows for science to be the perfect target for what is known as “black-and-white thinking.”

Denialists employ dichotomous, or “black-and-white,” thinking when analyzing scientific discussions. Rather than viewing complex topics as having multiple factors that must be considered, dichotomous thinkers believe that ideas can only be sorted into two distinct categories.  Thus, they only accept scientific ideas as true if they appear to have no contradictions.

The issue with this idea connects back to logical fallacies. Denialists disregard the complexity of the field of science as it is based on empirical evidence, and thus cannot be verified as either completely true or controversial.

MVHS Senior Arjan Madan believes that the impact of science denial on MVHS is more nuanced than students simply refusing to believe scientific conclusions. “I actually have not seen much denial of science as far as COVID-19 goes and as far as climate change goes,” Madan said, “But, [I have seen] negligence in addressing these issues. I think while most students [and people in this area] are able to believe the science, whether they take steps in their lives beyond just understanding the science [in order] to create change, I don’t think I see as much.”

Similarly, Verma recounts her experience with the concept of climate change and how people react to it at MVHS.

“There’s that idea in our heads that it will never happen to us and I think that everyone [says that] the world’s going to end in like 10 years because of climate change, but nobody seems to actually believe it” Verma said. “It’s hard to think about something so far away.”

Implicatory denial is the acceptance of a scientific theory, but the denial of whether or not one must take action in order to change the outcome of issues such as climate change. It appears that, while many students at MVHS understand and accept the fact that the climate is changing, many do not truly grasp the importance of taking action.

Shanthi Karamcheti MSW, a licenced psychotherapist, describes the psychological basis for implicit denialism. 

“I think, in some sense, it’s a place of ignorance. I think it’s a place of fear,” Karamcheti said. “More and more I feel that people are fearful of what’s around the corner. Like,  ‘If I were to accept it, what would that mean for me, for my family, for my business?’ and it almost feels like that fear of change is far greater than accepting the reality.”

Especially in terms of climate change, the consequences of science denialism are alarming. According to NASA, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the likelihood of human behavior causing climate to change was more than 95%, indicating that something must be done to address denialism we see today.

Combatting Denialism

Students can contribute to the fight against science denialism by actively combatting their own instances of dichotomous thinking.

“People need to pause and take those extra moments to really think about what it is that they’re asking and be open to hearing different perspectives and different ideologies.” Karamcheti said. “If people can just set aside their egos and be aware that there are multiple perspectives, multiple answers and solutions . . . we would probably be a much more open, accepting world.”

Overall, science denialism is a significant scientific phenomenon that permeates the MVHS community and society as a whole at a grave cost. However, by understanding denialism and identifying our own dichotomous thinking when it arises, we can combat scientific denialism in our own communities.

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