How to help combat science-denial
a step-by-step guide for the emotionally-illiterate science-endorser
Dear science endorsers, we fucked up. We can no longer afford to point our fingers at the science-denial going on and laugh, shrugging it off as an ignorance we hold no responsibility for. Our failure to empathize and our smug irony have helped to create and feed this monster, and we can no longer afford to ignore the contribution we’re actively making. As eradicated diseases and middle-ages-level thought schools continue to rise and misinformation fuels antibiotic resistance, we climb onto our self-constructed throne of superiority delusions, pat each other on the back for choosing science, and pretend we’re above it all. This attitude is not a response to the problem; this attitude is the problem (well, a significant part of the problem). Our smugness and collective delusion of grander are eagerly driving people away from the scientific community.
Personally, I don’t understand science; a proud and open rational and firm believer in the scientific mindset and method, I’ve had to choose this worldview. A scientist doesn’t often get to choose this worldview — they just sort of pile on information about how the world works and understand. I believe this is why they fail to realize how difficult it is for us `mere mortals` who don’t understand for ourselves.
We need to trust you guys. We need to make the conscience choice to place our faith in the scientific consensus and trust you to decide for us. To decide for us how it’s best to treat our bodies, vaccinate our children, understand the universe, feed our families, treat our planet, treat our ailments, and organize our priorities. Personally, I whole-heartedly think you guys are doing a fantastic job: you have my full support, confidence, and relentless endorsement. I also think that you guys suck big-time at marketing and empathy, dear scientific community. Big-time.
One Carl Sagan — brilliant, well-spoken, full of empathy — cannot make-up for an entire community of smug, empathy-lacking, hard-working, well-meaning assholes waving data in our faces like we’re all supposed to be able to understand shit they spent an entire lifetime learning about. You lack the ability to give us reassurance and optimism in the face of cold, cynical fact — and the better part of you take pride in your unwillingness to do so, right as you turn around and wonder why would anyone choose to believe in an unscientific world where everything makes sense and you can cure cancer by eating grapefruit (you can’t though).
Dear scientific community, if you want to help fix the dangerously-rising science-denial and lack of trust in the scientific consensus, you need to step down from your throne of smugness, and up your marketing game.
I dare say the first step to doing this is empathy. Non-judgmental, straight from the core of your human condition, empathy. Let’s try and break it down into emotion-pills that are more easily digested by a rational mind, shall we? Still here? Okay, here we go.
Understanding the difference between choosing a worldview, and having no chance but to resign to its certainty
Let’s say our persona here is named Jack — or Jane, respectively — to which we shall from here on refer to as the gender-neutral J. J. is a college-educated, intelligent, opinionated UX-designer in their late 20s. Maybe they’re recently-married and considering a family. Maybe they have a Golden Retriever and their parents visit on Sundays for lunch. J. doesn’t understand science per say — their background is creative. But J. is an intelligent human being with a desire to understand the world and make informed, responsible decisions.
This is where choice comes in. If you’re J., you can choose to interpret the scientific and pseudo-scientific information you come across in a myriad of ways. Everything becomes philosophy. Your experiences and your background shape your interpretation of everything. You don’t understand evolution in such a manner that you can explain it to medical students correctly using those fancy Latin terms, you have to use your intuition, and ultimately, choose to believe that all of those generations of scientists who do understand it were correct. This choice applies to everything science-related. Sometimes, we don’t like what we hear. It makes the world an uncertain, dangerous, unbearable place to live in. And the choice becomes so very difficult to swallow. Which leads us to…
Learning to empathize with the unbearable difficulty of The Choice, and the temptation to shape a different reality
I will say this again: as a scientist (say, a visionary evolutionary biologist like Richard Dawkins or a brilliant physicist like Stephen Hawking or one of the millions of anonymous heroes who slave daily for minimal wages in research laboratories from around the world, hoping to contribute to saving humanity from cancer or type II diabetes or anything in between), as a scientist, you’ve had no choice but to surrender to the deeply and profoundly evident certainty of how the world works. Your choice were the hundreds of sleepless nights and years spent understanding. The rest, was a journey of learning to accept what you’ve understood.
J. has The Choice. And J. can choose to believe that they live in a world where s/he and their loved ones could be diagnosed with cancer any day, and we don’t have neat and effective ways of dealing with that just yet even though the scientific community is giving it their all. Or, J. can choose to believe that eating grapefruit (or whatever alkaline fad diet the Internet is doing these days see here it is I’m doing the smug thing again) will cure/prevent cancer in them and their loved ones.
And J. has to actively make that choice every day. J. has to choose between a world of uncertainty and cold statistics, and a world where everything we know is wrong and the Big Pharma is out to get your money but there are actually simple and effective ways of making the world less uncertain and cold. Because this one dude with a degree in doctor said so and the Big Pharma is out to silence him — it doesn’t matter how, the point is it makes the world more bearable, and unlike the scientist, J. can afford to choose. Which leads to…
Facing the mirror — reflecting on the weight of cold science-backed reality, as the source of your merciless lack of empathy in the face of pseudo-science
I will say this again: we, the science-endorsers, and you, the scientific community (ergo those who accept hard cold science-backed reality either by choice or lack thereof) are a bunch of smug assholes. Through my having had to make The Choice myself, I think I relate deeply to both that smugness and the difficulty of said choice. And so I think I know why we’re so self-righteous.
We expect everyone to just do what we did in the face of the harsh facts of reality. Shut up and deal with them, like a strong independent woman of color raising a child alone in a bad neighborhood: silently, without much fuss, as if it were the human condition and her pain shouldn’t expect to be seen or be carried out in the open.
Whether you, the scientist or science endorser, think it is okay to act like that in the face of people in search of a less harsh reality, that’s your decision to make. But what this smug, empathy-lacking attitude is for sure, is counter-productive. Your stingy ironies in the face of pseudo-science and your long, smug, over-technical nerd-outs at social gatherings are doing nothing, if not for helping to drive people further away from the scientific community. You are your own PR these days, and the better part of us are really bad PR. Which leads to our final step in this exercise…
Up your marketing/PR game: empathy is the one sure way to inspire people
As seen with the indescribable and incredible Carl Sagan, and more recently with millennial trends to restore faith in humanity like Michael from Vsauce or the awesome guys from In a Nutshell), really smart scientists can be popular at parties. Which means they have the ability to change lives, inspire worldviews, and shape humanity’s decisions on what’s important — some even years after their death. That is productive.
We want more science funding, we want more people to know why vaccinating is important, we want more people to make accurately-informed decisions that benefit them and the entirety of the human race. And the way to do that is by being `popular at parties`, aka empathic in the face of the tragedy that is accepting the world for what it is, while inspiring everyone to find freedom, meaning and purpose in doing so.
As the master Carl Sagan or the charismatic and witty Richard Dawkins can actively testify, there is optimism and meaning to be found in embracing science, with its hopes for the future and current limitations and seemingly painful truths alike. But a pile of studies we the scientifically-illiterate can barely go through without falling asleep and a bunch of ironic memes will do nothing to aid people in finding that meaning and joy.
Instead, try to remember to take time to talk simply and passionately about why your field is amazing and how it gives you meaning in life. When you come across pseudo-science and differing worldviews, try to show kindness and compassion — while remembering that bashing people in the face with peer reviewed studies, statistics, and terms not in the Oxford English Dictionary will do nothing to inspire them to adhere to a more rational decision-making process. You didn’t come to terms with the intimate, cold, and fascinating workings of the world in a day, so try and be patient with your friends and family members, taking every opportunity to talk about your own quest for meaning, rather than to criticize and correct theirs.
We can do it, dear fellow science endorsers and esteemed scientists, we can show genuine empathy and human emotion. We can’t all have the charisma and the dedication to education that geniuses like Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins display, but we can all do our part to inspire those around us to find meaning and joy in science.
If you like my rambling, please consider telling others about obscure-Moody by clicking that heart and/or sharing my work with your fellow-nerds. Remember kids, every time you support a science-endorsing atheist, your god converts a religious-extremist to the light of reason.