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Jeremy Shapiro: Science deniers fail to appreciate complexities

By JEREMY SHAPIRO
of Case Western Reserve University

Currently, there are three important issues on which consensus has been reached in the scientific community, but not in the community at large: climate change, biological evolution and childhood vaccination. On all three, prominent members of the Trump administration, including the president, have lined up against the conclusions of research.

This widespread rejection of scientific findings presents a perplexing puzzle to those of us who value an evidence-based approach to knowledge and policy.
Many science deniers cite empirical evidence. The problem is they do so in invalid and misleading ways. Psychological research illuminates these ways. For the deniers, it seems there are no shades of gray

As a psychotherapist, I see a striking parallel between a type of thinking involved in many mental health disturbances and the reasoning behind the science denial phenomenon. As I explain in my book “Psychotherapeutic Diagrams,” dichotomous thinking, also called black-and-white and all-or-none thinking, is a factor in depression, anxiety, aggression and, especially, borderline personality disorder.

In this type of cognition, a spectrum of possibilities is divided into two parts, with a blurring of distinctions within them. Shades of gray are missed; everything is considered either black or white.

Dichotomous thinking is not inevitably wrong. But it is a poor tool for understanding complicated realities because these usually involve spectrums of possibilities, not binaries.

Spectrums are frequently split in very asymmetric ways, with one-half of the binary much larger than the other. For example, perfectionists categorize their work as either perfect or unsatisfactory; good and very good outcomes are lumped together with poor ones in the unsatisfactory category.

In borderline personality disorder, relationship partners are perceived as either all good or all bad, so one hurtful behavior switches the partner from the good to the bad category. It’s like a pass/fail grading system in which 100 percent correct earns a pass and everything else receives an fail.

In my observations, I see science deniers engage in dichotomous thinking about truth claims. In evaluating the evidence for a hypothesis or theory, they divide the spectrum of possibilities into two unequal parts: perfect certainty and inconclusive controversy.

Any bit of data that does not support a theory is misunderstood to mean that the formulation is fundamentally in doubt, regardless of the amount of supportive evidence.

Similarly, deniers perceive the spectrum of scientific agreement as divided into two unequal parts: perfect consensus and no consensus at all. Any departure from 100 percent agreement is categorized as a lack of agreement, which is misinterpreted as indicating fundamental controversy in the field.

There is no “proof” in science. In my view, deniers misapply the entire concept.

Proof exists in mathematics and logic, but not in science.

Research builds knowledge in progressive increments. As empirical evidence accumulates, there are more and more accurate approximations of ultimate truth. But there is no final end point to the process.

Deniers exploit the distinction between proof and compelling evidence by categorizing empirically well-supported ideas as “unproven.” Such statements are technically correct, but extremely misleading, because there are no proven ideas in science, thus evidence-based ideas are the best guides for action.

I have observed deniers use a three-step strategy to mislead the scientifically unsophisticated: First, they cite areas of uncertainty or controversy, no matter how minor, within the body of research that invalidates their desired course of action. Second, they categorize the overall scientific status of that body of research as uncertain and controversial. Finally, they advocate proceeding as if the research did not exist.

For example, climate change skeptics jump from the realization that we do not completely understand all climate-related variables to the inference that we have no reliable knowledge whatsover. Similarly, they give equal weight to the 97 percent of climate scientists who believe in human-caused global warming and the 3 percent who do not, even though many of the latter receive support from the fossil fuels industry.

This same type of thinking can be seen among creationists. They seem to misinterpret any limitation or flux in evolutionary theory to mean that the validity of this body of research is fundamentally in doubt.

For example, the biologist James Shapiro (no relation) discovered a cellular mechanism of genomic change that Darwin did not know about.

Shapiro views his research as adding to evolutionary theory, not upending it. Nonetheless, his discovery and others like it, refracted through the lens of dichotomous thinking, result in articles with titles like, “Scientists Confirm: Darwinism Is Broken,” by Paul Nelson and David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute.
The institute promotes the theory of “intelligent design.” Shapiro insists his research provides no support for intelligent design, but proponents of this pseudoscience repeatedly cite it anyway.

For his part, Trump engages in dichotomous thinking about the possibility of a link between childhood vaccinations and autism. Despite exhaustive research and the consensus of all major medical organizations that no link exists, Trump has often cited a link between vaccines and autism. What’s more, he advocates changing the standard vaccination protocol to guard against this nonexistent danger.

There is a vast gulf between perfect knowledge and total ignorance, and we live most of our lives in this gulf. Informed decision-making in the real world will never be perfect. But responding to the inevitable uncertainties by ignoring the best available evidence is no substitute for the imperfect approach to knowledge we call “science.”
 

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