Americans are ambivalent toward science

Published 10:50 am Saturday, October 13, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

A scientist on TV describes something she believes is happening to the Earth. She’s got this theory that big plates of rock slide around deep underground. She claims that when the edges of these plates rub up against each other, they cause earthquakes.

The thing is, she’s got no real evidence. She says geologists and other scientists have all these numbers and measurements, but she can’t prove that these plates are really there.

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Anyway, there’s this other scientist (a biologist who wrote a book about it so he’s definitely legit), and he says that she is just an alarmist. He says there’s no such thing as giant plates of rock sliding around underground. Plus the shouting guy on the radio and the god-fearing politician we sent to Washington say it’s just a theory, so we don’t have to pay any attention to it.

Giant plates of rock moving around deep underground? Ridiculous, right? Only I’m describing the theory of tectonic plates. It’s a theory that helps us better understand the structure of earth’s crust, how continents move over time and why earthquakes and volcanoes cluster in specific areas.

This belief about Earth was first taken seriously in the middle of the twentieth century, just before I was born, actually. Geologists still have no absolute proof — direct evidence — that these tectonic plates exist. It’s all inferred through observations we make of continental drift, core samples and high tech scans.

If that theory were being discussed and publicized today, however, what would keep the reaction from non-scientists in the media and in Congress from looking and sounding a lot like how I started this story? Plate tectonics is just a “theory” after all, and recently, journalists and politicians, as well as others, have been making a lot of noise about how weak scientific “theories” are. They claim we can’t possibly believe they are true because there are skeptics out there who don’t believe them.

Are there are arguments about plate tectonics? Yes, certainly there are arguments, because arguing with each other is how scientists come up with all kinds of theories, including gravity, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. In fact there are arguments about the theories that make possible mobile phones and microwave ovens.

Theories are beliefs about reality that give us direction as we explore our world. Theories provide answers that make sense. How do I know that? Well, last time I checked, my mobile and microwave could do what they’re supposed to do.

Some theories can be so authoritative — like gravity or thermodynamics — we start calling them “laws” or “principles” as we talk about them, but they’re all still theories. Bring up climate change or evolution, however, and all of sudden “theory” becomes weak, wimpy and worthless. Then what we prefer to believe becomes “knowledge” that trumps any kind of evidence anyone might offer.

Americans are ambivalent — perhaps even schizophrenic — when it comes to science. We claim to want our children to get good grades in science and math. Then we talk about scientific findings as if they’re part of a conspiracy to destroy our faith.

Part of the reason for ambivalence lies in how so many of us have been taught to treat the Bible as a science book; even people who aren’t all that religious still think of the Bible that way. Mostly, though, many Americans are scientific schizophrenics because they do not understand or will not accept how inferences, hypotheses and theories function in scientific research.

The worst part of America’s ambivalence with science appears in our politics. Regardless of right or left, ideology guides what is believed about scientific truths. Internal combustion is desirable, so we’ll believe in thermodynamics. But agreeing that human activity is increasing C02 levels and changing earth’s climate? Accepting that life evolves over time? We’ll ignore information that makes us uncomfortable and mock those who believe it’s true.

In American politics, climate change and evolution are just theories.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.