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What science says about science deniers

Minnesota’s measles epidemic has now reached 20 confirmed cases (twice as many as occurred during all of the previous 10 years), including 13 hospitalizations.

And, as has been reported here and elsewhere, a misguided fear of vaccines — particularly the fear that they cause autism — is the main fuel behind the epidemic.

Study after study — solid empirical evidence — has shown that vaccines do not cause autism, but many parents continue to cling to that dangerous belief.

Of course, the vaccine-autism link is not the only scientific topic that has its stubborn deniers. Climate change and creationism also jump to mind.

Motivated reasoning

In the current issue of Mother Jones, writer Chris Mooney (“Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”) explores the science of why so many people don’t believe in science — and why it’s so exasperatingly difficult to change anybody’s mind with the facts:

[A]n array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has … demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.
The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds — fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
We’re not driven only by emotions, of course — we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower — and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

Most science deniers tend to come from the right end of the political spectrum, says Mooney. In fact, “one key predictor of whether you accept the science of global warming is whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” he points out. “The two groups have been growing more divided in their views about the topic, even as the science becomes more unequivocal.”

But the left also has its science deniers, says Mooney, especially around “the claim that childhood vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism”:

Its most famous proponents are an environmentalist (Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) and numerous Hollywood celebrities (most notably Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey). The Huffington Post gives a very large megaphone to denialists. And Seth Mnookin, author of the new book “The Panic Virus,” notes that if you want to find vaccine deniers, all you need to do is go hang out at Whole Foods.

You can read Mooney’s article here.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 04/20/2011 - 01:49 pm.

    I think one of the great insights is that belief in science is a matter of faith. Few of us have the ability to independently evaluate the evidence for scientific conclusions. And even if we could, we don’t for a variety of reasons. Faith in science is just that, faith.

    The problem is that scientists are human beings. The way they arrive at conclusions is the same as all of us. They are not persuaded solely by “facts” either. People are rightly suspicious when they claim they are some form of super-human who is not biased by their emotions.

    Moreover, because scientists are human, scientific consensus has often turned out to be wrong. In some cases, new knowledge has revealed flaws in previous beliefs. In others, there appears to be a willful ignoring of facts that contradict a preferred explanation on which a lot of other research is based. In still others, scientists falsified data to support a novel conclusion, rather than accept the failure of years of research.

    Finally, most research has a built in bias to seek after conclusions that are “fundable”. This is not a matter of individual scientific bias, it is systemic in a system where research is largely funded by people with a stake in certain outcomes.

    In short, belief in science is an act of faith. And there are plenty of good reasons to be a skeptic. It is relatively easy for someone with the money to hire good focus groups and polling to identify the narratives that will make people skeptical of science which contradicts their economic interests.

    Climate change is clearly happening. The only issue is whether we can or should do anything about it. If we do something, there are powerful economic forces who will bear the burden. Not surprisingly, they are fighting for the “do nothing” approach by appealing to people’s mistrust of scientists.

    The folks who believe them are driven by suspicion and mistrust of the scientific community. The folks that believe in autism/vaccine link are driven by their mistrust of the medical industry. Neither of those is irrational, even if they are both wrong in this case.

  2. Submitted by Jerri Johnson on 04/20/2011 - 02:20 pm.

    Those who believe the studies that were funded by people with a stake in maintaining the vaccine program as it exists, should open their mind enough to interview parents whose children have been injured by vaccines. Hear the parents tell their stories: “my child had a seizure one hour after her vaccine and has had multiple severe seizures ever since”; “my child developed high-pitched screaming the afternoon of his vaccine and lost his ability to sit up – forever”; “my child was talking when he received a vaccine, but those were the last words he ever spoke.” The stories are numerous, and tragic. They need to be taken seriously and to be part of the risks and benefits to be considered in the vaccine decision.

  3. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 04/20/2011 - 02:26 pm.

    From above article: “says Mooney. In fact, “one key predictor of whether you accept the science of global warming is whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,””

    that is “global warming”. I have followed the website http://junkscience.com for more than a decade. It has always been against the vaccination link to autism and other illnesses that “class action lawyers” (mostly democratic party contributers) profited by.

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had hilarious mid 1990’s postings linked at junkscience.com where he lamented that the US Northeast would never have “real snowfall” again due to “global warming” (now called “climate change/global climate disruption”). Hello!!!!

    By the way, what did that alleged “crazed sex poodle” Al Gore with the $300 million dollar war chest he claimed he had to fight the “deniers”?

  4. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/20/2011 - 03:21 pm.

    Greg, unfortunately Junkscience.com isn’t a real science website. Its a right-wing propaganda website funded by climate deniers. You are a victim of the ignorance and scientific illiteracy discussed in the article.


    Sure, they don’t always get it wrong – and the vaccine-autism link claims are easy targets. Jerri Johnson and those like her want people to be more open minded, but their “open-minded” means following a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who had his license stripped because his research was fraudulent and he abused children. Anyone with even a shred of common sense can see how ridiculous that is.

  5. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 04/20/2011 - 06:47 pm.

    Speaking of Robert F Kennedy and his prediction of the demise of snow. http://www.robertfkennedyjr.com/articles/2008_sep_Los_angeles_times.html

    Last week the Weather Channel admitted that the reduced “Snows of Kilimanjaro” featured in Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” was likely caused by upwind deforestation like the “deniers” claimed all along. Oh wait! On the Weather Channel a few years back Heidi Cullens said that those who did not support “global warming/climate change/global climate disruption should be stripped of their professional credentials.

    I recall a few years back Al Gores documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” was the “holy grail” of the global warming/climate change/global climate disruption movement.

    How did this “settled science” change?

    I love the part where any money from “tobacco” or “corporations” taints scientific objectivity for life but any money like Al Gore’s claimed $300 million “war chest” a few years back only enhances objectivity!

    Speaking of getting facts right here is the correct link to the Mother Jones article you cited. http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney Seems a collection of anecdotal evidence like the 1954 “Seekers” cult.

    One of my favorite tests is to confront recycling advocates with the requirement my parents had to separate their steel and aluminum cans. I don’t mention that this was decades ago when their program started and was soon changed after citizen complaints.

    If you know anything about the science behind this steel and aluminum are the easiest things materials to mechanically separate with an electromagnet on the end of the conveyor belt. I can really get them going on how recycling is needed, how we must all do are part, how I am in denial and how I am a “bad person” without ever considering that steel is attracted to a magnet and aluminum is not. It is always liberal, err make that progressive who votes democrat who does not consider the magnet in the equation. I tend to pull up my “can recycling” comment after they support global warming/climate change/global climate disruption theories.

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/20/2011 - 10:45 pm.

    Greg, the problem with the guy behind junkscience.com isn’t that he worked for tobacco and corporations. If he had relied upon actual science and told the truth, that wouldn’t be a problem, even with his background. The problem is that lied about his tobacco-related so-called scientific claims, and has continued to do so in other areas, including climate change. The guy is a non-scientist making claims that are false and passing them off as science. Put simply, for anyone actually interested in science – who takes science seriously, the guy and his site are a joke.

    You occasionally see dissenting opinions on climate change from actual climate scientists (although those are getting fewer and fewer – see links below)
    And with that shrinking pool of qualified climate change skeptics, you can have legitimate debates. But Junkscience.com is for the truly scientifically illiterate. And that is what this article is getting at – the problem of people not being able to sort actual science from pseudo-scientific nonsense. The fact that this guy is portraying himself as a scientist pointing out psuedo-science is pretty clever – kind of like Fox News calling itself “fair and balanced” – but it doesn’t change the fact that what he is doing isn’t science.

    Maybe you didn’t know, but the owner of the Weather Channel is a big climate change denier. The idea that the Weather Channel “admitting” something that undermines climate change actually does so is pretty ridiculuous. Heidi Cullen, who incidentally has a Ph.D. in Climatology – making her far more qualified to speak on the issue than any meterologist – left the Weather Channel several years ago.

    I have to say your story about the metal recycling is just plain weird. Sure, you can sort metals using electromagnets, but that doesn’t mean that sorting is always a waste of time and doesn’t save money and energy. That was even more true when recycling programs were starting up a few decades ago. Some places still do it even now. Putting that aside, I don’t have any idea why you think that changes in recycling practices is relevant to a discussion of climate change. You seem to think that you have somehow won arguments with using your recycling story, but I expect that most of those people just thought you were talking nonsense.

    In any event, here are some links to prominent climate skeptics who changed their minds:



    The second guy, Richard Muller, has been funded by the Koch brothers (not for long!) and his recent findings and change of heart is not what they wanted to hear. Unlike junkscience.com – which is a political site, not a science site – Muller didn’t have a preconceived result in mind before he started his research. While he expected that his results would back up his previous belief that climate change was not occurring, his actual research was driven by science and not politics. When the results came out in line with the majority of climate scientists who have found that climate change is real, that is what he reported.

  7. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/20/2011 - 10:50 pm.

    Greg, I will concede that RFK, Jr. is an idiot. Both on climate change and on vaccines/autism, and probably a lot of other things as well.

  8. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 04/21/2011 - 09:36 am.

    “belief in science is an act of faith”

    This is so, so, so wrong. The fact that science is done by humans, and is not always perfect, does not making “believing” in it an act of faith. Look at it this way: you have a choice to simply believe whatever you want (“Jesus would never let climate change occur”), or you can accept the discoveries and understand of those who spend their lives training and studying subjects, and passing this information on to their students. All of which is done following the enlightenment principles of evidence, logic, and all of which is done entirely openly and where dissent – real scientific dissent, not political dissent – is encouraged.

    One of those is faith. One is doing the reasonable thing as a member of an enlightened society. And even if science is wrong about something every now and again – and it is – it will ALWAYS BE MORE RIGHT in the long run because it is the only truly honest quest for knowledge about the natural world. Saying science is wrong sometimes isn’t an argument unless you have another option, and I can assure you that the alternatives will get you nowhere. Needless to say “skeptics” always seem to have an obvious ulterior motive. The very fact that you have a computer with which to post comments on this web site – when you think about it, a truly remarkable invention that never would have occurred should humans have sat around praying for computers – is proof that on the whole, SCIENCE WORKS.

  9. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 04/21/2011 - 10:27 am.

    I cite the steel/aluminum can thing because most people working in the residential recycling field respond with something like “who are these morons?” and cite magnetic separation.

    That is the knowledgeable response for residential low volume recycling where you want to make it as simple as possible to increase participation.

    Instead I am referring to what might be called “faith based recycling” which in this case is steel/aluminum recycling because the recycling planners would not have done it if it wasn’t a good idea! They never stop and ponder the magnetic properties!

    As to http://junkscience.com I have been reading it for ten years. Virtually every story is linked, the majority to a mainstream media story.

    Speaking of credentials, what formal training does Al Gore have? I recall a late 1980’s memo where his handlers warned that his embellishments would be scrutinized more if he ran for president. This was beforeAl Gore claimed to “help create” the internet which was several decades old by then.

  10. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/21/2011 - 02:58 pm.

    Al Gore is not a scientist, and has never claimed to be one. Rather, he is a politiican who relies on the work of scientists. While he was been criticized for embellishing stories, upon closer review most of those claims have not stood up. Your internet story is one example. Here is the snopes review of the story:


    What is interesting is that the guys who actually did invent the internet have nothing but praise for Al Gore. Gore was decades ahead of most people in recognizing the power of the internet, and instead of being recognized as a visionary, he gets mocked for it.

    “As to http://junkscience.com I have been reading it for ten years. Virtually every story is linked, the majority to a mainstream media story.”

    Seriously? The fact that the stories are linked? Greg, you are like the poster child for scientific illiteracy.

    For your own sake, you should probably stop using your recycling story. I know you think its clever, but the reality is that everyone you have every told it to probably burst out laughing afterwards because it is so ridiculous. I apparently can’t help you through your lack of understanding of science, but I can keep you from making a fool of yourself. Come up with a better story. Or just talk about sports instead.

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