RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Shapiro writes: "Currently, there are three important issues on which there is scientific consensus but controversy among laypeople: climate change, biological evolution and childhood vaccination. On all three issues, prominent members of the Trump administration, including the president, have lined up against the conclusions of research."

Scientists and campaigners in New York join a day of action in January 2017 to urge US senators to stand with science and against the climate policies of President Trump. (photo: Getty)
Scientists and campaigners in New York join a day of action in January 2017 to urge US senators to stand with science and against the climate policies of President Trump. (photo: Getty)

The Thinking Error at the Root of Science Denial

By Jeremy P. Shapiro, The Conversation

09 May 18


urrently, there are three important issues on which there is scientific consensus but controversy among laypeople: climate change, biological evolution and childhood vaccination. On all three issues, 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.

Yet many science deniers do cite empirical evidence. The problem is that they do so in invalid, misleading ways. Psychological research illuminates these ways.

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 science denial. 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 those categories. Shades of gray are missed; everything is considered either black or white. Dichotomous thinking is not always or inevitably wrong, but it is a poor tool for understanding complicated realities because these usually involve spectrums of possibilities, not binaries.

Spectrums are sometimes 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 catapults the partner from the good to the bad category. It's like a pass/fail grading system in which 100 percent correct earns a P and everything else gets an F.

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, science deniers misapply the concept of "proof."

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 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, and evidence-based ideas are the best guides for action we have.

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, deniers 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 at all. 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, results in articles with titles like, "Scientists Confirm: Darwinism Is Broken" by Paul Nelson and David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute, which promotes the theory of "intelligent design." Shapiro insists that his research provides no support for intelligent design, but proponents of this pseudoscience repeatedly cite his work as if it does.

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 and he advocates changing the standard vaccination protocol to protect 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 can never be perfectly informed, but responding to the inevitable uncertainties by ignoring the best available evidence is no substitute for the imperfect approach to knowledge called science. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+1 # Moxa 2018-05-09 21:48
Fear of vaccinations should not be put into the same classification as denial of climate change or evolution. There is a basic difference. The question about vaccination isn't skepticism over science. Few people doubt that vaccinations prevent disease. What is objected to is the fact that there are many cases where vaccinations can cause serious health problems. If you are not aware of this you haven't done your research. The medical/pharmac eutical industries are well known for covering up inconvenient truths regarding the side effects of their treatments. Fraudulent testing of psychogenic drugs is one case in point. The possible effects of mercury amalgams is another. How many extremely popular drugs have been taken off the market because of "side effects"--somet imes life-threatenin g ones?

So there is a problem: the vaccines DO prevent disease; but they are dangerous in certain cases. These are not incompatible truths. But they are troubling, because on the one hand, we want to avoid terrible epidemics like smallpox and polio, but we may not want our child to be exposed to the very real risks vaccines present on the other.

It is not science the anti-vaccine folks object to, but the very UN-scientific cover-up that won't allow for the dangers of vaccines to be brought into the light. It is as if to say that if you admit to the dangers of the treatment you have denied its effectiveness. That smacks of the kind of illogic that this article is describing.
+5 # Diane_Wilkinson_Trefethen_aka_tref 2018-05-10 11:15
@Moxa - Your basic arguments can be used against climate change and evolution just as easily. They are classic “science denier” techniques. You argue:
1) There are many cases where X is bad so fear/disbelief is justified. People who are not science deniers would say, “There are cases where X fails.” “Many” suggests we give equal weight to those cases, but as the author points out, giving them equal weight is often not warranted. 100 such cases is “many” in a universe of 300. In a universe of millions? Not so much.
2) When studies show the opposite of what is desired, those who have paid for the research cover up those results. This has been true for fossil fuel and cigarette companies as well as Big Pharma. However, suppressing undesired research results does NOT “prove” that those results were correct any more than publishing favorable results “prove” something is safe or good.
3) There has been a cover-up “that won't allow for the dangers of vaccines to be brought into the light.” This argument is the heart and soul of conspiracy theories and it is false. Actually, those who “know something THEY don’t want us to tell you” have spread their version(s) of the truth far and wide. Furthermore, when criticisms are valid, they do not remain hidden, as you point out. “How many extremely popular drugs have been taken off the market because of "side effects"--somet imes life-threatenin g ones?” Ditto the elimination of what you call “mercury amalgams” from vaccines.
+3 # HenryS1 2018-05-09 23:43
There is a very interesting attempt at refuting this in an article by David Klinghoffer at EVOLUTION NEWS & SCIENCE TODAY. You can easily use Google to find the link.

I don't entirely agree with the rebuttal, but those who genuinely enjoy a high-level intellectual tussle might want to read it.

I am NOT agreeing with the rebuttal totally, which works its way around to supporting ID (Intelligent Design), but if you find the above article interesting you will probably find the counter-attack equally so, despite its "low blows".

Now, I just have to figure out why Google can't find Shapiro's book. I'm hooked, I want to read it.
+3 # Texas Aggie 2018-05-10 02:45
The fact that people have been executed by these deniers (Todd Willingham) based on proof that is a lot sketchier than any of these "controversies" shows that when it suits their purpose, these jerks are quite happy to embrace "science" that is still muddled.
+10 # RLF 2018-05-10 05:09
The mistake made here is to think that thinking has anything to do with the right's decision making process right now. It is the mistake the left has been making for 30 of campaigns. The right is driven by a zealotry more like religious fanaticism. The beliefs are not challenged by mere facts!
0 # RLF 2018-05-10 05:19
One major problem that scientists never confront is that they are so often used by businesses to create false science for profit. They won't confront this because it would mean the loss of dollars out of their pockets. When science organizations take away the credentials of researchers creating false studies, then I will have more faith in what they create. We're supposed to support the scientists when they have also consistently shown no support for the arts and others that have been under attack for decades...all to keep their own salaries I say quit whining scientists and do the right thing! Ethics apply to YOU also!
+8 # draypoker 2018-05-10 07:37
As a teacher outside the US I have always suspected there is a serious deficit in American education. I think it unfortunate that so many High Schools tend to define themselves by the various moronic "sports" they sponsor rather than the education they should provide. The result is they turn out the kind of people who have no understanding of science or any other serious study - and they sometimes end up in the top job, clearly unfitted to deal with the modern world.
+3 # Elroys 2018-05-10 11:26
Many right wing ideologues hold a world view based on "beliefs", not observable and scientific truth. There are Americans who believe the earth is flat, that women belong in the kitchen and human beings should "dominate" the natural world. Those who deny the reality of climate science do so out of a belief system, not honest, truthful science.
The problem with many of these ideologues is their rabid adherence to such beliefs which are supported by some very dishonest and corrupt media outlets (ex: Fox, Breitbart) and politicians who are wholly owned by some very wealthy interests whose vision is more gold for themselves - Trump, Mercer, Kochs, the current crop of congressional Repubs - those who voted for the recent tax cuts for their puppet masters. Filled with lies about who benefits (the wealthy got 80-90% of the tax cut and the rest of us will pay for them).
Too many people are fooled too much of the time by those who lie for their lunch. The real problem is that this corrupted and wrongheaded belief system is destroying life and the natural world. Even scarier - many of these right wing ideologues believe (no science) that they will be "raptured" up to heaven and the rest of us will burn in hell. The vast majority of us know this is nuts, but nuts like Trump (more gold) and Pence (rapture believer) have power at the moment. Either the rest of us all vote these crazies out or we will all suffer greatly. It's our choice - vote or suffer the consequences.
+6 # Paul Bunion 2018-05-10 13:24
I doubt that it is essentially a "thinking" problem in the sense depicted by Mr Shapiro, at least not for those who are spending big $$ to challenge certain scientific findings with patently bogus arguments. It is part of the current move on the part of the burgeoning plutocracy to change the American form of government. As an independent source of "truth," Science represents a loose thread, a locus of countervailing power detested by those who plan to take over America.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.