About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Denial Is Not Just a River In Egypt


There is a frightening trend going on in society today, denial of science.  It is as if science is the most horrible thing in the world: “That which must be destroyed.”  Scientists are treated as if they are de facto idiots, and that anything coming out of their mouths is a lie.

Ronald Reagan once made a joke, “The nine scariest words in the English language are, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”  It is as if we have rewritten that to state, “The eight scariest words are, I’m a Scientist, and I’m here to help.”

Almost anything a scientist says today is almost reflexively denied.  This phenomenon is extensively detailed in an excellent book called “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives,” by Michael Specter.  This phenomenon is potentially one of the most dangerous trends in society today.

Because of this thinking, we are rejecting things that literally save lives.  We turn our backs on vaccines, and by choice open the doors to diseases that we thought were historical to again ravage our youth.  We trust an actress by the name of Jenny McCarthy more than the entire medical community.  When she says don’t vaccinate your children because it causes autism, we believe her, no matter that there is NOT A SINGLE SHRED OF SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT HER STATEMENT.  Seriously, we believe an actress knows more about something than highly educated doctors and scientists.

In the same vein, we reject food technologies that can literally end famine in the third world.  I will be honest, I prefer organics, and I don’t like the idea of gen-mod food, but after researching the subject, I realize I have fallen victim to Denialism.  I let vague, unscientific fear trump years of research that could save literally millions of lives.  I let the ghosts of a worst case, what if, horror blind me to an actual rolling nightmare blanketing most of the Third World.

Steve Jobs, who I considered to be a very intelligent man, despite my intense dislike of his philosophy, probably died because he chose herbal remedies for his cancer.  Like thousands across America, he delayed treatment to try alternative medicine.  This was not a man who could not afford the best medicine money could buy, he was a man who turned his back on it.  Now he’s dead because of his Denialism.

Everywhere I turn in today’s society, we want to find fault in science.  Charles Krauthammer was gleeful when an experiment at CERN seemed to prove Einstein wrong.  He could hardly contain his joy that one of the most eminent scientists in history seemed to have made a fundamental error.  Einstein’s possible mistake expanded into an indictment of the entire Theory of Relativity and by extension all physics and cosmology. 

Some on the right even tried to use the CERN experiment as proof that science, the Big Bang and Evolutionary Theory are all wrong, and that God and the Bible are proven correct.  I saw an argument on the web that said that faster than light neutrinos proved that God created the universe about nine thousand years ago, and that the reason the universe seems older is that the particles traveled back in time because Satan sent them back to mislead the faithful.  (I wish I could remember which thread I saw that in, so that I could cut and paste the actual phrasing in here.  It was more amazing than I could ever reconstruct.  And the following statements of support were even more frightening.)

As further proof of Denialism, you will notice the, “oops we made a calibration mistake, neutrinos don’t go faster than light,” statement got minimal airplay.

This is a consistent problem with the media, and one of the things fueling the distrust of science.  Wacky claims, incorrect conclusions and sensational stories about the failures of science get headlines, and endless discussion, especially at MiniTrue.  The actual science, corrected conclusions and non-sensational interpretation of data are barely mentioned, if they are covered at all.

So why the Denialism?

I think there are two main reasons for this, one that is understandable, one that frightens me. 

The understandable one is that science since World War Two has made some spectacular mistakes, like the problem with Vioxx, and it has created dislocations in people lives, like robotic assembly lines.  Many of the promises of science have been either busts or actively harmful to larger or smaller populations.  Science gave us the bomb, thalidomide babies, unemployed factory workers, and drug resistant bacteria. 

As human nature focuses on negative situations, we forget that science also brought about the end of Smallpox, the personal computer, the passenger jet, and shampoo that reconstructs your hair on a molecular level.  Science has given us wonders, but those wonders come occasionally with horrors.  Humans are wired to focus on the horror and forget the wonder.

We are also suspicious of any science that seems to be inspired by a profit motive.  This is also understandable, and it is a suspicion that I also share.  We have commoditized everything in today’s society, and science seems to be just another profit driven product.  This fact does mean that SOME science should probably be viewed skeptically, but that is by no means the majority of it.  It is probably only a small sector, and tends to revolve around science like the science that stated that cigarettes are perfectly healthy and there is absolutely no proof of any connection between them and cancer or emphysema.

Which leads to the frightening side of Denialism.  There is a significant profit motive in stoking the fires of suspicion about science.  The entire energy industry has a vested interest in making people doubt Global Warming.  The Tobacco Industry depends on people thinking, “I’ll never get cancer.  That’s something that happens to other people.”  Dirty industry counts on people thinking that the cost of environmental protection is higher than the dangers that they create. 

There are hundreds of “scientists” whose entire career is based in confusing issues, and making science seem riddled with error and doubt.  The echo chamber repeats these dubious claims over and over until all science seems like a bad joke and all scientific theory seems to be false.  They get people to believe that Theory in science means that we have no idea if something is actually true.  They create the environment Denialism thrives in.

So what can you do to fight Denialism?

Research.  Find out what the mainstream of science says on a topic.  It requires work on your part, but develop you critical thinking skills.  Learn to analyze claims made by both sides of an issue, not thorough your own filter, but through a rigorous process of determining where mainstream science falls on an issue.  Understand what reputable science says about an issue.  Find out if the science is peer reviewed and solid.

And if you are a scientist, spread the word about how to tell good science from bad, and explain the difference.

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