This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Why don’t people believe science?” with guest Dan. M. Kahan. You can hear the episode here.
For most of human history, people have believed that if we could only reveal the truth about things, agreement would quickly follow. This has been the case for religion; Paul on the road to Damascus, Mohammad in the Cave of Hira, and Moses on Mount Sinai all believed that everyone should and would be moved by revelation. But this has also been true for what used to be called natural philosophy, what we now call science. This kind of knowledge was supposed to replace superstition with fact, it was supposed to improve everyone, regardless of who they were or what they believed.
Nature—physis, in Greek (as in the word ‘physics’)—is the object science seeks to uncover. By discovering the principles that govern matter and energy, the laws of motion that move the stars and planets, and the innumerable forces that direct agriculture, natural scientists aimed to expose the reality behind the curtain of everyday experience. This, they argued, would allow us to predict and harness nature, and to cultivate health and goodness. It would make humans a stronger, healthier, dominant, and more ethical race. If we only followed the dictates of discovery, we would finally be in control of our own destiny because we would understand how the universe actually operated. It is not a coincidence that both Buddha and Kant wanted people to reach enlightenment. Unfortunately, human history had other plans.
It seems that the more we know, the more we disagree. We have a basic understanding of how nature operates. We can cure major diseases, manufacture great machines, and communicate over massive distances. We can fly and we go to the Moon! But for each of these achievements, doubt remains. Worldly people reject evolution, college educated parents refuse to vaccinate their kids, climate change deniers are too numerous to mention, and conspiracy theorists use their technological wherewithal to inspire the most irrational suspicions from chem trails to a faked moon landing. It’s all nonsense, yet each is believed by huge swaths of the population.
Science, it seems, does not stand on its own. It is not self-evident. In part, this is because facts are never distinct from interpretation. Truth only makes sense in context. There has to be a background, a narrative, and dots to connect.
But science also lacks the very thing that religion serves up better than anything: intuitively understandable emotional appeal. Certainly, new pictures of Pluto may inspire awe for a short time, but the beauty of two plus two equaling four can’t hold a candle to the miracle of a resurrection. Just about everybody longs to see the dead again. Science tells them death is permanent; religion only asks them to be patient.
So science gets the raw deal; its greatest achievements given over to religious experience. A baby being born, the most natural thing there is, is called a miracle and the astonishing achievement of a polio-free world is dismissed. It’s hard to glory in the eradication of a disease when half the living population has no memory of its effects. We don’t wake up celebrating the lack of Bubonic Plague either.
But religion gets short shrift too. Little attention is payed to the complex layers of critical thinking that is involved in interpreting scriptures, or the problem-solving skills necessary to applying moral commands to everyday situations. Science requires awe just as religion requires intellectual exploration, but we only allow certain emotions for certain subjects: science is allotted disciplined technical thought while religion is granted passion.
We have relegated our mental skills to their respective corners and as a result, we ask baffling questions: “can you prove that God exists?” seems as unremarkable a formulation as “do you believe in science?” But one shouldn’t have to believe what can be known, and one shouldn’t have to prove what is chosen for inspiration.
Nevertheless, today’s episode of Why? is asking why people don’t believe in science. It will explore why people with incontrovertible evidence reject scientific conclusions, even when they themselves rely on them to do just about everything in their lives. We will start with the all too common premise that people simply don’t know any better, but we’ll discover that the answer is much more complex. Belief is political, sociological, and contextual. Knowledge, it turns out, is just as complicated.
Maybe disbelief is religion’s fault. Maybe faith has blinded believers and pushed aside reason. But maybe disbelief comes from science, which only accepts answers on its own terms, relegating metaphor to the dreaded teaching tool or worse, to literature. Or maybe the problem is democracy and pluralism’s, perhaps diversity and equality necessitate multiple answers in all areas of knowledge, not just the ones we choose for ourselves.
The modern world likes to pretend that science is neutral and universal; it isn’t. It is a contextual tool that we use and discard when convenient, just like religion, just like politics. Maybe then, our question shouldn’t be why people don’t believe science, but when do they? Nothing can be all things to all people. Science’s mistake is to think it can, but this is the same mistake religion makes. I’m not suggesting science is just a matter of faith; that would miss the point. I am suggesting, however, that the two aren’t as far apart as we like to think. As complimentary accounts of the true nature of the universe they may simply be two sides of the same coin.