Quantcast
Connect with us

This is the one major ‘thinking error’ at the root of science denial

Published

on

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.

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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, result 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

The ConversationThere 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.

Jeremy P. Shapiro, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences, Case Western Reserve University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected]. Send news tips to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Cop says Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should be shot following Trump’s racist targeting of The Squad

Published

on

Following racist attacks on members of The Squad by President Donald Trump and his supporters, a police officer in Louisiana reportedly said that one of the congresswomen of color should be shot.

Trump has been lashing out at the four first-term congresswomen, who include Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).

"A Gretna police officer posted a comment on his Facebook page this past week calling U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a 'vile idiot' who 'needs a round, and I don't mean the kind she used to serve,'" NOLA reported Saturday.

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Internet piles on ABC reporter for lavishing praise on Trump for allowing press to ask questions

Published

on

ABC News reporter Kyra Phillips on Saturday heaped praise on President Donald Trump for his treatment of the press.

Despite the White House no longer holding daily press briefings, Phillips praised the "access" she receives from the administration.

"No matter what your politics are, I have to say that I appreciate the access ?Trump? gives us on a regular basis and the ability to ask any question," she said.

She tagged Stephanie Grisham in her tweet, who is Trump's latest press secretary. She also tagged her husband, John Roberts, who does not work in the White House, but works for Fox News.

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

The real problem wasn’t the racism — it was the Trump taking ‘the Lord’s name in vain’ twice: supporter

Published

on

President Donald Trump was widely condemned after supporters at a campaign rally in West Virginia turned his racist "go back" message into a "Send Her Back" chant against one of a woman of color in Congress.

One Trump supporter in West Virginia also criticized the speech, but not for the racist targeting of Rep. Ilhan Omar.

State Senator Paul Hardesty, a Democrat, wrote to the White House to complain about Trump's use of the word "goddamn."

The letter was republished by the Montgomery-Herald.

Continue Reading
 
 
 

Copyright © 2019 Raw Story Media, Inc. PO Box 21050, Washington, D.C. 20009 | Masthead | Privacy Policy | For corrections or concerns, please email [email protected]

Join Me. Try Raw Story Investigates for $1. Invest in Journalism. Escape Ads.
close-image