Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Evidence Is “Not Like It Used to Be”

By Guy Nolch

Donald Trump’s hair is a metaphor for how people misuse evidence to fit their worldview.

This month could see the election of a US President who complains that “hairspray’s not like it used to be” since it no longer contains ozone-depleting chemicals, and then argues that the hairspray he applies in his apparently airtight apartment couldn’t possibly disperse as far as the upper atmosphere to affect the ozone layer. Donald Trump must never have wondered why Trump Tower’s rarified air has never run out of oxygen, although hypoxia could explain his intellectual erraticism.

We expect our leaders to make decisions based on evidence rather than self-interest and dogma, but that isn’t always the case. For instance, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change committed nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as early as 1992, yet it wasn’t until the Paris Agreement was signed last year that they stopped arguing that the evidence for anthropogenic climate change wasn’t settled.

But what about you and I? How much science does the average citizen need? Do we need to know a set list of scientific facts? An understanding of broad scientific principles? Or a basic understanding of how to distinguish evidence from nonsense? And will society fail if a proportion of the population has only a weak grasp of this knowledge?

When Toss Gascoigne of The Australian National University (p.31) asked the science communication fraternity these questions, two-thirds agreed that a basic set of scientific facts needed to be taught to the average citizen. However, “they proved spectacularly unsuccessful at being able to nominate just what those facts should be”.

Even if an optimum range of basic scientific facts and principles are taught, they can be far too easily extrapolated, or ignored, to support an individual’s worldview, whether that person is a graduate of the Ivy League or of Trump University. As Gascoigne points out: “Not one of the 17 Republicans contesting the Presidential primaries believed that human activity caused climate change. And yet the US continues to thrive.”

While Washington appears endemically compromised by the grease that keeps the cogs of commerce turning, that same extrapolation of evidence finds its way into suburbia. Why, for instance, have we seen measles spotfires break out this year when the current generation of young parents has been evidently spared this scourge thanks to vaccination?

Dr Matt Browne of CQ University (p.46) has explored the psychosocial reasons behind anti-vaccination attitudes, and identified a worldview that “rejects reductionist notions of treating pathology in favour of personal, autonomous, holistic and even spiritual approaches to optimising one’s health and well-being”. As “conventional treatments, such as vaccinations or antibiotics, do not speak to these psychosocial needs,” he concludes that “we may need to think larger by considering how we can promote scientific and evidence-based thinking at every opportunity in the educational system, the media and political discourse”.

In the Google Age it’s all too easy to find the facts that fit your worldview. The answer, then, may not be in teaching particular facts but in teaching how to determine which are credible and which are incredible.

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.