When Science and Beliefs Collide: A Large and Growing Share of the Population Rejects Aspects of Science

Article excerpt

Raymond Eve first became interested in alternative ways of thinking about science when he read about a Chicago woman who ties knots in her electric cords to reduce her monthly utility bill. Since then, this social psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington has collected a series of equally fanciful anecdotes.

They include the woman who concluded that NASA faked pictures of the moon landings. Because her television couldn't receive signals transmitted by stations in New York, she reasoned that it certainly hadn't picked up live broadcasts from the moon. What most scientists fail to realize, observes sociologist Susan Carol Losh of Florida State University in Tallahassee, is how many people seriously misunderstand or consciously reject many of the basic precepts and findings of science. In the United States, she observes, their numbers are large and growing-currently approaching half the population. "Many of these people are likely to be your neighbors," influencing social mores and community policies. Eve says that although the scientific community has traditionally written most of these people off as "ignorant, stupid, or mentally deranged," his data argue that misconceptions about science often trace to deeply held belief systems through which an individual interprets the world.

Losh sees evidence of this in her ongoing analyses of nearly 40 local religious congregations, roughly half of them spiritual home to Christian fundamentalists. For these fundamentalists, she says, the way to interpret the world "is to quote the appropriate chapter and verse in the Bible," rather than to form hypotheses and test them.

Other types of doctrines also pose a challenge to science, according to a panel of researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting earlier this year. Some radical feminists, blacks, and others see science as a means by which white men have asserted their dominance in Western society.

Physicist and science historian Gerald Holton of Harvard University is particularly concerned about the school of thought known as postmodernism, among other names. In Einstein, History and Other Passions: The Rebellion Against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century (New York: Addison-Wesley), a book published last week, he notes that proponents of postmodernism have described science as a useful myth and argue that the distinction between science and fiction should be abolished. This attack on the legitimacy of science is not idle rhetoric, he contends. Its adherents "have infiltrated most universities, and in some cases taken them over," he told Science News. The result is that people who study electrons, gravity, and other invisible entities or forces are dismissed as building careers on "nothing more than socially constructed fictions," Holton explains.

Rejection of scientific truths and logic is also eroding support for the teaching of critical thinking and objective analysis-the bedrock of basic research, maintains philosopher Paul Kurtz of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Unless the problem is addressed quickly, he says, the United States may find itself unable to compete in an ever more complicated and technology-driven global economy.

Such concerns are premature, says political scientist Jon D. Miller, vice president of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. His new survey data, just unveiled in separate reports issued by the National Science Foundation (see p. 367) and the European Union, indicate that, overall, the U.S. public not only accepts the validity of science but happily supports its inquiries, even those that have no obvious, near-term benefits. One point on which all of the researchers agree is that scientists need to work at effectively winning over critics who challenge the validity of science.

To probe how beliefs affect attitudes about science, Eve and his coworkers administered a questionnaire to two divergent populations of believers. …