An Emotional Look At Distrust
By Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan
It was a few months ago, on the night before Brexit that I found myself thoroughly sleep-deprived, having had a triple-shot of espresso from the Stansted Costa, deep in conversation with about 6 other friends on the topic of the treatment of prisoners. It was 3 am, we all were a little hallucinatory, but I was adamantly bringing forth the idea of rehabilitation versus retribution, quoting off the top of my head the (admittedly uncited) fact that the rate of recidivism of murderers was far lesser than that of common burglars and that this would indicate that the latter were more deserving of a second chance in society but are rarely given one.
This did not sit well with my friends, who could appreciate the facts presented to them but couldn’t get over their own cognitive biases regarding this issue. In and of itself this was unsurprising, but then this particular friend of mine said that though statistics might indicate a certainty, she was more willing to listen to her gut instinct to make particular decisions. This friend is currently undertaking a degree in Mathematics, mind you, a subject steeped in pure logic, yet even she is distrustful of concrete science. This disturbed me.
Recently, while researching for a previous article on religion, I had gone through scores of videos, articles and other material about how creationists reject evolution stating that it is just a theory and, again, not trusting experts on it. This lack of faith (for want of a better word) manifested itself during the US presidential elections as well with many Trump supporters stating how the lack of experience Trump brought to the table was an advantage, how they were sick of experts telling them what to do when it is contradictory to how they feel. With 2016 officially being the year of fake news, we sense again the rejection of reality and proven facts over sensationalist, populist and emotional content.
While it can be seen as a healthy curiosity to question everything, even the so-called experts on certain assertions, the fault of many is to equalize every argument on a specific topic to the same level disregarding the amount of evidence one’s argument has or the attitude of a certain party with knowledge of their lack in evidence. Take, for example, climate change. Many who distrust the claims of scientists on this often revert to the faulty logic of ‘It’s still snowing, how is global warming real?’ or worse they will fall back to religious dogma asserting the notion that humans can change what God has planned would be an arrogant claim and therefore is wrong. This scepticism would have been fine as long as the alternatives were given the same amount of scrutiny but sadly that’s not the case usually.
What is more apparent is when education comes in. The public that says scientific theory is not any more robust than whatever unsubstantiated claim would not respect it as much as it should. This sets up a dissonance between the public and those in science. As mentioned before in one of our previous articles (The Fault In Our Science), this, in turn, leads to a fertile breeding ground for ignorance. Ideas like believing in a flat earth concept, homeopathy and other ridiculous pseudoscientific pontifications are fuelled by an unhealthy distrust in science. It is funny to think that the idea of questioning everything derives from scientific curiosity and, as a long-time proponent of this concept, it might seem hypocritical of me to suddenly reject criticism when it comes to theories I believe in. But that’s the thing, these are not theories I, or any self-respecting science proponent ‘believes in’, these are just the ones with the most evidence supporting them.
It is often said that everyone is entitled to their beliefs. They aren’t. All beliefs should be subject to evidence-based evaluation, after which those that have the most evidence to not only be the most likely to be true but also to preserve certain philosophies that are held by most to be important in the world (like preserving the environment, for example) would be held above those which aren’t. Where there aren’t any evidence-based theories, we must look to those who work to find one, rather than just trust those who stick to a self-justifying dogma.
Simply put, constant introspection and study does not mean all claims are of the same value, evidence still reigns supreme. But can we be so critical of society when our policy makers are so adamant in promoting a certain ideological belief or promote blind scepticism due to an adherence to the whims of certain industry lobbyists? Or even when they keep on harping on the same issues that would ensure a greater public appeal rather than talking about the more nuanced issues regarding science? It is a little depressing to see how those that claim to be representing society are more concerned with obtaining or keeping power with populist policies rather than trying to mature society.
And then we have the media. Going back to the proliferation of fake news, when social media is involved, the appeal of it being a viable means of engagement with the public is often utilised by certain individuals to sell their products, for example. And here, the age-old scams of slimming products to assorted snake-oil crop up, refuting scientific evidence and putting forth outlandish claims. When this is extrapolated to include scientific theories, we can see how incredibly easy it would be to undermine science through social media. This virality is often picked up by reputed news agencies as a cheap and easy method to increase their popularity, further legitimising unproven ideas. And then we have certain exercises in the media like debates between science educators and religious individuals on scientific theories like evolution.
The Bill Nye versus Ken Ham debate comes to mind. By simply putting two on the same stage signifies an equivalence of both approaches, namely evolution and creationism, when this is not the case. Ken Ham’s Young Earth Creationist ideas were filled with logical leaps and contradictions but by being up on a stage, given the same amount of time to speak as Bill Nye, often reverting to a justification of beliefs on the back of an entitlement to one’s beliefs, painting, as many creationists do, scientists as arrogant fascists that try to ‘convert’ the religious from their ‘righteous’ path, it would seem to the public that there is no difference between science and alternative thinking. This, as I have said many times before, is incredibly untrue.
Relating back to engineering, unhealthy scepticism exists so much with regards to science that those in it are often subject to biases such as these. For example, if we take green technology, many engineers do not take it as seriously as they should, citing a lack of maturity in the industry, demanding proper solutions to difficult issues that haven’t been perfected yet. This then leads to them giving up on it as a viable means of employment, after which they turn to more traditional industries like oil and gas. They are the ‘smart’ ones, those who do not buy into media propaganda and would rather be safe than adventurous. However, they do not think about the effects of their decisions, or how uncertain the economy would be, nothing that would actually represent what that choice would entail. As long as there is suspicion in either choice, both are on a level playing field. Can we, as science students, be that short-sighted?
This was a weird article to write. It started from a personal disturbance to the realization of how far ignorance may root into the day-to-day lives of every individual in society. If I may summarize all of this in a convenient sound-bite, we must all be vigilant against ignorance. As engineering students going forth into society to, hopefully, make a positive difference, we may find ourselves as executors (engineers), educators or policy-makers. And it is imperative in all three aspects, as well as our daily lives in general, we play a vital role in rejecting unfair suspicion to science. We have to subject ourselves to responsible scrutiny when we are educating ourselves of science, emphasize the need for evidence-based justification in supporting certain hypotheses and fight to push politicians to talk about the things that matter, not just issues that would further their political purpose. Tenuous though this may seem to engineering, I feel as those claiming to base their expertise in science, we are just as responsible to preserve its sanctity as much as we are to further it.