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Why we pick and choose which science to believe

February 18, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Climate change, vaccines, genetically modified foods -- those topics are ripe for debate and disbelief among people of every political persuasion who aren’t convinced by scientific evidence. What accounts for the rift between scientists and the public? Gwen Ifill talks to Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post and Cary Funk of the Pew Research Center about whether the divide is here to stay.

GWEN IFILL: So, even snowfall can spark debate. Some say it’s proof global warming doesn’t exist. Others argue it is proof climate change is behind the extreme weather. It’s just another example where science and doubt feed on each other.

We wondered whether that divide, what you might call a culture of disbelief, is taking hold.

WOMAN: Every parent has a right to choose what is in the best interest of their children. If you go online and you read, there’s horrific stories.

GWEN IFILL: Those stories are about vaccines. And it’s the kind of misinformation that health officials say has dangerous consequences. More than 140 cases of measles have surfaced in 17 states. That’s in under two months. There were nearly 700 cases all of last year. A decade ago, there were fewer than 50

Most who’ve gotten sick this year, including in an outbreak at California’s Disneyland, were not vaccinated, this in spite of efforts from health officials to calm doubts about the vaccines themselves.

DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. Surgeon General: They know they are safe, that they are effective when it comes to measles, and that they are what the scientific community recommends.

GWEN IFILL: For many, the debate over what is true and what is believable extends far and wide. According to the Pew Research Center, 86 percent of scientists think childhood vaccines should be required. But just 68 percent of U.S. adults agree.

On another hot-button issue, climate change, the gulf is even wider; 87 percent of scientists believe climate change is caused by human activity. Only half of adults agree. The biggest gap in the Pew survey: the safety of genetically modified foods; 88 percent of scientists say they’re OK to eat, but only 37 percent of adults surveyed buy into that.

No matter what the scientists say, the disconnect extends to other issues as well, including evolution and the value of using animals in research.

National Geographic magazine’s March cover story tackles those issues.

We’re joined by its author, Joel Achenbach, a writer for The Washington Post, and Cary Funk, the associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, who came up with some of those interesting numbers we just saw.

Joel, why is nothing settled?

JOEL ACHENBACH, The Washington Post: Everything is contested now.

I think one of the differences today is just the Internet. It has changed the whole information universe. It’s democratized, small-D, information out there. There are fewer sort of gatekeepers of knowledge.

Instead, people go out and seek information, and they often find what they’re looking for that reinforces their belief. The Internet, you know, it doesn’t facilitate consensus, as anyone has noticed who’s gone on the Internet. Instead, it creates these sort of filter bubbles, these rabbit holes, these echo chambers. And these communities of sort of alternative knowledge develop that are often in opposition to the scientific mainstream.

GWEN IFILL: So, you can selectively find something to support whatever it is you already…

JOEL ACHENBACH: Whatever you believe.

GWEN IFILL: … to believe.

So, as you were doing the research, Cary Funk, did people give reasons for why they absolutely disagree with what the scientists say?

CARY FUNK, Pew Research Center: In some cases.

Certainly, when it game to G.M. foods, we asked a second follow-up question about whether or not scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of G.M. foods, and about two-thirds said, no, they don’t have a clear understanding. So, in that case, it looks like there’s some skepticism about how much knowledge there is.

GWEN IFILL: Is the skepticism defined by gender or age or any other kind of educational level?

CARY FUNK: I mean, that’s actually what’s really interesting, looking across this set of science-related topics, is that it varies depending on what issue we’re talking about.

So, I think vaccines, we were talking about, has a strong relationship with age. Younger adults are less likely to say vaccines should be required. But when it came to something, I think, like the safety of G.M. foods, age groups don’t really differ.


JOEL ACHENBACH: One thing that’s different about the world we’re in today is, this is such a highly engineered world that’s more complicated than the one that my grandmother lived in on the farm in Indiana.

I mean, she didn’t have to worry about genetically modified foods. She grew her own food out in the garden.

GWEN IFILL: So, there was no question.

JOEL ACHENBACH: There’s no question that we are faced with these technological issues that are — they’re not intuitive, that we have to do a lot of risk analysis of things that we don’t know very much about.

And although science will say, well, this is the consensus on it, this is the best science has to offer, it’s easy nowadays to find contrarian views, anti-scientific views, pseudoscientific views, whether it’s Bigfoot or UFOs or whatever.

And some of these issues are, I think, really important issues for the future of the planet. Climate change is such a contentious issue now, even though it wasn’t nearly as divisive just 15, 20 years ago.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I wonder whether there has always been a community of contrarians who have always existed and that perhaps these kinds of issues and the technology feeds that and allow it to exist and to flourish.


I mean, the Internet and the rise of the Internet is certainly one source of change, but scientific innovation is also picking up the pace. That’s happening at a faster, faster pace, and science is really a big, broad cluster or conglomeration of topics. It’s not one thing.

So that’s part of what we’re seeing, is that there are lots of attitudes that are influenced by longstanding values, religious beliefs, political beliefs, other personal experiences. And that’s actually a longstanding pattern we have seen many years, but we have new issues.

GWEN IFILL: And people aren’t necessarily anti-science in these views, I gather.


JOEL ACHENBACH: No, but people love science.

GWEN IFILL: They do.

JOEL ACHENBACH: I mean, scientists have an enormous amount of respect and trust in a society in which a lot of institutions do not anymore.

I mean, look at Congress or even look at the news media. But scientists in general are respected. And when I did my interview for the “National Geographic” story, I was struck at how, on even these really contention issues, people don’t say, I don’t believe in science. They say, well, I have my own set of facts, my own information, my own science.

GWEN IFILL: Were you surprised how big the gaps were in agreement on this, Cary?

CARY FUNK: Yes, actually, we were.

One thing, we were surprised about the size of the gaps. That 51-point gap on the safety of G.M. foods was larger than I have seen over 30 years, as well as the frequency of gaps across the set of diverse issues.

GWEN IFILL: Who benefits when the divide goes that deeply? Who is — there certainly is an industry out there which is interested in keeping the differences on display.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, I think that there are people who are demagogues in the media world that benefit from, you know, dividing and conquering. They want to have people who — they want to say, trust only me on this issue.

I think the stakes are large for all of us in this more technological, engineered world, where we need to get this stuff right, because, I mean, just last week, the National Academy of Sciences put out a report on geoengineering. And one of the ideas is shooting up aerosols into the atmosphere to block sunlight as a way of combating climate change potentially, a very iffy idea.

Should we do something like that? And the public needs to be to — to understand how science works, understand the process of it. And we all need to try to find sources that we can trust that are reliable because the stakes are so large.

GWEN IFILL: You see, but that’s the point, sources that we can trust that are reliable. And you can decide what you consider your source is.

JOEL ACHENBACH: This show right here.

GWEN IFILL: Right here — other than this program.


GWEN IFILL: I wonder whether a little skepticism isn’t helpful in the public debate, in the public arena?

CARY FUNK: There are so many issues. In fact, what you brought up is an example of how much there would be to know if you tried to master the whole universe.



CARY FUNK: And that’s probably not realistic.

People are busy. They have multiple things they do in their lives. And studying all the scientific issues is probably not the only thing they have in mind.

JOEL ACHENBACH: And you’re exactly right. Skepticism is good. And scientists are skeptics.

Doubt is a tool in science. And it’s a tool in journalism, too. We don’t believe everything we’re told. We try to figure out…

GWEN IFILL: We’re not supposed to.

JOEL ACHENBACH: We’re not supposed to.

GWEN IFILL: Well, this has an effect, we assume, on policy somewhere along the line.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Yes. And then the question is, for scientists — you can take it away here — is, on — the most recent poll showed that I think it was 87 percent of scientists think they should be involved with policy issues, but involved in what way is the question.

CARY FUNK: Right. And that remains an open question. And I think, really, science issues have become civic issues.

So, for the public as well, the question is, you know, how does this play into their policy views?

GWEN IFILL: It’s very fascinating. And I get the feeling we’re going to see a lot more gaps widening and closing, or maybe not closing.

Cary Funk from the Pew Research Center, Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post, National Geographic, thank you very much.


CARY FUNK: Thank you.