January 31, 2015
The Pew survey released this week gives further evidence that we tend to give more credence to gut feelings than to perspectives provided by scientists or experts. In general, the vast majority of Americans say that they trust scientists, but perhaps not so much when their views clash with something we have bought into. Scientists, for example, maintain there is no question that life forms, including us, are a result of evolution. Nevertheless a third of adults stipulate that life has not changed since the beginning.
Other areas show a similar disparity. Are genetically modified foods safe? Eighty-eight percent of scientists say yes. Only 37% of us are willing to take our chances with it. Vaccines do better. Eighty-six percent of scientists want us to get vaccinated. Only two-thirds of the general population agree. That creates a serious risk for the children they love and care for. Is there a global population problem? Eighty-two percent of scientists show serious concern to 59% of the general public.
Which brings us to climate change. Ice is melting in the Arctic, and rising sea levels are being reported around the globe. In the Pacific, the thirty-two islands comprising Kiribati are sinking. At the present rate, they will be gone in fifty years. Their population is 110,000. The evidence is all there. Nevertheless we are still watching, or participating in, a national debate about whether the seas are actually rising. How is that possible?
We are not stupid. Health care has come a long way in the last century. I sit in front of my computer and wonder how Leo Tolstoy could ever have written War and Peace with a quill. We developed indoor plumbing 2500 years ago. We've walked on the Moon. But nevertheless we have a strong inclination to cling to our opinions and to ignore contrary evidence. It's probably tribal. Stick with the tribe; that's where safety is.
We approve of people who stand up for what they believe. And we attack anyone who says one thing last week and something else today. People are not supposed to change their minds. We've all watched what happens to politicians who make the mistake of learning they had been wrong on some past issue and later try to amend their stand. (Anybody remember the guy windsurfing left and then right?)
There's a critical skill that we all need, but that we tend not to emphasize in schools. In fact, the emphasis goes in the opposite direction. Faith is the virtue. Skepticism not so much. In fact we need both. Faith in the core values of our lives, in individual freedom, in tolerance, in helping others, and so on. But we've been given brains, and we should use them to look at the facts.
If we'd hung onto old ideas, men and women in the land of the free would still be prohibited by law from marrying people of a different color. Women would not be permitted to vote. Neither would people who didn't own some real estate. And the next round of flu would kill a few million of us. Again.
The bottom line: There's nothing shameful about being wrong. It's persistence that causes the trouble.
Mike Flynn, the chairman of the board of advisors for the Robert A. Heinlein Award, notified me a few days ago that I would be the 2015 recipient. I'm honored, of course. Still recovering from the shock, in fact. I'd like to express my appreciation to Mike and to the other board members. I've been a lifelong fan of Mr. Heinlein's work. One of my regrets is that I never got to meet him.