How do we know the existence of something?  For most, we use one or more of our five senses. For example, we know a car exists because we can see or hear it. We know an apple exists because we can see the apple and taste it. This is one of the basic ideas of metaphysics, yet we run into a problem when we ponder the existence of something without the use of our sense, such as atoms. How do we know that atoms exist? According to my senses, I cannot see, hear, taste nor feel atoms, yet I “know”they exist. At its cornerstone, when we postulate the existence of atoms, we can suddenly explain a lot about the world. We can describe how we as humans are built, why certain reactions occur and how certain materials are better for our technology than others. The basis, as you might notice, is that society uses atomic theory to explain how our world exists. However, as explained by Socratic metaphysics, we search not simply for an explanation, but for the best explanation.  

Metaphysics, as much as it distinguishes itself from science, is an area of philosophy I keep returning to in my scientific debates. As a person who does extensive research in the neurolinguistics laboratory at the University of Michigan, studies neuroscience and is usually surrounded by “science activities” throughout my day, I have become a full supporter of the scientific process. Yet, on a daily basis, I am inundated with news of scientific doubt, be it climate change, evolution or vaccines. Why does this doubt occur? Will it help to increase science education? If we should, how do we do so? Is scientific doubt really the problem? Perhaps our problem as a nation is rooted elsewhere.

As stated in Socratic metaphysics, we cannot use our senses to determine the existence of climate change, evolution or vaccines. We can do research and posit an explanation for the increase of carbon in the atmosphere, the breaking of ice caps or how homo sapiens came to be. Through peer review and replicated studies, we, as a society, come to the best explanation of these issues. Even though we may agree on this process, doubt is inherently human, especially of something that is not confirmed by our senses. Many science skeptics, as well as contributors and analysts on the news, say this scientific doubt has simply gone awry in our country; however, I propose it is more than that: at its core, science skepticism isn’t based in doubt, it is often based on how we identify ourselves.

Our identities, especially today, are often correlated with a political party, a religion and many other “cultural identities.” We as humans construct our societies and belief systems based on emotions, so it should be no surprise that emotional attachment to scientific research can influence the way one approaches climate change, evolution or vaccines. Research done at Yale Law School on cultural cognition shows that a layperson’s belief in science does not reflect the knowledge that the person possesses — on evolution, for instance. Evidently, knowledge of science in this country does not always correlate to scientific trust. That means a significant portion of those who believe in climate change don’t understand the basics of the science. The problem isn’t the inherent doubt, it’s our society’s inability to remove identity from science.

Climate change, evolution and vaccines have large swaths of doubters because of the conflict the theories pose to an individual’s emotions and belief systems. In order to fix this, scientists and educators need to become more creative in their educational endeavors. We, as a diverse society with many perspectives, must extricate the science from identity. Those who support climate change theory do so because, in many cases, it supports his or her identity. The same can be said for those who doubt it. Association with a particular political party, a religion and other emotionally-charged identifiers creates the misunderstanding surrounding the science, not the science itself.  Removing science from these markers is a possible way we can gain a consensus on scientific evidence supporting climate change. This has begun in many schools that teach genetics, where evolution is approached but freed from a belief system. This is the next crucial step needed in climate change education to nonscientists.

The reasons The Paris Climate Accord was originally successful was that science, free from political association, drove the talks. Clearly, the science developed the policy, and not vice versa. However, emotionally-charged politics within the last year has created polarization surrounding this issue, which has ultimately driven science policy. One example recently was when Vice President Mike Pence stated climate change is a “paramount issue for the left.” This identity marker allows individuals like President Donald Trump as well as his supporters to associate certain identities with the science, further removing ourselves from a scientific consensus.

Though science education, as well as exposure to scientific literature, can be improved in our schools as well, this, in my view, is not the root of science mistrust. We must find a way to remove the stigmatism surrounding science by introspectively recognizing the role our identities play in influencing policy. Only then, we can come to a consensus on the best explanations for our global problems. 

David Kamper can be reached at dgkamper@umich.edu

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