Why Deny Science? What Do You Do When You Don’t Know?

I was reading a great article in the latest issue of National Geographic, by Joel Achenbach, on the modern movement against science. Actually, I can’t stand calling it a movement. There should be a better word for it, maybe collective delusion. The cost of denying science is incalculable. Science shows the state of the environment, for example, is degrading rapidly. Yet, if the article is correct, only about “40% of Americans accept that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change” and thus realize we can and must do many things to improve the situation. I encourage everyone to read the article.


The article shows that strong sentiment against science is not new. The persecution of Galileo is one good example. There was a great outrage against Darwin, that partially continues even today. The novel Frankenstein is in many ways an expression of the fear against not only technology but science. You might think that by now, when we’re in the age of information technology, which depends on science for its very existence, there would be more trust in science. But as the deniers of  global warming prove, as people who argue against teaching evolution in schools prove, scientific thinking, and maybe critical thinking, is clearly misunderstood and probably feared.


Why is this true? It’s certainly a great question for teenagers to think about. My students in the past had theories. Maybe the dependence on science makes the fear of it more potent. It’s easy to fear what you depend on but don’t understand. Is there a general anti-intellectual bias in American culture? Is it, as has been argued in books like The Closing of the Western Mind, a phenomenon arising originally from uniting Christianity with imperial power, or religious belief with politics?


Many people I know hold religion responsible for this lack of understanding. Certainly, scientific and religious explanations often disagree. And there have been countless examples of delusion by religious people claiming to act out of faith or belief. But the same could be argued regarding adherents to political and economic theories or analyses. Without any fact checking, I think I can reasonably argue that for the last 150 years, adherents of Fascism, Communism, and Capitalism have caused as much delusion and suffering as has any religious belief system.


The article conjectures not knowing what evidence is, which I interpret as not knowing how to critically examine evidence and bias, contributes to science denial.  I agree. However, I think the problem is also due to not knowing how to deal well with not-knowing and uncertainty. Achenbach says “our brains crave pattern and meaning.” The craving for an answer can be overwhelming; the more basic and important the reality, the stronger the craving. You perceive something and in microseconds you assign meaning. You need to know that the earth under your feet won’t give way when you step on it or you won’t be able to walk. You learn early on that certain uncomfortable sensations in your midsection are hunger pains. The good taste of food was originally there to tell you that the food you’re tasting is not poison. Uncertainty is hunger for certainty; it’s uncomfortable. How do you understand discomfort? Is it “bad”? Does it mean you are in danger and must do whatever possible to end it, including believing in what restores comfort instead of what is best supported by evidence? Achenbach talks about a “confirmation bias,” the “tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe.” In that case, you will not do very well with adversity or stress or anything requiring complex thinking.


And science demands complex thinking. The National Geographic article points out that “scientific results are always provisional,” subject to change;  “Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.” How do you hear that? Do you want truth to be absolute, simple and forever? If so, I doubt that many “truths” are like that. For example, the good taste of food indicating something is safe to eat depends on where and when you’re talking about. 10,000 years ago it might have been true. Today, thanks to pollutants and pesticides, the taste of raw foods can’t be counted on to indicate safety. Even something like the boiling point of water is dependent on elevation, amount of salt and other contents in the water, etc.. The relativity and provisional quality of truth can be disturbing. Achenbach points out how difficult it is for us to look beyond our intuitions, to see the evidence for the curves of the earth despite the everyday assumption of flatness. Although scientific studies can be distorted by funding sources and bias, the very fact that science is recognized as provisional makes it possible and mandatory that critical minds engage with it.


To live with discomfort and uncertainty and be able to think and act with clarity, you need first to understand that discomfort is part of learning. It is there to wake up your attention so you can consider whether to say yes, no or maybe to something. You need to know about neuroplasticity, a word meaning that the brain changes, you change, with every experience. Who you are is not set in stone; if it was, learning would be impossible.


You need to know how attention and perception work. Back in 2003, I started using a book called Multimind, by Robert Ornstein, in my psychology class unit on perception. Ornstein theorizes Mental Operating Systems in the brain, which process and assign value to information according to specific criteria. Information that meets these criteria is given attention and other information is ignored. The MOS has an “extreme sensitivity to recent information,” to what’s new, what’s changed. It values relevance to you and everything becomes meaningful through comparison. Something that changes gradually is lost. Global warming is gradual, so gradual that most of us don’t perceive it until the tidal wave or tornado or six feet of snow or extreme hot or cold temperatures hit you. Actually, we don’t perceive it unless we carefully study it, unless we value such studying and thus know the relevance and power of the information.


But intellectual knowledge is not enough. You need the intention, the commitment, the care. You need an experiential method to calm your mind and clearly observe and learn from whatever is present to you, even discomfort and pain. Constructive action is likely only when you perceive the situation clearly. Somehow, we all have to get better at cradling information, cradling the world in our arms so we can feel depths of meaning without hiding from or reacting against it.


*See the addendum to this blog.

**The photo is of the Temple of Athena in Delphi, Greece.

A Compassionate Curriculum Part A: Teaching Our Nature

Mindfulness and compassion practices are wonderful, but what’s even more important is embedding compassion in the structure of the school and the curriculum. So, how do you do that? What needs to be included in a curriculum so students are more likely to graduate as compassionate human beings?


A curriculum that teaches compassion should start with “big questions,” especially those chosen or verbalized by students. In that way, students will feel heard and thus more inclined to listen. They will then look at the school as part of themselves, not as something totally separate. As discussed in an earlier blog, creating a curriculum out of big questions gives students not only an understanding of issues they consider important but the sense that they can figure out for themselves how their actions can serve a useful purpose.


Next, the curriculum needs to directly face a question that students in several of my classes often raised: what are we humans? What is it in our nature to be? We say things like, “it is just human nature to do x, y, or z.” What could that mean? Students often assume that humans have a “nature” and having a “nature” means that you can’t help but enact that nature. Your nature is fixed, in your DNA. But what exactly is fixed? And what would having such a fixed nature imply? Since there is so much violence and suffering in the world, how can it be our nature to be compassionate? This question is a mirror of another old philosophical question: If God is good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?


One book that could be a resource for a secondary school curriculum on compassion is The Compassionate Instinct. This book explores scientific evidence and philosophical arguments for compassion. In the first essay, Dacher Keltner makes the point that “human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature.” When you assume something about your nature, you act in accord with that assumption. To talk about human nature is to talk about who you are as a person, who you are as a friend or loved one, parent or child. It is not simply an intellectual question. It affects the whole way you relate to others and live your life. Students need to look for the larger dimensions and implications of their questions, and teachers need to understand the implications of the material they teach and their pedagogy.


Keltner argues that compassion is “rooted in our brain and biology, and [is] ready to be cultivated for the greater good.” It is in us, as a possibility. It can be developed—or subverted. Our brains are plastic in that they are continuously rewiring to some degree. We change according to our experience and education. Learning means change. Even the expression of DNA depends on experience. Maybe how we think about our nature is both a result of our nature and at the same time helps form that nature.


How do you relate to suffering, or to the awful, the holocausts, genocides, wars, and death? When students, and teachers, read about something awful like violence, murders and even the devious manipulations of political leaders now or in the past, they might say, “Ah, yes. Just what I expected.” Others, “I don’t want to hear about it.” It is difficult to allow yourself to be in the middle between assuming the worst of people and wanting to hide.


In history, it is easy to overemphasize the horrors that humans have perpetrated and to leave out the good. To talk about Hitler and forget Asoka. The good is often seen as inconsequential, banal or everyday; yet without this everyday counterweight to what we consider evil, we could not go on. This is not “inconsequential” but the most consequential. For example, students in one of my classes claimed that humans are not cooperative. I then asked them, how did you get to school this morning? Why didn’t all the cars on the road crash into each other? I continued: Name all the different people you can think of who contributed to making your lunch. In our school, this was a very visible subject as one group of students helps cook the lunch for the school and another grows some of the food. Students went on and on, surprising themselves with the result, naming teachers who instructed students on how to cook the food, farmers and truckers and people who made the forks and spoons. After just a few minutes, it seemed that everyone and everything contributed to their lunch. Instead of disconnection, students learned about interdependence, which in turn opened the door to the possibility of compassion.


Teachers might claim they value compassion and have empathy for their students and others. Yet, if they teach that selflessness is a myth, that we are born to put competitiveness and greed before other ways of being, they undermine that claim. For example, take science or social studies teachers who discuss evolution and have students read portions of Darwin’s  The Origin of Species but not The Descent of Man. Psychologist and evolution theorist David Loye points out that Origin spells out the theory most people associate with Darwin, that through random variations in genes and “natural selection” the best organisms are picked out to survive while the rest are discarded. Such a choice has led to theories about humans being naturally aggressive, that competition is necessary for survival, even that there is such a thing as a “selfish gene.” In Descent, Darwin applies his theories to human beings and, I think, leaves us with a very different message than he did in Origin. He speaks more about “mutual aid,” ethics or morality, and love than about “the survival of the fittest.” He speaks about helping others, even the weak, out of “sympathy.” So, should we teach both books? And which book gives us more incentive to act in an ethical or a compassionate manner?


We need to let the light in. Especially when the subject is difficult, we need to hold the reality, even the difficult and painful reality, in our arms for a second; to listen to what has to be said without jumping to a conclusion or running to hide.


There are specific characteristics of being human, for example, our shape, the fact that we normally have two legs, two arms, and two eyes. Our brain and senses obviously allow us to do some things but not others. We can walk on our own two feet but not fly with (just) our feet. Most of us can perceive a variety of colors but none of us can perceive ultraviolet light. If we could see ultraviolet, just think how our experience might change. But is our nature something different from a description of what our mental and physical equipment makes possible? Or should I ask: Does our physical and mental equipment make it possible for us to have meaningful choices in how we act? Is the most important thing about our nature the possibility that we have a choice about how we use our equipment? That we can choose to be either compassionate or hurtful?


The question of what does it mean to be a human being is a crucial question for students to raise in our classes and for teachers to address directly. Hidden in the question is the recognition that who we are is about who we choose to be. Who do you choose to be? What would you choose to teach?