March 26, 2012

Science, Resistance and Cognitive Dissonance

imageBy Sally Raskoff

Science is the tool we have to get the most accurate information possible. But do we believe what science tells us? Especially when that information may counter what we want to believe or when authority figures tell us not to believe it?

The current debate on climate change is an excellent example, as is the older environmental debate on evolution and, of course, the even older debate about heliocentrism, or how the earth revolves around the sun (instead of the reverse). Science clearly shows that evolution occurs and the climate is changing. Yet there are groups that do not accept such information or the supporting evidence for it.

Federal and (most) state standards for teaching in K-12 education do hold to the scientific evidence but local and individual decisions may still keep this information from students. It may also be taught in parallel to the belief systems that counter this knowledge.


Source: Borick & Rabe, 2011

Why is this so? There may be many reasons why people in this society reject scientific evidence in favor of contradicting ideas.

One might be cognitive dissonance. Often taught in sociology classes, this is what happens when we behave in ways and believe things that are in direct opposition to what society knows is true. The classic example is that while we know smoking tobacco is bad for our health, many people do it anyway. Their behavior isn’t rational, and on some level they know that, but they may try to come up with reasons to rationalize it anyway.

There can be cognitive dissonance when it comes to climate change too. The science clearly shows that while the climate naturally oscillates , the period of warming we are in has been exacerbated by human uses of technology. Even so, people still use plenty of petroleum products and add to the dynamics that are accelerating the rate of climate warming. We do this even though we know it may be bad for the environment. We may feel guilty about it, or not. We may change some of our behaviors to help, or not. We may be active in some organizations that try to help bring change or attention to the problem. Or not.

However, some people do not believe the science so they would not experience cognitive dissonance.

Another explanation might have to do with social structure itself. Sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote of the social construction of reality in which humans create their society and the structures within it, then that society takes on such real dimensions that we forget we created it thus it then controls us. We may often feel powerless to change society since we feel it is monolithic and outside ourselves.

This phenomenon can help explain resistance to scientific ideas. Each of us grows up in a society – and in subcultures – that teach us that certain ideas are truths. We are socialized into specific belief systems, which then guide us to be an effective part of the group and sustain that social reality. We are not often encouraged to question those beliefs since they are the social glue that holds us together, as Emile Durkheim might argue.

When new information emerges, our first reaction is not to accept it, especially if it seems counter to the beliefs we already hold as normative, natural, and real. Such new information can challenge not only our belief systems but also the power structure of society.

Picture the society of Galileo’s time and what happened once he advanced the theory of heliocentrism. His theories were threatening to the religious powers at that time, and that explains why the church took action against him. Yet the passage of time and more scientific study of his ideas supported his theory. We now understand seasons and many other phenomena because science has identified that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Social structure is very hard and very slow to change. Our society, even with its post-industrial western culture and high ideals for education, may chafe at new information, as do all other social systems. We may want our society to change more quickly when faced with new information, verified by the scientific community, however that is not a quick process either.

Science itself moves very slowly. The need for replication is paramount. This is to ensure we have made decisions on solid and accurate information. (Please note I’m not using the word “truth”. That is a different matter.)

However, once the scientific evidence builds up and enough time has passed so that the societal institutions who were threatened by such information have adapted or been replaced by others, society can then place high value on that information. That is what happened with heliocentrism; it is happening with evolution; and is just beginning to happen with climate change.

Particular entities may be resisting such change because they have vested interests. They may have become powerful because of their ties to our economy, which relies on technologies that contribute to climate change. Those groups with power in society do not give up or diversify that power easily.


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Whether science is "accurate" or "useful" is an ongoing debate in the philosophy of science. Pragmatists, for instance, would say that science or the application of a systematic methodological framework yields useful results, not accurate results. The claim of accuracy depends on certain ontological presumptions about the nature of the world and a certain epistemology -- neither of which you mention. It is not as simple as you suggest.

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