Do science deniers actually deny science?

Imagine a dystopian world where government and huge for-profit businesses colluded to generate wealth for the privileged few. One where billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies manufacture poisons that governments force us to take, making us so ill we must buy the “cure” from those same companies. Imagine corporations so evil they use components from the tissue of aborted fetuses in the poisons they force on us.

If you lived in such a world, what would you do when the government decreed it would start administering these poisons to your children? What would a righteous person do? Such a society, it seems to me, cries out for good people to act.

Based on the reports of a recent article, this is the world in which many anti-vaxxers believe they live.

In popular media, we often place anti-vaxxers in the category of “science deniers” along with those who dispute climate change, evolution, and the roundness of the earth. The more I listen to these people, however, the more I believe the epithet “science denier” is inaccurate. They do not deny science because they think science is wrong but because they no longer trust the institutions that oversee and administer scientific research. Society’s challenge, therefore, is not combating ignorance but instead combating fear and mistrust.

How do we tackle that challenge?

Let us use anti-vaxxers as an example. I believe we need to start with values. Digging deeper into the article I linked to, anti-vaxxers seem driven by the following values:

  • Children’s safety
  • Desire to live in accordance with nature
  • The sanctity of human life
  • Individual liberty to choose

I suspect those who are pro-vaccine share many of these values. Anti-vaxxers, however, see institutions promoting vaccines as driven by greed. They believe this greed combined with industry’s power puts the above values at risk. It is this belief that each side pursues opposing values that creates a wall between us. This is the first wall we must tear down. Through engaging in genuine conversation, we need to establish that we all want the same thing. It is not the goal we disagree with but whether vaccines are the way to achieve that goal.

After values, we must understand the rationality through which anti-vaxxers come to their beliefs. This speaks to what Barbara Townley called “contextual (or cultural) rationality.” From the article I linked to, anti-vaxxer’s beliefs include:

  • Vaccines are used as a plot to trick the poor and an ever-sicker public
  • Pharma companies control regulatory agencies
  • Pharma companies silence doctors, researchers, and journalists
  • Big Pharma sponsors 70% of news media

In the worldview of anti-vaxxers, the system is corrupt. Scientific studies will fail to change their mind because, as they see things, powerful entities have compromised the institutions that implement research. The solution is not to spend millions of dollars performing yet another vaccine clinical trial but instead to put our energies into building trust.

How do we create trust? Perhaps a first step is humbling ourselves. Are we so sure of the purity of our systems? Having done scientific research in academia and industry myself, I believe there is room for improvement in how we create and disseminate knowledge. Can we improve the transparency of the process we use to approve drugs? Are there checks and balances we can implement to prevent influential organizations from co-opting research and regulatory institutions?

We need to understand why so many people distrust the processes and institutions that govern scientific research. We can only do this by engaging in genuine conversation. Once we have this understanding, we must act.

If we are to overcome this issue, scientists and regulators will need to argue why our current systems of creating and disseminating scientific knowledge are effective. In addition to educating the public about their research, scientists may also need to educate on the real-world processes through which scientific knowledge is created and implemented—not a sanitized version of what is supposed to happen, but how the system really works, warts and all.

Perhaps through this process, we will find some parts of these systems that need to change. Scientists and regulators may need to exercise their power to create new processes or modify old ones in efforts to improve the credibility of their work in the eyes of a doubting public. Taking the concerns of anti-vaxxers and other “science deniers” seriously may result in the creation of better, more robust systems.

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