It came as no surprise to most people last week when President Donald Trump announced that he would cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by over 30%. After all, this is the president who once famously declared that hairspray wasn’t what it used to be because of regulations imposed to protect the ozone layer, and that indoor use of ozone-damaging chemicals could not possibly result in an effect on the environment (both statements demonstrably false, according to FactCheck.org). This, in addition to other disparaging remarks he has made on climate change, have set the tone for a remarkably dismal outlook for science in the near future.
Over the past several decades, the US has seen an unprecedented growth and flourishing of all scientific disciplines. At the same time, there seems to be an anti-intellectual, anti-scientific sentiment in the country, as evidenced by the anti-vaccine movement, that seems to defy reason. What is the cause of this War on Science, as many scientists have put it, and what can we learn from it?
One answer may lie in Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the New Yorker, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” In the piece, Kolbert describes an experiment conducted at Stanford University. In the study, one group of students was falsely led to believe that they were better than average at a particular task. The other was falsely led to believe that they were worse than average at a particular task. Neither group had any genuine basis for believing that they were better or worse than average, and, in fact, students in both groups were, on average, equally good — or bad, depending on your viewpoint — at performing the task. (The task, incidentally, was detecting genuine suicide notes from fake ones.) They were then informed of the deception, and the researchers made it clear to the participants that they were, in fact, investigating how they responded to thinking that they were better or worse than average.
With that in mind, when the students were asked to rate their performance in comparison with what they thought an “average” student would have achieved, the students who had been falsely told they did well rated themselves better than average at the task, even though they had been expressly told that they had no reason for continuing to believe this. Similarly, students who had been falsely told that they did poorly rated themselves worse than average at the task. These, mind you, were Stanford undergraduates, all reasonably intelligent and rational beings, yet once they had formed the initial impression of their ability, they were unable to shake the idea that they had performed otherwise than average, even when they knew they should have known better. The researchers had proved what most elementary school students realize on the first day of school — first impressions count far more than they should.
It is easy to declare that everyone who doesn’t believe in vaccines or thinks that global warming is solely the result of volcanic activity is acting willfully irrational, disregarding even facts that have been clearly and elegantly (some would say irrefutably) presented to them. The difficult truth, however, is that those who most vehemently deny what the scientific community sees as reasonable conclusions are not themselves unreasonable people. In fact, they may not be so different from you or I. While we shouldn’t compromise on the rigor of scientific discovery or bend on scientific interpretation based on personal views, we should make an effort to reach out to those who are laboring under different first impressions. It may surprise us, in the end, how similar we are in our beliefs.