Too many people don’t understand the meaning of scientific consensus

Let me stipulate at the outset here that I am not a scientist. Far from it. But I try my best to understand science, and I become frustrated by people who reject scientific consensus without a shred of good evidence — or any evidence, in some cases — simply because it runs counter to their political, cultural or religious beliefs. It’s that way with evolution and global warming. I know people who can’t bring themselves to embrace either concept — but also can’t offer scientific reasons for their dissent. This doesn’t mean, however, that scientific consensus is holy writ and will never change. There was a time, of course, when consensus held that Earth was flat, and another time when consensus held that Earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around our planet. In one way or another, scientific consensus changes all the time. Some of theories that prevailed when I was younger no longer pertain. And if I’m lucky enough to live a good while longer, there will be more big changes in scientific consensus. But this foregoing stuff is just preface to THIS PROVOCATIVE PIECE, a few excerpts from which are here: It’s necessary for the progression of science that we dare our most cherished assumptions and conclusions to live up to the inquisitions posed to it by new data, methods, observations and tests. The cracks we find in our theories and ideas are what lead to scientific progress. And quite often, the people probing at the cracks are the very ones who oppose the consensus position. But with that in mind, when we talk about science being settled, we’re not talking about “scientific consensus” as the final answer, but rather as the starting point that everyone agrees on. Future research is usually not based on trying to find alternatives that work better (although we’re always open to it), but rather on how to refine and better understand what’s going on. (Snip) The scientific consensus may turn out to be incomplete, and it’s conceivable (but not likely) that in some of these cases, there may turn out to be a better explanation for what’s occurring. But there is no scientific conspiracy or collusion. To make it as a scientist, you have to be passionate about relentlessly pursuing the truth the Universe tells us about itself, no matter where it leads you. You have to be willing to challenge your assumptions, to test them, and to build off of the quality work of others. Your results must be independently reproducible, and your conclusions must be consistent with the full suite of results that are out there, both in your sub-field and in related...

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Republican Party becoming increasingly hostile toward science

Paul Krugman NAILS IT: [The Republican Party’s] intellectual evolution (or maybe more accurately, its devolution) has reached a point of no return, in which allegiance to false doctrines has become a crucial badge of identity… Once upon a time it was possible to take climate change seriously while remaining a Republican in good standing. Today, listening to climate scientists gets you excommunicated… And truly crazy positions are becoming the norm.  A decade ago, only the G.O.P.’s extremist fringe asserted that global warming was a hoax concocted by a vast global conspiracy of scientists (although even then that fringe included some powerful politicians). Today, such conspiracy theorizing is mainstream within the party, and rapidly becoming mandatory; witch hunts against scientists reporting evidence of warming have become standard operating procedure, and skepticism about climate science is turning into hostility toward science in...

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Public skepticism about evolution, the Big Bang theory and global warming is widespread

The only solace I can take from a recent Associated Press poll on certain scientific matters is that skepticism is probably greatest among older folks (although the results I’ve seen don’t actually say so). All in all, however, there’s much in this survey that should be cause for concern. The story is HERE: Americans have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and have the most trouble believing a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 billion years ago… About 4 in 10 say they are not too confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming, mostly a result of man-made heat-trapping gases, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old or that life on Earth evolved through a process of natural selection, though most were at least somewhat confident in each of those concepts. But a narrow majority — 51 percent — questions the Big Bang theory. Those results depress and upset some of America’s top scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners, who vouched for the science in the statements tested, calling them settled scientific facts… Political values were closely tied to views on science in the poll, with Democrats more apt than Republicans to express confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change....

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Study: Exposure to right-wing media increases distrust of scientists

THIS shouldn’t surprise anyone who can read a stop sign without moving their lips: In the past several years, a number of polls have documented the huge gap between liberals and conservatives when it comes to their acceptance of the science of climate change. Naturally, then, researchers have increasingly turned their attention to trying to explain this dramatic divide over what is factually true. And it wasn’t long before they homed in on the role of conservative media in particular—thus, a number of studies show that watching Fox News increases your risk of holding incorrect beliefs about the science of climate change. Now, a new paper just out in the journal Public Understanding of Science takes this line of inquiry further, beginning to unpack precisely how conservative media work to undermine the public’s acceptance of science. The paper shows that a distrust of climate scientists is a significant factor underlying the modern denial of global warming, and moreover, that watching Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh both increase one’s level of distrust of these scientific experts. Or as the paper puts it, “[C]onservative media use decreases trust in scientists which, in turn, decreases certainty that global warming is happening.” The study, conducted by Jay Hmielowski of the University of Arizona and colleagues at several other universities, relied on a large polling sample of Americans in two phases: 2,497 individuals were interviewed in 2008, and then a smaller sample of 1,036 were reinterviewed in 2011. The respondents were asked about what kind of media they consumed—conservative choices included Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh Show; “non-conservative” media outlets included CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, and network news—as well as about how much they trusted or distrusted climate scientists. They were also asked about their belief that global warming is happening. (The study controlled for variables like political ideology, religiosity, and other demographic factors.) The results showed that conservative media consumption led to less trust in climate scientists, even as consuming nonconservative media had the opposite effect (leading to an increased trust in climate scientists). Between people who said they don’t consume any conservative media and people who said they consume a large amount, “we see a 13 percent difference in the amount of trust in scientists,” according to study coauthor Lauren Feldman of American University. The authors then proposed that distrust of scientists is a key link in the chain between watching Fox (or listening to Rush) and coming to doubt climate science. The idea is that because most people don’t know a great deal about the science of global warming, they rely on “heuristics”—or mental shortcuts—to make up their minds about what to believe. “Trust” (or the lack thereof) is a classic shortcut, allowing one to quickly determine who’s right and who’s wrong in a seemingly complex and data-laden debate. Or as the paper put it: “The public’s low level of knowledge and the media’s conflicting, often value-laden messages about global warming lead people to use heuristics to make sense of this complex issue.” Evidence of Fox and Rush Limbaugh raising doubts about climate scientists—in a way that could generate distrust—isn’t hard to come by. Limbaugh includes scientists in his “four corners of deceit…government, academia, science, and the media.” As for Fox, there are myriad examples of coverage...

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Bad news for Republicans: The 2013 Word of the Year is “science”

The Tea Party movement’s surge of influence in the Republican Party in recent years has given rise to all sorts of anti-science rhetoric among GOPers in the form of creationism, global-warming denialism and other nonsense. This benighted trend, I suspect, has been a factor in THIS SITUATION: Sorry, folks. Merriam-Webster’s word of the year is not “selfie.” And twerk is nowhere on the list, either. Unlike the lads and ladies over at Oxford, Merriam-Webster has declared “science” its 2013 word of the year.. Its number 2 word is cognitive. Oxford’s buzzworthy choice of “selfie” las month was a result of the word’s growing usage and digital fame. But its U.S. counterpart picked “science” primarily based on numbers on its website. It looked at the most searched-for words on its online dictionary, Merriam-Webster.com, and also those that showed the biggest increase in the number of look-ups. The word with the largest spike? Science. A 176% increase in look-ups, to be exact. “A wide variety of discussions centered on science this year, from climate change to educational policy,” the dictionary editors said in a statement. “We saw heated debates about ‘phony’ science, or whether science held all the answers. It’s a topic that has great significance for us.” Merriam-Webster has a history of not getting too carried away by Internet memes. Last year, Oxford American Dictionaries US pick for word of the year was “GIF” — as in a compressed file format for images. What did Merriam-Webster go with? Socialism and...

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