The Age of Disbelief

“The Age of Disbelief”  by Joel Achenbach, National Geographic

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“We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge from the safety of vaccines to the reality of climate change faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative.”

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“In this bewildering world we have to decide what to believe and how to act on that. In principle that’s what science is for. “Science is not a body of facts,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal. “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” But that doesn’t come naturally to most of us. And so we run into trouble again and again.”

“The trouble goes way back, of course. The scientific method leads us to truths that are less self-evident, often mind-blowing, and sometimes hard to swallow. In the early 17th century, when Galileo claimed that the earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun, he wasn’t just rejecting church doctrine. He was asking people to believe something that defied common sense – because it sure looks like the sun goes around the Earth, and you can’t feel the Earth spinning. Galileo was put on trial and forced to recant.”

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“Two centuries later Charles Darwin escaped that fate. But his idea that all life on earth evolved from a primordial ancestor and that we humans are distant cousins of apes, whales, and even deep-sea mollusks is still a big ask for a lot of people. So is another 19th century notion: that carbon dioxide, an invisible gas that we all exhale all the time and that makes up less than a 10th of 1% of the atmosphere, could be affecting earth’s climate.”

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“Scientific thinking has to be taught, and sometimes it’s not taught well, Mcnutt says. Students come away thinking of science as a collection of facts, not a method. The scientific method doesn’t come naturally – but if you think about it neither does democracy. For most of human history neither existed. We went around killing each other to get on a throne, praying to a rain god, and for better and much worse doing things pretty much as our ancestors did.”

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“Now we have incredibly rapid change, and it’s scary times. It’s not all progress. “Everybody should be questioning,” says McNutt. “That’s a hallmark of a scientist. But then they should use the scientific method, or trust people using the scientific method to decide which way they fall on those questions.” We need to get a lot better at finding answers, because it’s certain the questions won’t be getting any simpler.””

Credit: All quotes from Joel Achenbach’s article “The Age of Disbelief”. March 2015. National Geographic.

Photography by Richard Barnes

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