Denial of scientific opinion has dire consequencesBy Kyle Simpson | 02/23/2016 1:53pm
We have all become accustomed to the fierce back-and-forth arguments that smolder constantly on social media and our everyday lives. A different opinion on a hot-button issue often gives rise to some of the most spirited, emotional reactions, from close friends to complete strangers, and there is usually one common thread among these debates – everyone thinks they are an expert.
Interestingly, many of the most divisive, hot-button issues of our time are actually scientific in nature. In other words, there are people out there – scientists – who are actually experts on these issues, and, of course, they have opinions too. Many times, almost all of the scientists even have the exact same opinion. So why do these issues continue to be so contentious?
The outright, indignant denial of overwhelming scientific evidence exists across the political spectrum and across a wide range of topics. Are genetically-modified organisms safe for people to eat? Is the widespread use of vaccines unrelated to the uptick in autism diagnoses? Are humans at least partially responsible for climate change? In the scientific community, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “YES!” Over 90 percent of scientists agree on these things. So why is my Facebook news feed so full of arguments about these issues?
The answer lies in the media’s portrayal of these issues. News media will often attempt to give a voice to both sides of an issue in order to retain a modicum of balance – this often means giving the climate change deniers just as much air time as environmentalists, for example. In theory, this seems fair, as long as the existence of overwhelming scientific consensus is noted, as it often is. However, a recent study shows that even when people know that scientists overwhelmingly agree about something, simply giving the other side a voice at all causes a public disagreement that does not correspond to the scientific consensus.
Basically, the media giving some ideas the light of day causes some people to believe them, even if they know that the experts overwhelmingly disagree. While journalistic fairness and the practice of hearing both sides of an issue are important, many of the ideas that have been rooted among the public discourse are dangerous and do a disservice to society, and journalists should recognize that.
In scientific circles, denial of the human effect on climate change is a laughable position. However, the idea is so popular among Americans that one of our two major political parties is running with climate change denial all but on its platform. Vaccines are overwhelmingly thought of as safe, and their public health benefits vastly outweigh potential negative side effects. Yet a significant segment of the population has taken a needless stand against them, their opinions based on questionable science, resulting in entirely-preventable measles outbreaks across the country. These issues are important and our response to them is even more important. Our public opinion is what shapes the future of our world, and when public opinion does not reflect scientific opinion, it can have dire consequences.
Kyle Simpson is a junior majoring in biology. His column runs weekly.