Liberals like to look down their noses at conservatives who deny scientific studies as "denialists."
Turns out this is a game the whole political family can play.
In his new book Denialism, New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter finds evidence of anti-science denial in many political movements, ranging from organic food advocates to those who deny evolution.
Specter defines denialism as happening “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”
Sounds like an attack on conservatives who treat The Flintstones as a documentary, but it is a far more general attack on our attitudes about science.
Science often comes up with results that challenge our assumptions. From the idea of Earth going around the Sun to evolution to relativity, science's disconnect from what we seem to observe has only accelerated in our time.
Scientific research seems to give us no place to hide and no place to stand. Whether it's global warming, vaccines, or the organic food craze, Specter has no patience with it.
That's because denialism is institutional stupidity. You ignore one aspect of science, you can ignore others. In a complex, democratic society this leads to comfortable lies that kill people.
Look, it's cold. Never mind those disappearing polar ice caps, global warming is a lie. Never mind the lack of evidence -- manipulating genes is always bad, the old methods of food production the only ones that are real.
In his recent interview with The New York Times, Specter aims his toughest barbs at Dr. Andrew Weil (left, from the cover of Time), the kindly-looking bearded guru of wellness.
He uses Weil's attraction to echinacea to attack his attitude that "accruing data is simply one way to think about science." In fact evidence, theses based on evidence, tested through experiment, are all there really is to science.
Science is not a belief system. Science doesn't "believe" in evolution. Scientists accept evolution as the best explanation for available evidence, and as the best source of new questions about that evidence. Science is not about answers, it's about questions.
It's science's constant hedging in the face of new questions, new experiments and new evidence, that makes it hard for science to be heard in the din of voices demanding absolutes and attacking those who dare ask questions as "moral relativists."
Working scientists deal with this by putting their work to one side while discussing their political or religious beliefs, but most people don't, can't or won't do this. So we scream at one another and ignore the evidence all around us.
It's easier to live in a state of denial than to accept a scientific world where no answer is truly final.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com