Why science literacy matters

posted by Jeff | Sunday, August 14, 2016, 1:43 PM | comments: 0

I'm genuinely concerned about the general disregard for science, or the desire to understand it at even a fundamental level in American culture. Certainly the most obvious example of this is people who think that climate change isn't a real thing, but we've also seen the pockets of anti-vaccination people (thanks, Jenny McCarthy) and anti-GMO people. Facts be damned, people will believe what they want to believe. Maybe the scariest thing is that looking at things in an intellectual manner is somehow being an elitist. What the hell is that about? People celebrating willful ignorance?

Therein lies the problem: Science is not a belief system. Science is a continuous cycle of observation and experimentation, with a fairly well developed intellectual scrutiny applied. You can believe in God because you can't really perform experiments to prove or disprove Her existence. Science reaches conclusions with a high standard of reasoning. While not a perfect process, it's the reason that we can cure diseases, put machines on Mars and look up virtually anything we want with a super computer we carry in our pocket. Culturally, we're not in awe of this capability, and I think that's a problem.

You probably saw during the Olympics that a number of athletes had what looked like big circular hickies all over their bodies. These were caused by a "treatment" called "cupping," which essentially creates a vacuum that pulls on the skin and underlying tissue. While it's proponents believe that it does... something... there is no actual scientific evidence that it does anything, and there is anecdotal evidence that it may be harmful. Calling it pseudoscience is probably giving it too much credit.

I saw countless people say, "Well what does it matter if it's just a placebo?" It matters for a few reasons. First of all, money changes hands for goods and services that have no benefit. Second, it's another way to discount critical thinking. Look, if people just said, "I think it feels good," that would be fine, but that's not what's going on. People who are, for better or worse, role models are making claims that have no basis in fact, and people just go along with it.

The Internet has spawned fake celebrities propagating nonsense and anti-science as well. The worst of these is someone like the "Food Babe" who is constantly talking about "toxins" and "natural" food. It's all bullshit. This is a willfully ignorant person who once claimed that airlines pumped up to 50% nitrogen into their planes to save money, and that it wasn't pure oxygen. I don't know about you, but I recall in middle school learning that our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen. Somewhere in high school I recall learning that pure oxygen would in fact cause your lungs to fill with fluid and kill you (this varies with pressure). So why do we take diet advice from someone who doesn't know fundamental chemistry?

Capitalism has had its share of science hating, too. "Alternative medicine" accounts for billions of dollars in sales every year, and worse, fake fitness science involves billions more. People spend $130 a month on Shakeology, where the fine print reads that it's a dietary supplement, not a meal. There isn't a reputable dietitian in the world that would prescribe the product as anything more than a snack. How many actual meals could you buy with $130? But you have an inherently evil multi-level marketing machine behind it that benefits only the company making the product, and a few of its top earners, under the guise of "helping people" achieve whatever kind of bullshit goals they're serving. That's not science. You want to eat and live healthier? Talk to an actual dietitian and a trainer and make lasting lifestyle changes. You can't drink that shit for the rest of your life.

The worst science denial of all is still climate change, or specifically the denial that man can affect it. Few scientific phenomena have been as carefully scrutinized as climate change, and yet, politicians continue to make it something other than science. Politicians being morons I kind of expect, but the average human who isn't seeking reelection has no excuse for the denial.

Crack a virtual book, humans. A little science isn't going to kill you. It will make you better.


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