The existence of bunk when science lumbers into the political sphere with what to some are uncomfortable observations seems to be a remarkably resilient feature of our landscape. I learned this more than a decade ago when I spent a good deal of time reading the work of quasi-scientific young-earth creationists.
The arguments raised by Dan Sarewitz in his recent Slate piece offer a hypothesis for why this might be. When mainstream science conflicts with values, people hunt for outlier science that doesn’t create so much cognitive dissonance. In any sufficiently interesting science, there will always be genuine research lying some distance from the mainstream to choose from, which will end up being of relevance to the policy debate as people with different values choose points on the scientific spectrum that tend to support their value position. That’s the point of Sarewitz’s Yucca Mountain example:
For example, varying estimates of the amount of ground water flowing through the rocks at the site were central both to claims that Yucca Mountain was safe and that it should be abandoned.
But genuine bunk also will emerge for Darwinian reasons. For people whose values are in genuine conflict with the implications of the science, it meets a need. If this observation is correct, then the enormous effort by a committed and energetic segment of the pro-science community to stamp out bunk is doomed to failure.
Not failure but a harder slog than if core values did not come into conflict with the scientific findings.
That’s not surprising, but it’s sad. I think that science’s great strength is it’s ability to question dearly held beliefs (of all sorts). It’s hard – even scientists have trouble accepting that their favorite ideas might be wrong – but it’s valuable.
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