Date February 16, 2017
Media Contact

Science denial, from evolution to climate change to vaccines

Brown biology professor shares insights on why science denial continues and what institutions of higher education should do about it.

Ken Miller
Photo: Joshua Dalsimer for Brown University

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Along with many accolades earned as a scientist and teacher, Ken Miller, a biology professor at Brown, has spent decades at the forefront of the battle to defend the teaching of evolution in America’s public schools.

Miller entered the national spotlight on the issue as an expert witness in Kitzmiller v. Dover, a 2005 legal case in which parents sued a Pennsylvania school district over the requirement that ninth-grade science teachers present intelligent design as an alternative explanation to evolution in their classes. Miller has written two books on the subject, “Finding Darwin's God (A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution)” and “Only a Theory (Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul).”

Central to the public discourse on evolution — and climate change, vaccines and other topics — is the concept of science denial, skepticism or outright denial of science and reason. As he readied himself for a Feb. 16 presentation at Brown titled “Science Denial: from Anti-Vaxers and Climate ‘Skeptics’ to the Ark Park — Why it Continues and Why it Matters” (part of the Brown’s Reaffirming Values series), Miller shared his thoughts on science denial.

How does the issue of science denial relate to the University's Reaffirming Values series, which emphasizes the importance of inquiry and dialogue, especially on complex and divisive issues?

Freedom of inquiry, freedom of association and freedom to communicate are the necessary preconditions of a vibrant and vital scientific enterprise. Societies that have attempted to shackle or restrain scientific inquiry, even for the best of reasons, have often ended up with no science at all. So, in many ways, the social and intellectual conditions necessary for science to thrive in the larger society are compelling models for the central role that academic freedom plays within a university.

Of course, science denial in America today can be linked, in many cases, to particular advocacy groups and economic special interests. While we may like to think that special interests do not exist in a place like Brown, in fact there are multiple pressures on every campus that seek to restrain inquiry, dialogue and the exchange of controversial ideas. In this respect, understanding and appreciating the values of science can serve the larger community by promoting a climate in which truth-seeking is valued above particular social or political causes.

You have been defending science, particularly evolution, in public forums for decades. Why does this fight persist?

There are several reasons. As a biologist, defending the teaching of evolution has been one of my passions, and there are very clear reasons why evolution remains a point of contention. Evolution tells us where we came from and how we got here, and many people find these details of our origins threatening. In some cases, it’s because evolution contradicts a religious story of origins; in other cases, it’s because placing our origins in the natural world is believed to threaten our humanity.

The fight also persists, I believe, because the scientific community has been drawn, almost unawares, into a culture war that devalues intellectualism, expertise and even education itself. It is the manifest duty of the scientific community to engage in that cultural clash and to reaffirm the value of scientific inquiry to American society. Unfortunately, at present, I don’t think we are doing a very good job of that. 

Despite overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, that human action is exacerbating it and that it has dire consequences for our planet, why do so many Americans still believe that these things are not true?

One obvious answer is the sheer volume of equivocal or misleading information put out by industries seeking to evade climate-related restrictions on their work for purely financial reasons. These groups have managed to persuade a majority of Americans that any move away from traditional fossil fuels will cost jobs and depress the economy. Faced with a threat to one’s self-interest, most people would try to rationalize away the science, especially if a handy set of “alternative” facts were readily available. As we know, special interest groups have spared no expense in providing those “facts.”

I think that the key here is to develop an appreciation that while the science of climate change is compelling, science leaves open the question of how best to respond to the challenge it presents. This is where conservative and liberal ideas about regulation, taxation and the role of government should be competing — not on the validity of science itself.

What values inform the anti-vaccine movement? What is different about this particular subset of science deniers? 

The anti-vaccine movement has taken hold among population groups we generally identify as “progressive” and has found particular support among those deeply suspicious of the role of large corporations. Since the production of any new vaccine is a massive undertaking, it only makes sense that large pharmaceutical companies are going to be the sources of vaccines for the immediate future. Given that many of these corporations have not exactly established themselves as public-spirited institutions seeking the greater good, it is only natural to be suspicious of them and of the products they promote.

But ironically, it is the very success of vaccines that has made it possible for many parents to doubt the benefit of vaccinating their own kids. Because diseases like measles are now rare, it’s easy to conclude that children don’t need to be vaccinated against them. That attitude has produced substantial pools of non-vaccinated children in various places around the country, providing perfect conditions for the re-emergence of diseases that should have been conquered.

What role should a university play in combatting science denial?

A simple answer would be that universities need to promote scientific literacy. Indeed, we need to do that across all levels of the educational system. But I think it is even more important to promote the cultural and social values of science itself. The way to combat science denial is not to insist that everyone in society needs to “listen” to what scientific experts say and act accordingly. Rather, it is to draw citizens into the culture of science, to export the experience of scientific discovery, and to generate a sense of excitement and passion about the scientific enterprise. A society, a university, a nation that embraces the values of science is ultimately one in which freedom of thought and expression will thrive. That should be the goal of any institution of higher education, and it certainly must be the core value of Brown University.