Science is a simple process of making educated guesses about the world, then testing them to see if they're supported by reproducible evidence. Since the birth of this process in the 17th century, science has truly changed the world and overwhelmingly for the better.
Unfortunately, while science has advanced the way we live, it has not always dominated the way we think. Thanks to the most primitive parts of our brains, we tend to reject science for emotional arguments rather easily. Given a few deadly adverbs or carcinogenic adjectives, we are more likely to reject factual evidence in exchange for a juicy, fear-mongering sound bite.
Take the hypothesis concerning a purported linkage between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism. In 1998, a small British study implied a linkage, however, the paper turned out to be fraudulent and was retracted. Numerous larger studies have since shown no linkage, but the myth persists and has a community of believers. No amount of evidence will convince them otherwise. In fact, a recent study indicated that the more evidence you provide, the more recalcitrant believers become.
This phenomenon is the triumph of the brain's primitive amygdala -- which drives emotional responses such as fear and anger -- overruling our more advanced and reasonable prefrontal cortex. It wouldn't be so bad if this faulty thinking influenced only gullible people, but it is pervasive. We live in a society that seems to eschew science and reason in favor of knee-jerk emotional responses. Unfortunately, unreasoned arguments tend to get equal airtime in the media and are often placed opposite credible experts to provide the illusion of "balance." Since one is bound by rules requiring evidence and the other is not, such a setup allows the fool to win.
In 1997, 14-year-old Nathan Zohner of Idaho Falls won the Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair and gained national notoriety for his call to ban the dangerous substance dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO). DHMO is a colorless, tasteless and odorless industrial solvent. It is used as a coolant in nuclear and industrial plants, as a fire retardant, as a solvent for pesticides and in the production of Styrofoam. Inhalation can be fatal and it causes thousands of deaths each year (see dhmo.org).
Dihydrogen monoxide (H2O) is simply water, yet smart people were scared into believing it should be banned.
So how do we avoid being duped? Think critically. When claims are made, be skeptical, look for credible supporting evidence, consider the qualifications and motives of the person making the claims. Look past emotionally charged language and fear mongering for actual professionally vetted data. Be aware of logical fallacies and straw-man arguments. We need more critical thinking in both our media and our policy.
Hart is the president of the Partnership for Science and Technology, a nonprofit organization that is supported by organizations, businesses and private individuals who support science-based solutions to energy challenges.