Jun 28, 2017 | Updated: 09:10 PM EDT

Alternative Facts Now as Pervasive in Science as in Politics

Jun 12, 2017 09:36 AM EDT

Demonstrators protest President Donald Trump's decision to exit the Paris climate change accord on June 2, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.
(Photo : Scott Olson/Getty Images)

"Alternative facts" are not just relegated to politics nowadays -- the public's understanding of important scientific issues, such as global warming and climate change, are couched in doubt, and fake science is becoming more pervasive in the public's understanding of a scientific worldview.

Back in January 2017, Kellyann Conway, senior advisor to President Trump, used the now notorious phrase "alternative facts" to defend the claim that Trump's inauguration drew the "largest audience to ever witness an inauguration." Even though there was photographic evidence suggesting otherwise, Conway insisted the White House had made its claim based on "alternative facts."

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This instance of absurdity was mocked on social media and covered by both conservative and liberal media outlets for days and weeks after, and received much attention for its lack of common sense, given the photographs showing anything but the largest inauguration crowd.

Why is the public more concerned with "alternative facts" and "fake news" in the political arena, and less so in other spheres, such as science? This is the question Andrew Shtulman tries to answer in his new book, Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong. Shtulman argues that alternative facts in politics "defy common sense" while alternative facts in science are actually quite "sensible."

Shtulman draws upon the research of psychologists who study the history of how humans have been perceiving, studying and understanding the natural world, who argue that much of our scientific knowledge is at least initially grounded in cause-effect beliefs, or what psychologists refer to as "intuitive theories."

Psychologists call these theories "intuitive" because they are our first attempt at understanding the phenomena around us before we learn proven scientific theories of those same phenomena. Intuitive theories allow us to make sense of phenomena we might otherwise find perplexing, mysterious, scary or even dangerous, processes such as "sinking, floating, burning freezing, growing, dying," as Shtulman mentions in his article on NPR. In other words, "intuitive theories" are a way to explain the inexplicable, not dissimilar to myths, fables and pourquoi tales.

Today, we can see two widely believed misconceptions: 1) that humans are not causing climate change and global warming is a hoax, and 2) that genetically-modified foods are dangerous for consumption. Neither is borne out by evidence, and both stand in the way of important progress.

Shtulman argues that global warming is difficult to accept because we tend to view the earth as static and unchanging, not dynamic, and view geological and meteorological events as isolated incidents, not "ongoing and interconnected." Similarly, we tend to view genetically-modified organisms as having been tampered with in some essential way, and ultimately unnatural and therefore dangerous.

In order to debunk alternative science facts, therefore, we must debunk the alternative thoeries that espouse them.


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