I’ve written here several times about what an education in science can do for a person, and what it can’t do. This is part of a broader topic of expertise and whose opinion is worth listening to, subset “experts in science”. But that’s a big subset, since (1) scientific topics can be quite important and (2) relatively few people have enough grounding in any given one.
That doesn’t stop some people from feeling as if they have that background, of course (see that “expertise” link above for more on this). I often think of the sinking feeling that physicians must get when they have a patient start off a conversation by saying “I was reading on mercola.com about. . .” or “Well, Dr. Oz says that. . .” But even short of these folks, there are untold millions of people out there who don’t feel as if they’re well-versed in scientific or medical topics at all – they have no expertise, real or fake – and the problem is that many of them are apparently ready to believe most anything.
I got to thinking about this cohort after a couple of recent items. One was this tweet, from someone who was studying the way that news about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill propagated. They noticed a few stories going around that made no sense, such as one about how the oil spill and the compounds being used to try to clean it up were going to wipe out all life in Eastern North America. Yeah. The source of this one, if that’s the word, appears to be this site or something like it. If you’ve never heard of “EUTimes.net”, then join the club. A closer reading of the story sources everything to unnamed Russian scientists who determined, apparently, that toxic rains were about to destroy vast swaths of the US because its citizens were so foolish as to put any faith in their government and any of their businesses. That’s pretty much what it says; I’m not extrapolating here. The similarities to some of the “news” stories that have gone around this election season are left as an exercise for the reader, but my point at the moment is that there were apparently people who took this crap seriously, or at least had serious doubts as to whether they should or not.
On the other end of the “Oh God, I fear exposure to evil toxins” scale, you have these people in South Africa. Many countries in the region have long been afflicted with money-grubbing religious “leaders” who peddle all kinds of fake miracles, cures, and wonders. One of the current crop is claiming to cure people of all sorts of diseases by giving people a good face-full of insecticide spray, right out of the damned can. His mighty healing powers, direct from God, you see, are turning commercial “Doom” brand bug spray into something that’s good for whatever affliction you might have. Bug spray. People are lining up to get hosed down with bug spray by some loud charlatan waving a can and shouting about God. I suppose that the first sentence of this paragraph is not quite accurate, because the poor people getting a nose full of the stuff may not think that it’s bug spray, apparently, but rather a healing dose of something or another, despite the fact that it no doubt still smells and tastes like insecticide. But anyway.
One way to deal with such nonsense is to go after it head-on, pulling up evidence to show that no, these things don’t appear to be true, and here are a bunch of quite plausible reasons why they’re not. If someone is wavering or wondering, that might be enough. But it’s certainly not going to be enough for anyone who’s really invested in such thoughts (see that expertise link above for more thoughts on this as well). And at any rate, this might be dealing with the problem on a retail level, and junk like this is in endless supply.
The wholesale level, then, would be trying to make people less susceptible to it in the first place. The problem, though, is that people who will believe these two examples will believe pretty much anything that comes along, if they want to enough or if they’re afraid enough. I mean, look at this stuff. You’d think that the tiniest bit of science background would be enough to make a person wonder about whether or not half the US was about to be wiped out by an evil government/oil company conspiracy, or whether some con man can cure you of cancer by shouting about Jesus while blowing your hair back with a blast of insect killer. Or the tiniest bit of a scientific worldview might be enough – that is, asking yourself “Hmm. I wonder if that’s true? What’s the evidence like?”
That line of argument leads to two conclusions, though, at opposite ends of the scale. If either of those propositions about education are correct, then there are vast numbers of people who have no idea about anything to do with science or medicine – whatever attempts have been made to educate them have apparently failed. That’s not good, but at least it offers the hope that something else, in some other way, might get through. The alternative is that those ideas about science education are, in fact, not correct – that a lot of people are going to believe what they want to believe, no matter what their prior knowledge base. There’s good evidence for that one, too, although I still have to think that there has to be some level of knowledge that protects you from preachers waving cans of bug spray who tell you that you’re about to experience a big smelly cloud of God’s love. If someone tried to do that to me, I’d kick them right in the whatevers, so what is it that makes me different from the people who are jumping at the chance?
Well, OK, religious faith. And that gets into contentious territory, because a significant number of the world’s religions ask a person to take certain things on faith, some of which are more or less contrary to physical law and normal experience. Thinking along these lines leads you to the Jefferson Bible, Thomas Jefferson’s version of the New Testament with all the moral teachings left in and all the miracles stripped out. (C.S. Lewis, among others, would have none of that – he was a subscriber to the “Son of God or lunatic and nothing in between” school and found the watered-down versions of the faith to be worthless or worse). I have no intention of getting into a discussion of the topic, but I do have to think that there must be some way for a person to have faith without it leading to a honking blast of Doom up the schnozz. (One has trouble picturing Lewis getting in line for such, just to pick one example).
But it wasn’t religion that made some people wonder if the Deepwater Horizon spill might wipe out everything down to the bacteria once it started to rain in Louisiana. Or that vaccines are a vast conspiracy to enfeeble the world. Or that it’s worth paying for Wonder Water with negative ions or hocused hydrogens or something, or that you’d be glowing with health if you could just find the right herbal cleanse to flush the hideous toxins out of your body. Et very much cetera. Those are just plain ignorance and credulity, and while those might in fact be their own church, of a sort, it’s not one that any of us has to respect.