6.02.2007

Trust and Authority

One of the most amazing things I see today is the use of the adjective environmentalist as a pejorative. The funny thing is that nobody I know isn't an environmentalist in one way or another. Yet there is a substantial stream of invective that tries to cast it as a religious movement.

My conclusion is that the invective is cast by a group that understands the world in religious terms alone and can't unshackle themselves from their common sense beliefs.

I'm using common sense in terms of believing only the evidence of one's senses.

This was brought home to me today when I read an article - I am posting the abstract with the issue information for those who wish to read the whole article:

Science 18 May 2007:
Vol. 316. no. 5827, pp. 996 - 997
DOI: 10.1126/science.1133398

Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science
Authors: Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg

Resistance to certain scientific ideas derives in large part from assumptions and biases that can be demonstrated experimentally in young children and that may persist into adulthood. In particular, both adults and children resist acquiring scientific information that clashes with common-sense intuitions about the physical and psychological domains. Additionally, when learning information from other people, both adults and children are sensitive to the trustworthiness of the source of that information. Resistance to science, then, is particularly exaggerated in societies where nonscientific ideologies have the advantages of being both grounded in common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources.

Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA.


So you can see that it is to be expected in populations where practical knowledge is highly valued as well as faith-based organizations or groups of young people. This is why we have such a terrible time convincing people that the world is old and anthropogenic warming is a fact. We have to bring them up to speed by filling in gaps in their education. This assumes they are willing to learn.

Probably the majority of people who do accept evolution as a fact do so because they accept authority in a different way than the people who do not accept natural selection. Trust and authority. These two words are my mantra in Internet and Society classes. Without developing the ability to discern the good from the bad, a person has no signposts and wanders in search of meaning.

Trust and authority are key because you just can't know everything. Let's take the example of deciding whether to believe a group of climatologists versus a single geologist's view of global warming or a political appointee's statement versus the head of meteorolgy at NASA. The political appointee has more than one doctorate and is a highly respected manager at NASA. However, he owes his job to the administration.

Here is what we know for sure. The Bush administration's appointees have been broadly accused by hundreds of employed scientists of intimidation and coercion. Evidence has been offered. This is countered by accusing the other guy of being an environmental nut and a liberal. The problem as I see it is that the scientist is working inside of his specialty and will continue to do so as long as he does a workmanlike job. The political appointee is beholden to his master alone no matter what his academic credentials may be. So I see this as a pretty clear cut example. The evidence points to the side of the employed scientist and against the political appointee.

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