Overview:

Scientific illiteracy is rampant, in part because all tribes play into it. When we reckon with our own unempirical and irrational thinking, we cultivate a healthier arena for us all.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Pity the poor bipedal ape. We’re a strange species, to have grown so much in shared knowledge, and still be so limited by the fragility of individual noggins. Though I have never been religious, and never believed in a god, still I share with theists the same neurological “meat” that can make personal conviction feel informed by something deeper. Obviously, my gut instinct is correct, or why would I feel it so fiercely? Obviously, if I’m angered or repulsed, it must be with just cause. And so, our widespread scientific illiteracy doesn’t surprise me. Our own bodies betray us, by insisting biochemically that whole complex moral issues are a priori givens, not a posteriori conclusions. It’s not easy to sustain a healthy skepticism of ourselves.

But it’s important, all the same.

The role of human behavior in empirical debate

Personally, I’m thankful for an early introduction to the work of Oliver Sacks, the neurologist whose case studies illustrated the range and resilience of our selectively processing brains. I’m thankful, too, for an early reading of Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, two books that depicted how we reason differently in group settings. Such work (and a whole heap ton of good fiction) made it easier for me to recognize the abiding humanity, and susceptibility to misstep, even among people elevated for supposedly higher reasoning. And it made it easier to recognize when fellow atheists, say, were following popular figures more as fans than as skeptics in their own right.

But less easy, by far, has been the work of improving critical thinking among folks already convinced that “the science” is on their side. Groupthink might feel more abstracted via digital media, but it still exists. And it shapes what we dwell upon, what we build arguments around, and what concessions we’ll permit from ourselves.

This last issue shows up especially in atheist-theist debates, with anti-vaxxers, or with people holding opposing political views. Can we really risk acknowledging our side’s missteps when arguing with the opposition? If we go around highlighting our side’s errors, aren’t we doing our opponents’ work for them? When so many people haven’t the foggiest idea how to recognize flawed scientific data and key logical fallacies, why should we have to concede a thing?

Setting a healthier standard in public discourse

And yet, I’d argue that it’s precisely because of mass scientific illiteracy that we who purport to be critical thinkers must continue to interrogate ourselves. And not just in private! Rather, we should do everything we can to normalize self-interrogation as a key sign of genuinely critical thought in the public sphere. This means spending less time striving to be clever in adversarial debate, and more time teaching average people to be suspicious of the charismatic and self-assured.

And this is exponentially more urgent for anyone elevated in our communities. Even seasoned empiricists and rationalists, given an outsized platform and asked for their opinions on topics well outside their purview, can fall prey to the idea that simply knowing something about science and philosophy enlightens everything they say. Longing to appear the most rational in debate is a social status game that sneakily conceals the disqualifying egotism at its heart.

To be fair, though, it’s not just individual ego that leads us down such illiterate paths. When I wrote recently on how to think about trans advocacy as a humanist, I outlined that the nature of online debate cultivates a wide range of inconsistent claims from differently informed actors. And I explored how all that absurd background noise, a million provocatively inaccurate and inconsistent activist claims from all sides, quickly distracts us from more proactive policy work.

I could have been talking about almost any issue, though: Russia’s war in Ukraine, anti-vax movements, QAnon, U.S. church/state separation, and even Will Smith’s decision to strike Chris Rock at the Oscars. In every site of populist argument, factionalism quickly rears its head, and armchair commentary follows suit. And then the soundness of any given argument becomes less important than defending your side from attack.

Combating scientific illiteracy from within

Just as we need to avoid using rhetoric that sustains conspiracy theories, so too do we need to tackle unscientific argumentation everywhere. During the most intense phases of COVID-19, for instance, we who favored preventative measures based our advocacy on principles of caution and respect for the vulnerable. We disagreed with economy-first pundits and politicians who said that death counts were low enough to be acceptable, and raged at them for dismissing human life.

And yet, our side also contained many people who dismissed anti-vaxxers for similar concerns. For many of the vaccine-hesitant to full-on anti-vaxxers, the pandemic wasn’t as immediate a risk as the vaccine they were being asked to receive, and to give to their children. For quite a few, even low rates of adverse side effects weren’t worth the risk.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the evidence is predominantly on our side. But why did our “one death is too many” count more than theirs in a mainstream argument? Did it help when we dismissed anti-vax concerns about the exact same thing we were worried about, re: loss and quality of life? Or when we treated people as menaces to society for having doubts based on fear, and a similar desire to protect their loved ones?

Or what about when we gave each other permission not to feel bad, or even to exult in, anti-vaxxers who die from COVID-19? Yes, I know we’re frustrated. So many have done great harm. But death sentences aren’t something we should ever be aspiring to enjoy, as humanists. Every death sentence, natural or otherwise, marks a societal failure to be reckoned with, and overcome.

And avoiding authority-worship, too

Worse yet, major public-health figures like U.S. Centers for Disease Control did make a lot of mistakes. It’s not just that they had limited information, and made the best choices they could at the time. They also often made advisory choices based more on politics than on science. And yet, when dissenters pointed to these inconsistencies as reasons they couldn’t trust public officials? Many in the pro-mandate camp simply dismissed such concerns as irrelevant. Or worse, they leaned on whataboutism, by pointing out that many in the dissenters’ camp had also been wrong.

This is completely counterproductive to the pursuit of scientific literacy. But it’s also painfully human. It is so hard to give up thinking first and foremost about what’s best for our side. Because… isn’t that our tribe? And don’t group-species defend their tribes?

Scientific illiteracy games: A toxic news cycle favorite

It didn’t have to be like this. Yes, we’re dealing with an incredibly toxic media environment that plays right into groupthink. We’re mired in info-silos that thrive on sensationalist news to stir up single-issue voters and sustain radical politics. Everyone with a big enough community knows someone who’s fallen, say, for QAnon-level paranoia about deep-state conspiracies. There’s a whole forum dedicated to grieving the loss of family to toxic news and opinion venues.

But the strange plight of the poor bipedal ape is this: we have the capacity to recognize and do something about our natures. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it takes work. We essentially have to replace or at least mitigate our unhealthiest biochemical responses, and that takes time. Time, to unlearn the seasoned knee-jerk reaction. Time, to de-couple ourselves from the addictive rush of debate. And for all our hard work? We still have to accept that a stroke or similar neuronal event could undo it in a snap.

It’s worth the effort, though. Yes, we give up the thrill of outrage, but we deepen in curiosity, gain the potential for new knowledge, and contribute to the creation of a healthier discourse. We might even be able to build a secular sphere mature enough to tackle the most pressing issues of the day.

Signs in the right direction

In the realm of COVID-19, for instance, some medical professionals have already been making a point of sitting with the “reluctant,” acknowledging their vaccination fears and bringing those fears to bear into shared data review. That’s not easy to do, and with the amount of bad blood in our entrenched positions, not always feasible. The U.S. is just about to pass the one million mark for COVID deaths: a terrible record informed in large part by denialism and mandate resistance. The damage done by toxic media cultures will take at least a generation to heal. Some may never be in a position to forgive.

Nevertheless, such medical and social-work teams recognized and acted on broader human behavioralism. They’ve been pragmatic change-makers in a world of principled argumentation. By addressing underlying human needs for connection, a feeling of both belonging and safety, they’ve made a difference on the ground.

And so, even if we can’t fix everything by doing similar online, we can absolutely learn from their lesson. We can adopt more constructive attitudes right now, today, to avoid playing into the mess of scientific illiteracy that populates mainstream debate.

Interrogating the scientific illiteracy on our “side”

Let’s get the obvious suggestions out of the way: read the links. Take care of what you signal-boost. Go out of your way to populate your info silos with a range of relevant experts. Look for alternative points of view instead of relying on a single source. Refresh your knowledge of statistics. Review common logical fallacies and identify the ones to which you’re most susceptible.

Then there’s the matter of sloganeering. Are you fond of expressions like “It’s science, bitches,” “follow the science,” and “show me the evidence”? These range from uselessly tribalist to precarious if used the wrong way. For one, “science” and “the evidence” are not absolute states of being, so why treat them as such? Science is a process, and the current body of knowledge acquired from that process. Meanwhile, “the evidence” is a catch-all that can easily devolved into a battle of volleyed data points. Maybe you’re saying both playfully, but their use cultivates an absolutism that feeds into the problem.

Would it really be so awful to be more specific, and to use rhetoric that highlights the ongoing work of the scientific method? “This is a robustly evidenced claim in the fields of X, Y, and Z.” “I recommend reviewing the recent findings of X, Y, and Z.” “What data have you seen that leads you to that conclusion?”

Booooring, no? But also, more empirically sound.

And then, the really tough part

Now we get to maybe the toughest site of scientific illiteracy: reducing our chatter around single-study results. Oh, I know, it’s fun when a single study offers data that accords well with existing beliefs. Who doesn’t want to play around with the idea that chocolate could be healthy? What atheist hasn’t smiled a bit to see survey data that suggests our conduct is more moral?

But we also know, on some level, that we’re perpetuating a problem found even in the scientific community: the paucity of replication studies. Replication is a critical part of the scientific method, but it isn’t as lucrative, and doesn’t help scientists advance. Awful bureaucratic politicking gets in the way of scientific practice everywhere.

Now, most of you aren’t in a position to change grant and career structures in STEM. (If you are, though, please get on it). But the rest of us can still start treating “science news” as cautiously as it deserves. Look for the original paper. Read the abstract. Do its conclusions match how it’s being reported? Check the study size, the population set, and the methodologies. But most of all, check the lit review. Is this a first-of-its-kind study? Or does it emerge in conversation with a range of contemporary work? If so, look for meta-studies in that list. Has anyone reviewed the quality of all these up-to-date papers on whole? And what did they find, if they did?

Longing to appear the most rational in debate is a social status game that sneakily conceals the disqualifying egotism at its heart.

The healthy skeptic is a skeptic for life

I don’t counsel any of this from a place of superior reasoning. In an upcoming piece, I’m going to be interrogating my own empirical biases around the inclusion of indigenous methodologies in modern anthropology. Why admit to my own failings? Because the aim, as a critical thinker, is to make a routine exercise of evaluating the assumptions underlying our current positions. And I need that routine as much as anyone.

When I chat with fellow atheists about critical thinking, one of the biggest misconceptions I encounter has to do with the narrowness of their data sets. Certain fruits of scientific discovery (e.g., geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, cosmology, and general physics) are always “in”. But human behavioral sciences: neurobiology, primatology, sociology, cultural anthropology? Eh. Any science that deals in contextualization, and recognizes our personal susceptibility to error, tends to be more uncomfortable terrain for many in the secular sphere.

And that’s understandable, because we’re all easily seduced by authority. We like having the upper hand. The definitive answer! The devastatingly good defense. It’s fun to be the cleverest, and to know all the best rejoinders to common flawed reasoning.

And yet, having the upper hand is nowhere near as constructive as advocating for greater scientific literacy by adopting a healthier skepticism of ourselves. It’s not glamorous work, and you’re not going to get the same number of adoring fans for it.

But if you contribute to the creation of a less divided world, a secular sphere better prepared to tackle the policy challenges ahead? My dear fellow bipedal ape: I do believe you’ll have found the upper hand⁠—over our basest of biologies⁠—after all.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.