The history of science shows how to change the minds of science deniers

Protests are good. Stories are better.
Protests are good. Stories are better.
Image: Reuters/Piroschka van de Wouw
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Most of us don’t think of science as a story. If we think of it at all, it’s as a series of discoveries made by a few geniuses whose insights somehow changed our lives.

A new book aims to transform that perception, turning it into a tale the whole world is writing together—a fable involving heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, and very high stakes for humanity and the planet.

Robert Crease, a science historian and chairman of the philosophy department at Stony Brook University in New York, is the author of this upcoming book, The Workshop and the WorldCrease is concerned about science deniers, especially people in positions of authority, who discount evidence that human activity is changing life on Earth for the worse, driving climate change and disrupting the delicate balance that all living things rely upon on our interconnected planet. He believes that by understanding the history of science, we can “keep the world from falling apart,” in his words.

This might sound like a very tall order. But in Crease’s view, each of us has a stake in making the world better. We may not be great thinkers ourselves, but our participation in telling the tale of science is crucial, he argues.

Beginning with Francis Bacon in the 17th century and ending with Hannah Arendt in the 20th century, the philosopher lays out the story of the scientific workshop—which is his shorthand for the process of scientific thinking and the actual experiments scientists conduct. In his book, Crease provides examples of 10 great thinkers in history who saw possibilities, confronted authority, and took action, advancing unconventional ideas for their time that directly or indirectly improved our lives today. Their efforts provide examples of how to respond to people and institutions who ignore scientific evidence when it’s convenient for them, despite relying on science in other areas.

Denier in chief

One prime example of this hypocrisy that Crease points to is US president Donald Trump. The philosopher notes that Trump denies climate change and has installed science deniers in leadership positions in his administration, dismantling the scientific infrastructure that makes it possible to do the very things he claims to want to do, such as “unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries, and technologies of tomorrow.”

As Crease points out, you can’t just select evidence that suits you and discard or ignore what’s uncomfortable or difficult to deal with. He writes:

Something strange has happened. Workshop findings can dazzle human beings, making the surrounding world—the one in which we make friendships, breathe and suffer, hope and fear—appear to recede in importance…The deep structure of the workshop and its tie to the lifeworld is lost. You think you can pick and choose your scientific findings. You think scientific findings are opinions.

To counter this selective approach, individual citizens must know and tell the story of science, Crease argues. Practically speaking, Crease says, it makes no sense to just denounce science deniers, moralize, expose, or even provide scientific evidence that shows how the workshop works for the world. We must understand the mentality behind the denial and be able to tell the story of science with its failures and triumphs, so that the deniers’ story changes, too.

Moral of the story

In Crease’s view, science denial stems from a mistrust of knowledge that’s necessarily not common. Because science has its own secret language, some people dismiss it as elitist or politically-driven and unnatural, contradicting human values.

Ironically, scientists themselves aren’t particularly well-equipped for this storytelling job that Crease thinks is so critical because they are inside the workshop, working on developing knowledge, solving specific problems. Crease calls them “operators of a machine that is useful for some tasks.”

But “controlling the crisis” of loss of faith in facts actually depends on “individuals who are able to reflect on the possibility and necessity of such machines.” And by that, he means us, the people out there in the world who believe in the workshop’s activities and want to support scientific infrastructure.

The story we have to tell, he argues, is one of scientific successes and vulnerabilities. For example, in the early 17th century, Galileo Galilei, the father of observational astronomy, created a telescope that brought the stars into view. Those in power who feared his creation simply refused to look through it, denouncing its creator rather than acknowledging the observations the tool allowed. The early science deniers, who were religious, saw the telescope as a political threat and ignored the facts it brought to light.

Crease likens today’s climate change deniers to those who refused to look through the telescope. Understanding the past and the present mentality of those who denounce evidence, he argues, can help us overcome resistance to new information.

On the flip side, champions of science must also acknowledge that it’s reasonable for deniers to feel skeptical. As the writer Mary Shelley pointed out 200 years ago in the science fiction classic Frankenstein, scientists don’t just observe nature, they act upon it. Science can be dangerous, and the operators of the machine are capable of creating monstrosities that harm the world.

Knowing this to be true, those of us outside the workshop should be more involved in science, not less. Admitting the possibility of failures is critical to communicating with science deniers and changing the way they see the story, helping them to understand they have a stake in how this tale turns out. We can ask them to join us in looking through the metaphorical telescope and help us ensure that new creations are not monstrous.

A dramatic tale

Crease also offers specific short-term solutions to address science denial, including demanding pledges to face the evidence from elected leaders and prosecuting authorities and institutions that ignore science, leading to demonstrable harm. The latter is already happening with climate change lawsuits aimed at governments around the world.

But really, Crease believes it’s the story of science that will save the workshop and the world. “It would have to be a motivating story,” he writes, “one that does not let readers off the hook regarding what comes next.” It’s a dramatic tale of people in peril, a boat at sea in a storm, veering off-course but able to be saved if only the travelers would use the navigational tools available to them.

We have the tools, the philosopher argues—but we haven’t sufficiently committed to using them. Crease concludes, “The story has to make us realize our decisions about science depend on who we are and who we are to become … For science denial affects public health, the welfare of future generations, and the fate of the planet.”