I have a secret to tell all of you: I kind of don’t care about teaching evolution in science classes. Put another way, I’m less than convinced that most people, having learned the story of species differentiation and adaptation, go on to live fuller and more meaningful lives. In fact, the way we teach evolution ­­––with a ferocious attention toward competition and struggle in adverse circumstances–– might be detrimental to the encouragement of healthy and happy communities. I also see little reason to trust the medical community writ-large, and I cringe when a well-meaning environmentalist describes their reaction to impending climate change by listing all of the light bulbs and battery-powered cars they bought. I suppose –given my cynical outlook– that the cover story of this month’s National Geographic is speaking to me when it asks “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” Good question: what the hell is wrong with me?

Joel Achenbach, the author of the cover story, assumes that most people doubt science because they either do not understand it, or find a much more compelling explanation for what they see in the world.  Moon landing truthers, anti-vaccination advocates, adherents to intelligent design, and global warming denialists all share misinformation that somehow feels more satisfying because they corroborate foregone conclusions about how the world works. Stanely Kubrick faked the moon landing, for example, because it is easier to believe the government covered something up than accomplished something great. While science literacy goes some way in explaining why less people vaccinate their children and no one cares about the impending heat death of our planet, that is not the only thing going on here.

Science isn’t just a set of facts or a method for arriving at those facts, it’s a collection of institutions, and those institutions haven’t given many people a reason to trust them, let alone go to bat for them when they are embattled. The spoils of science have been severely misallocated and there is little reason to trust, let alone pay attention to, science experts. Austerity has ravaged health services, making relationships with health professionals few and far between. Industrial disasters seem to be increasing in frequency while major scientific breakthroughs and engineering achievements are reserved for those that can afford them. College is less affordable than ever before. The question should not be why do many reasonable people doubt science” it’s the opposite: “why do many reasonable people still believe in science at all?”

Medical science has certainly made lots of breakthroughs, but only a miniscule portion of the global population has benefited from those advances. Climate change might be a looming threat that demands immediate action, but it is hard to care about 50 years from now when you don’t know where tomorrow’s dinner is coming from.

Achenbach chalks up this lack of trust, as an internal battle between what seems intuitively real and what science reveals to be fact. He cites a behavioral study, which “indicates that as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely.” The example he gives is so telling of his class position that it is worth a long block quote:

Most of us [make sense of the world] by relying on personal experience and anecdotes, on stories rather than statistics. We might get a prostate-specific antigen test, even though it’s no longer generally recommended, because it caught a close friend’s cancer—and we pay less attention to statistical evidence, painstakingly compiled through multiple studies, showing that the test rarely saves lives but triggers many unnecessary surgeries. Or we hear about a cluster of cancer cases in a town with a hazardous waste dump, and we assume pollution caused the cancers. Yet just because two things happened together doesn’t mean one caused the other, and just because events are clustered doesn’t mean they’re not still random.

We have trouble digesting randomness; our brains crave pattern and meaning. Science warns us, however, that we can deceive ourselves. To be confident there’s a causal connection between the dump and the cancers, you need statistical analysis showing that there are many more cancers than would be expected randomly, evidence that the victims were exposed to chemicals from the dump, and evidence that the chemicals really can cause cancer.

Yes, it would be nice to know if the chemicals used in commercial and industrial processes caused cancer. Unfortunately, many of the hazards that we face every day go undetected, especially in under-served communities. If your fire department or school is underfunded, there’s a good chance the EPA is not monitoring your air very well either.  Also, as Candice Lanius wrote last month, demands for statistical proof are not evenly levied across all populations. White and affluent people get their anecdotes taken seriously while the poor and disenfranchised must come up with statistics to corroborate their personal experiences.

Even if we lived in a world where everyone had to prove their position with statistical data, and there were monitoring stations evenly distributed across the country, we would still face the issue of what political sociologists of science call “organized ignorance.” That is, powerful actors like governments and companies make a point to not understand things so that they are difficult or impossible to regulate. Whether it is counting the number of sexual assaults, or the amount of chemicals used in fracking, intentionally not collecting data is a powerful tool. So while I agree with Achenbach that people should base important decisions on sound data, we should also acknowledge that access to data is deeply uneven.

Assuming that access to the Internet is the same as having access to data is like wondering why all of the wires in your house aren’t generating any electricity. If you wanted to know why everyone in your community is getting sick, and all of your searching revealed that the no one even bothered to collect the data, why would you go back to the same sources to know about the origin of the human race? Why would you care what these people have to say about your body if there is a big gray NO DATA polygon over your neighborhood in an air quality map? In many cases, what Achenbach characterizes as a competition between science and misinformation is actually the latter filling a vacuum.

Maybe Achenbach and everyone else that writes about science denialism knows this, and this is why they act so surprised when “well educated and affluent” people stop vaccinating their children. Why would the affluent –the people that science serves best– start questioning the validity of science? After all, it is the poor that were used as guinea pigs for medical research. It was poor southern black people that were mislead into believing they were being treated for a disease, not rich Bay Area yuppies. [1]

I would venture to make an educated, maybe even socially scientific, guess that while the rich can afford to construct purity narratives that put vaccines in the same category as pesticides and preservatives, the rest of us still react positively to the ethics of care that vaccines engender: the common good over profit. It is the kind of care that encouraged Jonas Salk to sell the polio vaccine at cost. Vaccines are one of the few medical technologies that don’t follow the pill-every-day-for-the-rest-of-your-life business model. You aren’t renting your health with a daily supplement; you are doing something to yourself that keeps others safe as well. You take on the pain and burden of getting the shot so that those too weak to take it aren’t put in harm’s way. If you stop thinking of the affluent as the only people capable of making an informed and collective decision, and start thinking of them as selfish actors that can’t imagine their bodies working the same way a poor person’s body works, the education paradox disappears.

The selfishness of the rich is also the unspoken necessary condition for climate change denial. The interests of corporations who have a direct financial interest in the fossil fuel status quo are certainly a big part of the equation, but let’s not forget that those people already experiencing the effects of climate change are those people that have been pushed to the least hospitable parts of the world. Indigenous populations have been at the forefront of climate change activism, much more so than the reticent scientists that are concerned about being marked as political actors. There was little fear of politicization when American scientists were vulnerable to nuclear annihilation but the far-off danger of climate change doesn’t seem to motivate middle-aged scientists. Why, again, should these institutions and the people that work in them, be treated as stewards of truth and trust? Why is it everyone else that should be chastised?

Finally, what did I mean by my first example when I said evolution doesn’t help foster community? What does evolutionary theory have to do with preparing people to be a part of a fulfilling community? Knowing about the slow but steady changes that turned ape-like common ancestors into apes and humans shouldn’t have anything to do with how I get along with my neighbor.

If you ever watch a show like Doomsday Preppers (On the National Geographic Channel!) you might know where I am going with this. The show tracks families and individuals who are convinced that “life as we know it” will end within their lifetime. They are compelled to act in preparation for what they believe to be the natural state of humanity. The story of how people will react without creature comforts or law enforcement is remarkably similar regardless of whether they are prepping for an Earthquake or a financial collapse: Hobbesian war of all against all. It’s no surprise then, that a typical prepper household has lots of canned food and guns.

How do we get such a uniform story from a wide range of people? Part of the answer is obviously the producers who want to craft a particular story, but there is also a popular notion that, if left to our own devices, humans without government and the threat of violence will compete with each other to the death. There are many different contributors to this myth, but science education is a big one. Many school children would be surprised, for example, to hear that Darwin never wrote the phrase “survival of the fittest.” That phrase actually came form Herbert Spencer, a foundational utilitarian philosopher usually cited by libertarians.

I bring this up because my argument is much more than a “what has science done for me lately” complaint. There are values and perspectives embedded in the work. As Donna Haraway famously said, scientists are not the mere “modest witnesses” they claim to be. Science is a human enterprise that intersects with race, class, and gender power relationships. The work of Darwin and his contemporaries never focused so heavily on competition and dog-eat-dog environments. The naturalist and anarchist scholar Pytor Kropotkin even wrote a book, and had several exchanges with Darwin, about species’ tendency to provide mutual aid in times of scarcity. The downplaying of cooperation and the focus on competition, despite many examples of both, shows the final and most basic reason for doubting science: it doesn’t feel like a tool of liberation anymore.

I would care much more about the teaching of evolution in classrooms if it taught that cooperation and reciprocity, the sorts of things that make strong communities and fulfill lives, were foundational to life itself. I would care more about stopping anti-vaccination movements if I thought anyone other than the most selfish among us were able to believe them. I would do more about climate change if scientists worked to prevent it as much as they work to bring products to market. I would convince people that we actually landed on the moon if I thought there was any political will left in my country to do something that amazing within my lifetime. I doubt science because it doubts us.

David is on Twitter: da_banks


[1] Correction: this essay originally stated that people were injected with the syphilis virus. The Tuskegee experiments, in fact, mislead participants into believing they were being treated when they were not.