An update and a lament

I haven’t been here in awhile because things have been crazy busy at work. My university is restructuring - they are eliminating most of the undergrad programs and shutting down the residential campus. I’ve spent the last two months trying to help my students find a place to land and looking for a job. The good news is that I found a great job in the geographic area I want to be in and I was able to sell my house.
And now for the lament - after 7 years, I am worn out from trying to convince students that scientists are not the enemy. Recently, a student (a ministry major!) made this comment on an assignment.
“For me I don’t like paying attention to what scientists say, because majority of the time, they aren’t accurate, or at the end of the day its truly just their own opinion.”
This was after an entire semester of me talking about the importance of good data. I wish I could say it was an isolated incident, but it’s typical of the mindset I encounter - a mindset I won’t miss.


I teach an honors course on science, science denialism, conspiracy, and pseudoscience. It’s about all the ways we have failed to rely on evidence over emotion, beliefs and ideology. It’s about teaching students what science is and what it is not and how to evaluate credibility and trust our institutions. Basically it’s honing their bullshit detectors. Science denialism, conspiracy theories, and yes the mingling of ideology, corporate agendas, and religious belief with science has been eroding public trust in science and scientific and educational institutions for decades and at this point it’s pretty bad but I’m not willing to give in without pushing back.


I would wager that your good work has opened many more minds to discovery than have remained closed.


I hear that a lot, often with people complaining about Fauci. They apparently think consistency is evidence of truth. They see being consistently wrong as better than adjusting your view in the light of new data.


Yes, its the openness to adjust theories in light of new information that gives science its integrity


sorry to hear about the restructuring, and congratulations on your new position. I hope the transition and your move go smoothly.

I am very sorry to hear about this experience. It seems people get engrained with such ideas via certain social/cultural groups such that distrust of science becomes one of their core beliefs that is then very difficult to change. Very frustrating and very sad.

The culture of distrust in experts is also a big issue, with tragic results and many lives lost during the pandemic due to people trusting random (untrustworthy) voices on the internet over actual trustworthy experts giving good advice.

I’ve been wondering if there would be a way to help laypeople think through which authorities are trustworthy and why. Would you bring your cellphone to be repaired by your car mechanic or vice versa? Or would you rather bring your cellphone to the cell phone repair expert and your car to the expert car mechanic?


It is good to hear that you teach such a course. Seems like a series of lectures that could be useful to post on YouTube. We need viral content out there to teach people how to distinguish good science and objective reasoning from bad science, faulty reasoning and on the far end deceitful spin.


Yes. My colleague who teaches apologetics talks about how “science is always changing,” like that’s a bad thing. I try to get my students to see that it’s a good thing, but it’s hard to undo some of those ideas.


Thanks! I know many students have told me how much they appreciated my class and other professors have told me that students quote me in their classes (for better or worse). But sometimes it’s hard to see the big picture.



I cannot imagine how exhausting it must have been for you working in such a hostile and oppressive atmosphere. I thank you for your service to humanity in opening minds over the last seven years, and wish you all the best for your new job and location.

Is it that they don’t know “how to distinguish”, or that they don’t want to?

Some of the QAnon claims are sufficiently bizarre that I don’t think that they’d be difficult to distinguish from reality – and therefore have to surmise that their believers simply don’t want to do so – that the alternate reality they inhabit, although it might seem frightening and bizarre to us, is in some strange way a comfort for them.


Thanks! The job did have it’s bright spots- like when my students would challenge my ID advocating colleague, saying “show me the data!”. Or when a student objected to an assignment on the evidence for evolution and my dean said “if this assignment is a threat to your faith, you have bigger problems than your Biology grade.”. But it has been tiring. And yes, I have to wonder how much distrust of science is willful ignorance.


I agree with @RonSewell . The difficulty is that those whom you successfully get thinking are not always “quick wins.” Sometimes they take a while. I suspect that you have done marvelous things. You may never see even a small fraction of the good you have done, but from all accounts it really sounds like you have done a lot of it.

What can we do for other people, anyhow? We can’t think for them. We can help them discover and think. We can help get them un-stuck. Some of them will always be stuck. Some will always WANT to be stuck. It is a kindness to those ones – and perhaps not much more to them – that you tried; but it is a real and lasting service to the others who are NOT stuck.

I had the odd experience recently of buying dinner for a number of people on a business trip, one of whom turned out to be a minister who preaches ID nonsense. I just about fell off my chair when I googled him later. And, you know, he fit all the personality points. He was dismissive of the authority of scientists, and full of his own opinions about what is and isn’t possible in evolution. He brings ID Creationism into discussions on tangents (fortunately didn’t do that at dinner that evening). He’s eager to display public piety as a form of social aggression. Just the worst sort of person, to himself and to others. I bring this up because there is a simple reality to this: not everyone can be saved. Some people stumble into folly, and some rage into folly, guns blazing and flags waving in the wind, shouting, EXCELSIOR! You can’t save those people, and you can’t blame yourself for it when you try anyhow, and fail to save them.

But the good you do is quiet good. It works slow. It percolates, it permeates people’s whole way of thinking. It arms them with ways to think about faith and science that give them the flexibility to consider, and change, and adapt, and to understand other points of view. If you are lucky, some of them will thank you one day. But smile as though they have thanked you already, because you have done them great good.



This happens to be a reasonable approximation of more sophisticated conclusions which can be supported directly from decades of scholarship in philosophy of science.

If you make this argument, you should at least acknowledge that the “opinions” are from experts in respective fields that have substantial amounts of evidence that support those opinions. Yes, sometimes new evidence requires adjustments to those opinions, but that does not mean that “just their own opinion” is worthless.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Asimov


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