Science has unparalleled potency validating facts and deriving truths because its well-defined methods makes reality tangible. Where philosophy relies solely on logic, reason and thought experiments, science primarily collects data through empiricism ─ testing, measuring and compiling evidence obtained from direct observation. Science is thusly independent of belief. It assumes hypotheses under investigation are false until rigorously proven. And standards for rejecting “null hypotheses” are high; only 95-99 percent statistical confidence bounds give assurances correlations aren’t chance. Non-reproducible single occurrences are valueless to scientists. Stray contradictory claims, oft-repeated conspiracy theories, and targeted disinformation won’t induce rejections of theories or hypotheses as falsified. Disproof requires reproducible effects, refuting earlier work and data, coming to light. Low-level empirical hypotheses (falsifying hypotheses) have to be proposed and corroborated by experiments in logical format.
COVID vaccines, developed in record time, were clinically tested on tens of thousands of subjects before emergency approvals. Since then, roughly 3 billion people have been inoculated against SARS-CoV-2 worldwide. Shots given to such an enormous sample size, with few incidents of discernible side effects, are indisputable proof of their efficacy and safety, especially m-RNA sera. Lifesaving suppression of COVID-19 through inoculation is fact. All that remain are questions about durations of immunity and whether boosters are needed to address evolving variants. That nearly 50 percent of Americans still resist getting inoculated, making themselves factories for potentially deadly, more transmissible coronavirus strains, suggests half the country is brain dead. Adding insult to injury, many vaccine-averse are medical personnel, policemen, firefighters and military. Some non-patriots even mingle without masks as if they were immunized. Why the denial and shirking responsibility?
In June, the Economist reported just 48% of U.S. adults were proficient readers in 2017, while youngsters in 4th grade ranked 15th in international literacy exams. That, by the way, was before pandemic closures of classrooms and remote learning. More disturbing is a recent Monmouth University poll. Just as Americans divide 50-50 on politics, only half of us (51%) both got inoculated against SARS-CoV-2 and realize Joe Biden was elected legitimately. If an overwhelming majority can’t accept science and election veracities, it’s time to stick a fork in American society. Before Donald Trump’s “Reichstag gambit” up to and including the January 6th insurrection, a 2014 study (University of Chicago) already found 50% of Americans subscribed to at least one or more prominent conspiracy theories. Believing in angels, denying dinosaurs existed or Neil Armstrong and Al Sheppard once walked on the moon certainly impairs U.S. cognitive reasoning. But conspiracy theories about vaccines, climate change and communist takeovers have proven deadly, especially when propagated by elected officials, who pander to coup d’etat militia groups, white nationalists and other fringe whackos.
Displacing reason and scientifically-derived truths with belief and speculation is a distinctly human predilection towards self-deception. However misjudged, once embedded in our consciousness, we tend to preserve our pre- and misconceptions, reinforcing them with confirmation biases. Those of political origin are clung to so tenaciousness, as the country divides, no amount of logic can wrest them free. Social media, talk shows and other algorithmic echo chambers reinforce that operant conditioning like food pellets to rats and pigeons in Skinner boxes. Of all the chemical neural transmitters sloshing around in our animal brains, dopamine, the same “feel good” driver of drug and behavioral addictions from cocaine to porn, may be most correlated to our neurology of belief. Denial of science and evidence-based truths enables the brain to detach from responsibilities and guilt crucial to the moral, realistic functioning of societies, inhibiting as well our recognition and mitigation of long-term threats. Thusly, for too long, denial of anthropogenic climate change was sub-culturally ingrained. Ignorance (i.e. anti-science) and race-driven compulsions to gloss over unflattering aspects of U.S. history, diffuse and addictive, are now America’s drug of choice, our national “opium of the masses”
Neotony (a.k.a. pedomorphosis) is a term we biologists use to describe retention of juvenile features in adult animals, the way an axolotl salamander keeps its gills and stays aquatic after sexual maturity. Similarly, how some Americans dismiss reality and “inconvenient truths” (whether global warming or CDC advisories) to engage in counterfactual beliefs is neotenic. As the same never-never land forces split citizens on matters of science, mask wearing, healthcare, CRT and voting rights, the radical, strong-arm, evangelical Right is particularly childish. Beliefs come first and explanations, however unnatural and devoid of truth, are tailored to fit them, reaffirm the status quo; alleviate responsibility and guilt. Yet, science, above all, should be the guiding principle in which we unify and trust. When the neurology of belief ─ operant conditioning, reinforcement, dopamine addiction ─ supplants reason, “matter of fact” all but disappears from America’s lexicon.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.