Science fictions are widely held dangerous beliefs that are not supported by science. Jess explores a few of these in anticipation of the continued propagation of science myths during the next US election cycle.
- Race and genetics versus ‘race’ in genetics - PMC
- Ethnogenetic layering (EL): an alternative to the traditional race model in human variation and health disparity studies - PubMed
- The Father of Environmental Justice Exposes the Geography of Inequity - Scientific American
- Summary of S. 2667 (100th): National Energy Policy Act of 1988 - GovTrack.us
- The Climate Deception Dossiers | Union of Concerned Scientists
I almost failed out of college. Severe depression latched on and suffocated me for an entire semester, shackling me to my room and draining my will to exist, let alone to go to classes or interact with friends. It was only through the grace of one of my college’s deans that I was given a retroactive medical withdrawal. A slew of Ws instead of Fs on my transcript gave me a second chance, conditionally. I had to demonstrate my readiness to continue my education by taking a semester’s worth of courses at another university…and NOT failing.
Fortunately, I was in western Massachusetts, where it seems like you can’t drive for 10 minutes without running into a college. I enrolled as a non-degree-seeking student at a state university and decided to only take classes that fed my innate curiosity, just to make sure I’d actually get myself to class every day. That semester, I took poetry, history of Native American Peoples of North America, Drawing, a journalism class, and introductory geology.
That geology course was a revelation. It felt as though I’d been given a glimpse into the secrets of the universe…how the planets formed, why mountain ranges exist, where volcanoes occur, how all of the seemingly disparate pieces of our planet are stitched together. The big questions of our childhoods about lightning, dinosaurs, earthquakes, quicksand (yes, it’s not as common of a problem as 80s and 90s movies made it seem), and the jigsaw puzzle of Earth’s continents sprawled before me, offering the most seductive prize of all…knowledge.
My strategy for re-igniting my love of learning worked. I made the Dean’s list that semester and returned to attending my home college the next. As a consequence of that geology course, I elected to take as many geology-related courses as possible before I graduated. One course provided my introduction to geology fieldwork with a National Science Foundation-funded 11-day Spring Break research expedition in Death Valley and its neighbor Panamint Valley.
To me, that is science at its best. A question (or several questions) draws you in, answering that question motivates you, and devising ways to learn the answer leads you closer to the truth. Science is at its best when it breaks hypotheses, because through those failures we learn about our reality. The same holds true for all branches of science. Through repeated interrogation of facts via reproducible methods, we arrive at greater understanding of our universe.
Sounds perfect, right? Well, you know I wouldn’t be talking about it if it was that simple. After all, there are humans involved.
I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and this is science…fiction.
The scientific method is a process many of you are familiar with, and it was designed to reduce bias as much as possible. Since the 1600s, scientists have applied the scientific method in an orderly manner. First, we identify an observation or question. Next, we research the subject area in depth. After we have completed that background work, we create a hypothesis and then test it. This testing generates data, which we then analyze and report our findings. Reproducibility is key, because when our findings are reported they go through peer review. Other qualified scientists examine the entire process and help determine if all steps were performed correctly, and if the analysis of the results is accurate.
Of course, since humans are involved in implementing the scientific method, there is room for bias and error, or downright bad actors to worm their way into science. The process of publishing scientific research is rigorous, which helps to minimize these issues.
Science is an iterative process, meaning that repeating tests will yield accurate results. It also means that being wrong or uncovering new information is something to be welcomed rather than avoided.
One of the biggest revelations in my early scientific career came when I handed one of my geology professors a rock I’d found while hiking to a sampling location. I asked him what it was, expecting a quick, easy answer. He turned it over in his hand, held it up to peer closely at it in the sunlight, and then handed it back to me with a shrug. “I don’t know. Let’s bring it back to campus and figure it out.”
I thanked him reflexively but paused along the trail to put some distance between us. I was genuinely shocked. Here was someone with the highest level of academic credentials in his profession, and yet he readily admitted that he didn’t know something that seemed so basic! I had yet to realize that admitting when you don’t know something (and then conducting further investigation until you find out) is one of the defining characteristics of science.
The fundamental joy of science comes not from being right, guessing correctly, knowing more than your colleagues, or dazzling everyone you meet with your encyclopedic knowledge of your subject. No, the joy in science comes from peeling back layer after layer of uncertainty, honing knowledge to a fine, sharp point…and embracing the messy, demanding, and time-consuming process required to forge that knowledge.
So why am I bringing up the way science should be done? If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all over the last few decades, the answer is right there. Scientific expertise is under attack. Science denialism is reaching dangerous levels. The general public’s trust in scientists and scientific institutions has been shaken. Campaigns designed to undermine that trust have been orchestrated and executed, sometimes behind closed doors but more recently, out in the open.
You’ve probably seen it play out on social media, via your sister’s friend’s aunt’s strident posts about the Covid vaccines being a government plot to equip the unwitting public with tracking microchips. Maybe attacks against scientific consensus have happened at your own dinner table or over lunch at work. You mention how climate change is causing more severe weather events more frequently, and suddenly one of your dining companions is red-faced and borderline apoplectic, decrying “Big Green,” stridently insisting “I’ve done my own research!”
These interactions aren’t just obnoxious incidents that can be pushed past and forgotten about. They’ve festered and metastasized, and now trust in scientists to follow the data and use facts to understand our world is in jeopardy.
I want to highlight some of the most dangerous pieces of “science fiction” this week. We need to prepare for the next wave of concerted attacks on scientists, scientific results, and scientific institutions. The next major U.S. election is only a year and change away, and it’s going to take all of the scientifically-literate people we can muster countering the sensational anti-science narratives for evidence-based policymaking to stand a chance.
Our first Science Fiction story is a very dangerous one. For millennia, humans have used “race” as a way to group people according to cultural differences or phenotypes, which are observable traits. An example of a human phenotype would be hair color, and another would be susceptibility to a particular disease. History is littered with horrific treatment of large groups of people based on phenotypes or cultural differences. The justification of slavery based on the concept of race as a biological differentiator (in addition to race as a social construct) is one of the most apparent examples.
Let me state it very clearly: there is NO genetic basis for race. Period.
In 2003, the first phase of the Human Genome Project determined that 99.9% of our DNA is identical. This means that 7’6” former NBA player Yao Ming, 4’8” gymnastics legend Simone Biles, and the decidedly unremarkable athlete who managed to become the father of the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein, share 99.9% of their DNA. For 20 years now, the science has been out there in the public realm.
Now, a biologic basis for race may not immediately strike you as an important scientific myth to bust in our daily lives until you examine recent news headlines. Mass shooters like the ones in Buffalo or El Paso who commit violence targeting people of a specific race are just one awful consequence of the myth’s continued existence. There are more commonplace occurrences of the myth that reach farther than the bullets of a mass shooter.
You may have heard that there is a high incidence of heart disease among African Americans, or that certain drugs like ACE inhibitors don’t work as well when taken by African Americans. “Biologic” and “genetic” are not equivalent terms. Yes, ancestry is important in terms of biological outcomes, but biological outcomes are not necessarily the result of genetics. Social factors like air and soil quality, and access to good food, educational, and housing opportunities have a large impact on education, occupation, and income, which in turn lead to biological impacts on health.
There ARE other methods of approaching this type of health research, such as the Ethnogenetic Layering Approach employed by Dr. Fatimah Jackson of Howard University, which accounts for genetic makeup plus environmental and cultural factors that impact health outcomes. It's going to take repeated and continuous efforts in both the scientific community and the general public to hammer home the scientific reality: race isn’t genetic. We do everyone a disservice when we ignore the epidemiological causes of problems, whether health or social. There is no single, easy answer so we can’t continue citing race as the root cause of so many conditions, social, health or otherwise…especially when so many people have access to become radicalized against people of other races thanks to internet echo chambers.
For more insight, I encourage listeners to visit the show’s website at sciencewithjess.org. I’ve linked a few articles about research into the error of viewing race as genetically-based, as well as some information about ethnogenetic layering and environmental justice issues.
Now, for a little breather before we dive into our next piece of Science Fiction. I’m excited to introduce you to Michele Rama-Poccia, host of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Spanish-language podcast, Ciencia Consciente!
Ciencia Consciente promo
When it comes to earth science, there are myths aplenty. The most common question I’m asked when people learn that my expertise is volcanology is “when is Yellowstone going to erupt and kill us all?” My response is to tell the questioner to buy a Mega Millions or PowerBall lottery ticket, because the odds of winning are better than those of Yellowstone erupting catastrophically during any of our lifetimes. Humans today are more likely to see a localized phreatic (that means steam-driven) Yellowstone eruption.
The second myth-based question I get about volcanoes is one I’m always disheartened to hear. It goes like this: “I heard that volcanoes produce more CO2 than humans, so they’re the biggest factor in climate change, not us!” This one bothers me because it’s usually pushed to the unsuspecting public by climate change deniers harboring a profit-driven agenda. The scientific fact is that while there are about 45-50 volcanoes erupting worldwide on any given day, all of those eruptions annually produce less than 1% of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans. If you’re looking for a climate change villain, you’re barking up the wrong cinder cone.
So that leads us conveniently to the next piece of science fiction we’re going to cover today. Broadly speaking, we can categorize it using something called the Narcissist’s Prayer, which illustrates the way a narcissist thinks. The prayer goes like this:
“That didn’t happen. And if it did, it wasn’t that bad. And if it was, that’s not a big deal. And if it is, that’s not my fault. And if it was, I didn’t mean it. And if I did…you deserved it.”
Let’s apply that pattern to climate science denial.
“Climate change isn’t real. If it is, it’s normal and natural. If it’s not, then it’s not really a problem. If it is, it’s some other country’s fault. If it is our fault, I can’t do anything about it. If I can but choose not to, then it’s not going to hurt me.”
The orchestrated strategy behind denying anthropogenic, or human-caused climate change, largely belongs to fossil fuel companies and their investors. They’re the ones that stand to lose the most in a transition away from greenhouse gas producing fuels to renewable, clean energy sources. Protecting their own interests and maximizing profit is exactly how corporations are expected to function in our society. Unfortunately, the decades-long campaign of lies they’ve told has permeated the national and international discourse for generations. These insidious science fictions mean that many beliefs held by well-intentioned people aren’t scientifically accurate. Let’s deconstruct that Climate Denialist’s Prayer piece by piece.
First, climate change IS real. Global temperature and carbon dioxide levels have risen dramatically since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. During the million years prior, CO2 was below 280 parts per million. In the roughly 150 years since then, CO2 levels are now around 420 parts per million, and global temperatures have increased by at least 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since then.
That leads us to the claim that climate change is a natural phenomenon that has occurred regularly throughout Earth’s history. The truth there is that yes, Earth’s climate has fluctuated over the last 4.5 billion years, but human drivers are the main cause of our current global warming. These days, the majority of Americans of Democratic, Republican, and Independent political affiliations all understand that climate change is real and largely human-caused. That’s all well and good, but it hasn’t made creating solid climate policies any easier.
That’s due to the next part of the Climate Denialist’s Prayer. So human-caused climate change is real, but it’s not really a problem, and if it is it’s some other country’s fault. That other country tends to be China, at least in the eyes of many Americans.
The increasingly visible extreme weather events headlining the news seem to have done a lot of work in convincing the public that climate change IS a problem we must reckon with, but the myth that China bears the most blame for anthropogenic climate change is a problem. While China has been the highest global emitter of carbon dioxide for more than a decade, since 1750 it has emitted just over half of the total CO2 emissions of the United States. Europe as a whole has emitted more than the US in that time period, and the global south has emitted significantly less than Europe, the United States, Asia without India and China, and China itself. Clearly, placing the blame on other countries doesn’t work if you’re from the United States (where we often hear politicians and fossil fuel corporations employing this tactic).
The Union of Concerned Scientists has some great resources that relate to the next part of the Climate Denialist’s Prayer. So maybe climate change IS our fault, but we can’t do anything about it…or can we? In a piece from 2015 called the Climate Deception Dossiers, UCS has compiled collections of fossil fuel company and trade association documents that detail how these organizations intentionally lied to the public and did their best to block actions to reduce carbon emissions.
In 2009, a PR firm for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity forged letters to the US Congress claiming to be from nonprofit groups - including the NAACP – that misrepresented their positions on climate legislation. Even when we can do something about climate change, companies and groups with vested interests in profiting from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels will try any means to prevent meaningful climate action.
The last part of the Climate Denialist’s Prayer is deeply concerning. Even back in the 1980s, there was bipartisan support for passing climate legislation, as seen in the introduction of the National Energy Policy Act of 1988, a bill that had both Democrats and Republicans as co-sponsors. This bill called explicitly for the reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 1988 levels by at least 20% by the year 2000 through a mix of Federal and State energy policies, among other actions.
Despite this history of bipartisan support for climate legislation, in today’s extremely polarized political landscape not a single Congressional Republican supported the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, a bill with massive health and climate implications. Some Congressional Republicans tried to spin the bill as a payout to “elites” and “liberal states,” when in reality their own constituencies stand to benefit from nationwide decarbonization. No state, regardless of its political leanings, is an island. Red states like Oklahoma, Indiana, Ohio, and Texas are benefiting from the clean energy economy via jobs and environmental protections. Congressmembers from those states are posturing for their bases to stay in office and placate the fossil fuel industry interests that help them with re-election campaigns. Simultaneously, they’re reaping the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act’s funds and calling for Federal disaster assistance when extreme weather events impact their states.
Essentially, the entire climate denialist playbook is written like a bad sci-fi dystopian world. Unfortunately for our planet and its inhabitants, scientific facts are unavoidable. It’s up to all of us to dismantle climate science fiction every time we encounter it.
Now I know hearing about harmful science fictions isn’t easy, but I need you to start naming them whenever you encounter them. Some have awful social consequences that reverberate for generations, like the science fiction that race has a genetic basis. Other science fictions like the numerous myths about anthropogenic climate change are having measurable daily impacts on people around the world. Unfortunately, we can’t look away or wait for someone else to challenge these fictions with facts. It’s up to us to combat lies and disinformation, and to elevate the voices of those working to bring facts to the forefront of our public discourse.
Thanks to Brian Middleton and Omari Spears for production help, and to Anthony Eyring for our multimedia magic. Today’s music was by Oingo Boingo and Podington Bear. Thanks as always to our supporters here at the Union of Concerned Scientists…our work wouldn’t be possible without you. Make sure to check out our new Spanish-language podcast si se habla Español. Hablamos pronto, science amigos!