Mario Livio Ph.D.


On Science Denial

Even 400 years after Galileo, science denial is still rampant.

Posted Aug 12, 2020

Four hundred years ago the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei had to fight against science denial, specifically against those who argued for literal interpretations of the Bible when it came to the architecture of the solar system. Even though he could not conclusively prove that the Earth was moving, Galileo thought that the observational evidence supporting the Copernican model, in which the Earth and all the other planets revolved around a stationary Sun, was more convincing than for any model which promoted the Earth and placed it at the center of the solar system. He paid a heavy price for his convictions and for disobeying an injunction by the Catholic Church, which had forbidden him from holding, defending, or teaching the Copernican heliocentric model.  He was subjected to a humiliating trial, declared “vehemently suspected of heresy,” was put under house arrest for the rest of his life, and his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was placed on the Index of prohibited books. Nevertheless, history proved him right.

You might have thought that four centuries later we would not have to repeat similar battles against science denial, but, alas, you would be mistaken. Take for example the theory of Darwinian evolution by means of natural selection. A 2017 Gallup survey in the United States found that about 38 percent of adults were still inclined to believe that “God created humans in their present form, at one time within the last ten thousand years.” Astonishingly, even though Pope John Paul II himself admitted that it had been wrong to transfer “to the field of religious doctrine an issue which actually belongs to scientific research,” and in spite of the fact that the National Academy of Sciences clearly pronounced, “The concept of biological evolution is one of the most important ideas ever generated by the application of scientific methods to the natural world,” many Americans still adhere to creationist ideas (sometimes thinly veiled under the guise of “intelligent design”).

Let’s be clear: Scientifically, the age of the universe is now known to be about 13.8 billion years, with an uncertainty of less than 10 percent. We also know that the universe started from an extremely hot and dense state which we call the “Big Bang.” From the perspective of two Popes, the statements are equally unambiguous. On October 27, 2014, Pope Francis issued a pronouncement at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: “The big bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.” He was following here in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, who in an address on October 22, 1996, concluded about Darwinian evolution: “It is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”

In spite of these judgments from the highest scientific and religious authorities, there are people who simply refuse to be convinced. Moreover, creationist politicians have even suggested that “intelligent design” should be taught side by side with evolution in science classes.

Even though the motivation driving the denial in the seventeenth century was different, the similarity between the arguments raised by creationists and those advanced against Galileo is striking. In particular, just as some cardinals in Galileo’s time believed that a proof for the Earth’s motion would never be found, creationists claim that evolution by means of natural selection is not a proven fact, and that it hinges on processes that have never been observed, nor can they ever be observed. They are thus totally ignoring the response from biologists: The fossil record does provide ample, compelling evidence, that organisms have evolved over the age of the Earth. In fact, the theory of evolution could have easily been falsified had it been wrong (which is one of the hallmarks of a genuine scientific theory). For instance, finding even one fossil of an advanced mammal, such as a rabbit, dating to 2 billion years ago, would have been sufficient to refute the entire theory. Needless to say, no such evidence has ever been found. On the contrary, the findings fully support evolution. For example, evolution predicts that from the period between a few million years ago and a few hundred thousand years ago, we should find fossils of hominins (ancestors of modern humans) with progressively less apelike features. Not only has this prediction been fully confirmed, but no fossils of anatomically modern humans dating to millions of years ago have ever been discovered.

The continuing science denial concerning climate change, vaccines, and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic are even worse, since the future of the Earth’s biosphere and human life and well-being are at stake. Yale researcher Dan Kahan has shown that climate change denial is fed primarily by political and ideological conservatism, with religious motivations playing only a minor (although not altogether negligible) role. It seems that some climate change deniers erroneously believe that activists simply use the topic of climate change to launch an attack on free-market economies. Social scientist Ana-Maria Bliuc and her collaborators at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, found that in general, social group identity is often a reliable predictor for this attitude toward climate change (e.g. people who have great confidence in industry leaders and who object to governmental regulations are more likely to be climate change deniers).

The relatively small religious component in climate change denial was captured, for example, by what Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma told the Voice of Christian Youth America’s radio program Crosstalk with Vic Eliason in 2012: “God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” Contrast this statement with the fact that there is now overwhelming expert scientific consensus (at a level of about 97 percent) that “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-twentieth century.” The fact that the United States started the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is in this context nothing short of shocking.

The denial of the frightening reality of the COVID-19 pandemic—as manifested, for instance, by the refusal to wear face masks—appears to be at least partially motivated by either a blind acceptance of the example coming from the top, or by a misguided notion of the concept of freedom. The requirement to wear a mask does not infringe on anybody’s freedom any more than the requirement to bring the car to a complete stop at a Stop sign. In both cases, the goal is simply to prevent you from harming others and yourself. Ignoring the coronavirus does not make it go away, and the inadequate response in the U.S. resulted in the sad fact that one-quarter of the COVID-19 cases in the world are now in the U.S., even though in terms of population the U.S. makes up only about 4% of the world’s population.

The bottom line should be obvious: It is never smart to bet against the judgment of science. To do so when human life or the future of the planet’s biosphere is at stake is unconscionable.