How non-scientists think about science and science-denial

“The Challenge of Fighting Mistrust in Science” was right at the top of the Atlantic web site for a while.

This is interesting partly because searching online biographies reveals that a journalist with no experience as a scientist interviewed a foundation manager with no experience as a scientist (well, he did major in political science for a bachelor’s and master’s).

Mostly it is interesting because the article shows how some of America’s non-scientists think about science: as a body of correct knowledge that is being gradually refined. Why is that remarkable? Michael Myers, the foundation manager interviewed, appears to be at least 60. Thus he was born into a more-or-less static Earth, contracting from its birth heat and thus sometimes wrinkling up into mountains. Around 1968, however, at least the younger geologists began to accept the continental drift hypothesis (some history from New York Times). So he should know as well as anyone that to talk about someone rejecting “science” is a rather vague accusation. Does the denier deny today’s theories or yesterday’s?

Can it be that for these non-scientists science is actually a religion? That would explain why they get so upset that someone would dare to “deny science”. And that would explain why they can’t remember that the best minds of science used to believe completely different stuff than what they currently believe. Religious dogma tends to be mostly static, with gradual refinement.

[Separately, the journalist and the foundation manager show confidence regarding aviation and aerodynamics with “Like the extreme heat that was grounding planes in Phoenix this week” (with a link to a misleading article in WIRED). These folks believe that a regional jet with two engines spinning isn’t going to lift off the runway because it is 2 degrees hotter than yesterday? What else can we sell them? From WIRED: “According to news reports, the heat poses a particular problem for the Bombardier CRJ airliners, which have a maximum operating temperature of 118 degrees. Bigger planes from Airbus and Boeing can handle 126 degrees or so.”

In fact, the limits are related to regulation and paperwork. If the manufacturer doesn’t supply the airline with FAA-approved data for takeoff performance (really “fly down the runway, lose one engine, and continue the takeoff on one engine” performance) then it is a regulatory violation to fly, even though there is no reason that the plane can’t fly with the same safety margins at a reduced weight (unload some fuel or throw 5 fat passengers off for every degree above 118!).

What may be funniest of all is that the article promotes using this false statement about airplanes and jet engines (“they are grounded due to heat”) to “rebuild people’s trust in science.”]

Readers: What do you think of this? Obviously the journalist and the interview subject are just 2 people out of 325+ million in the U.S. So maybe it isn’t even worth looking at. But on the other hand, the Atlantic featured it and there are hundreds of comments.


  1. gyas

    June 28, 2017 @ 2:58 pm


    My peers treat their 1990s engineering education as dogma. Eg: with their science backgrounds they know that the universe is constantly expanding since the “Big Bang”, and that our DNA evolved through random mutations. Yet while both of those “facts” have recently been overturned, mentioning it is met mostly with hostility and skepticism (the universe is actually accelerating as it expands, and epigenetics discovered DNA can evolve deterministically in response to environmental stimuli).

  2. billg

    June 28, 2017 @ 3:23 pm


    There was great interview of Dr. Carver Mead (google him, he contributed a lot to microelectronics) where he argues that what becomes science orthodoxy is actually very political. He goes on to say the last 80 year of physics has gone in the wrong direction due to “political census”. Then he talks about his view of physics where sub-atomic particles aren’t tiny orbiting points nor fuzzy probability clouds, but rather looping shell-shaped waves of energy that can be pumped to a mile-wide!

  3. dean

    June 28, 2017 @ 3:30 pm


    gyas #1:
    Your peers do not like new articles in Scientific American? Old ones were garbage too.
    You mean that timespace expands not uniformly? Matter itself can not accelerate infinitely per special relativity, which is not yet overturned but further confirmed. So yes, in 90th it was just a hypothesis that now has new empirical supportive evidence. By Bing Bang itself was and still is a scientific hypothesis, not settled science.
    Can you elaborate more on ‘deterministically evolving DNA’?

  4. gyas

    June 28, 2017 @ 3:51 pm


    @dean: in the 1930s Hubble discovered the expansion of space, but in the 1990s we discovered that the rate at which space (all space, near and far, everywhere) is expanding is not constant, it is accelerating. But you protest, “I was taught that acceleration needs power and can’t go on forever so how can this be?” The current explanation is “dark energy” (layman translation: “we don’t know”).

    In the 80s-90s epigeneticists found DNA can evolve due to environmental stimuli, and that it is predictable and repeatable (ie: evolution is not totally random).

  5. Russil Wvong

    June 28, 2017 @ 4:09 pm


    “Can it be that for these non-scientists science is actually a religion? That would explain why they get so upset that someone would dare to ‘deny science’.”

    I’d respectfully suggest that it’s pretty obvious why the anti-vax movement is a problem. See, for example, the 2015 measles outbreak at Disneyland.

  6. dean

    June 28, 2017 @ 4:27 pm


    gyas 5, your link says that expansion is not certain! I.e it is a hypothesis.
    Expansion of matter is limited by speed of light! According to our latest knowledge! Spacetime another thing, it was found that most likely it expands on itself.
    DNA is just a molecule and not alive by itself, non-life origin RNA molecules were found in meteorites. So I am wondering how it ‘deterministically evolves’ by itself.
    bilg 3: Very interesting theory on Dr. Carver Mead, hopefully it will be tested soon.

  7. Federico

    June 28, 2017 @ 5:45 pm


    @gyas, you need more expanding on the epigenetics. We want full paper citations.

  8. M

    June 28, 2017 @ 6:36 pm


    @gyas, #4

    P-uh-lease… stop this nonsense: if you are looking for an informed opinion, here is one.
    Although a possible origin of dark energy is speculative, exactly as you said:
    >> layman translation: “we don’t know”
    it is still subject to Einstein’s equations. Which means, no information can travel faster than light, whether it is spreads directionally or not.

    Have a proof to the contrary? please publish it ASAP and enjoy both the money and the publicity that comes with it.
    Cannot comment on the DNA stuff: I am just a physicist.

  9. Vince

    June 28, 2017 @ 8:08 pm


    I’m sure that these two people are familiar with Galileo and the many other scientists who made their contributions to science by challenging the current consensus. The issue is the reason that people are challenging the current consensus. When it comes to climate change, it has become part of pro-business/Fox News religion to deny it. First they decide that they want to deny it and then they go and look for evidence. It’s contrary to the scientific method. What goes along with this is a whole attitude that science is not a serious endeavor.

    Regarding the grounded aircraft, it’s not false to say that the planes were grounded due to heat. It got hot and the planes were not permitted to fly, so they were grounded due to heat.

    Given the recent problem of obesity among children the rule “throw 5 fat passengers off for every degree above 118” is not very reliable. It should passengers whose weight adds up to a certain amount. I hope that you never have the responsibility of writing safety recommendations!

  10. the other Donald

    June 28, 2017 @ 9:25 pm


    Tires are another heat constraint for some airplanes. The runway length required is so long the tires overheat before reaching rotation (takeoff) speed. Some 737’s have/had this limitation, although they may have been retired by now.

  11. philg

    June 28, 2017 @ 9:36 pm


    Donald: CRJ-200 tire limit is 182 knots of ground speed. Typical rotation speeds are 130-140 knots of airspeed (depending on weight).

    KPHX is 1134′ above sea level. Assume 131 degrees F (record high temp is 122), which is approximately 55 degrees C. Let’s assume most adverse possible conditions of heavy weight and therefore we need 140 knots true airspeed to take off. The density altitude under these conditions is approximately 5700′ and the true airspeed (which would be ground-speed in the maximum adverse zero-wind situation) would be 153 knots. So that leaves a 29-knot margin between rotation speed and the tire limit. Any headwind would increase that margin.

  12. Neal

    June 28, 2017 @ 11:30 pm


    It was mainly North American geologists who had held out until the 1960’s; plate tectonics had already been widely accepted elsewhere decades earlier.

    I agree that many people treat science as a collection of facts to be consumed as dogma. The commonly heard “Do you believe in evolution?” is one of those questions that doesn’t even make sense to ask. Perhaps in some people this amounts to the equivalent of religious belief, but there is also a similar but distinct explanation. In today’s world, no one can trace every scientific or technical idea they encounter back to first principles and personally validated primary data. We must all accept many facts and ideas developed by others without really vetting them ourselves if we are to get anywhere. This kind of acceptance looks somewhat like religious belief but is something different. Non-scientists have less sophisticated heuristics to apply in this process so their acceptance looks more like religion than a scientist’s, but that doesn’t mean it is akin to religious belief.

    >That would explain why they get so
    >upset that someone would
    >dare to “deny science”

    This could be tested (somewhat) by determining if people get so upset when denying any science or only that science associated with a hot button political issue.

    >These folks believe that a regional
    >jet with two engines spinning isn’t
    >going to lift off the runway because
    >it is 2 degrees hotter than yesterday?

    I’ve seen people flip out when non technical individuals refer to “smelling gas fumes”. While perhaps not unreasonable, it is probably unrealistic to expect most journalists to catch the difference between “it was too hot for the planes to fly” and “flights were cancelled because the planes were not certified to fly at that temperature” (especially when one is so much more dramatic than the other).

  13. philg

    June 29, 2017 @ 12:56 am


    Vince: “When it comes to climate change, it has become part of pro-business/Fox News religion to deny it. First they decide that they want to deny it and then they go and look for evidence.”

    If you aren’t yourself one of these deniers, how can you get inside their heads (hearts?) and know what they decided and how?

    Here’s one of our local scientific consensus deniers:

    How do you know his decision-making process?

    After you tell us what time it is in this guy’s head, you can go through this list:

  14. spl

    June 29, 2017 @ 10:12 am


    Another example of a very famous science denier from a century ago:
    Newtonian mechanics had been developed couple of centuries ago and was accepted by all scientists (over 99% consensus); in fact it still serves as the basic foundation for mechanical and civil engineering used to design cars, planes, bridges, etc.
    But one guy called Albert Einstein kept on claiming that it was wrong, and kept advocating his own alternative explaination.

  15. Neal

    June 29, 2017 @ 10:59 am


    >how can you get inside their heads
    >(hearts?) and know what
    >they decided and how?

    There is some evidence that Exxon/Mobil did exactly what Vince alleges: Engage in a public campaign to discredit climate change science even though its own scientists accepted it. Because much of a corporation’s “thinking” goes on in writing it may be possible to get inside its “head” and figure how what they decided and how. I’m not certain of the status of this but I think it is still under investigation.

    I must concede that many of the climate change “proponents” I meet have very limited and often somewhat faulty conceptions of the science they are advocating. I agree that the “science as dogma” problem identified in this posting is a contributing factor to this problem, and I also think it is a more general problem limiting many people’s ability to correctly apply scientific ideas. However, the climate change “deniers” I meet are even worse. They often make statements like “I don’t believe in climate change” as a matter of dogma full stop. To the extent they discuss the science, I often encounter flat out wrong (as opposed to somewhat faulty) assertions. To be clear, this particular criticism (of climate change “deniers”) does not apply to philg!

  16. Vince

    June 29, 2017 @ 12:00 pm


    If you aren’t yourself one of these deniers, how can you get inside their heads (hearts?) and know what they decided and how?

    You watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. Then you read comments on blogs and right wing web sites. In my case, I’ve got a bunch of deplorable rednecks in my own neighborhood, so I can drink Budweiser with them and hear how they think. These people fall into line and say and think what big business tells them to think. Besides that, they don’t want to pay higher utility bills or pay more for gasoline. Many of these people also harbor feelings of resentment and animosity towards people with more education than they have. Scientists working at universities (which are left wing institutions, according to them) certainly fit into that category. So it all fits together for them.

    A quick scan of Richard Lindzen’s Wikipedia indicates that his motivation is almost certainly different from the people that I described. It’s worth stating again at this point that we all know a great deal of progress in science originates in challenges to the consensus.

    There is some evidence that Exxon/Mobil did exactly what Vince alleges: Engage in a public campaign to discredit climate change science even though its own scientists accepted it.

    Of source, this is not surprising. No matter how profitable a corporation is, Wall Street would like to see higher profits. It makes sense for a behemoth like Exxon/Mobil to spend a tiny fraction of a percent of its annual budget to try to muddy the waters and weaken a threat to its bottom line.

  17. philg

    June 29, 2017 @ 12:06 pm


    Vince: I am exposed occasionally to Fox News (pilots love it so it is going 24/7 at FBOs!). I don’t remember seeing anything about climate change so I did a Google search. First result suggesting the official Fox News line:

    Excerpt: “Climate change is happening; the question is what to do about it. President Obama had one answer: reduce greenhouse-gas emissions aggressively.

    Unfortunately, his approach was heavy on cost and light on benefit, and with yesterday’s executive order rolling back those efforts, President Trump has rightly begun the process of reversing it.

    But President Trump’s own response to climate change appears to be: nothing. That’s not the right answer either.”

    It sounds as though Fox News doesn’t disagree about atmospheric physics (“science”) but rather about how humans should adapt to having trashed their planet (“politics” or “policy”). Is opposing President Obama’s policy idea “denying science”?

  18. philg

    June 29, 2017 @ 12:11 pm


    (As it happens, I disagree with the Fox News editorial, which expresses skepticism regarding “new technologies”. I think that humans will start saving the planet when it becomes economically rational for them to do so, which means we need planet-saving technologies that are cheaper than planet-trashing technologies. But of course I have an engineering background so I am biased in favor of engineering solutions! Should I say that Fox News is full of engineering deniers? They ignore all of the progress that engineers make, like brand new minivans that offer almost exactly the same performance as 30-year-old minivans?)

  19. Neal

    June 29, 2017 @ 12:21 pm


    >becomes economically rational for
    >them to do so, which means we
    >need planet-saving technologies
    >that are cheaper than planet-trashing

    Of course, but today’s planet-trashing technologies benefit from the fact that the cost of planet-trashing is external to their cost of production. To get economically rational behavior some mechanism is needed to incorporate the costs associated with planet-trashing into the production costs of planet-trashing technologies. A carbon tax is the most obvious solution. Addressing the regressive nature of a carbon tax does add some complexity but does not make the policy infeasible.

  20. SuperMike

    June 29, 2017 @ 12:35 pm


    Science is definitely a religion for some people. The Environment is the holy spirit of it, and there are dogmas, rituals, and inquisitions. You can even buy indulgences.

  21. Einstein's Student

    June 29, 2017 @ 1:27 pm


    Einstein did not have to go around shouting he is right. When he published his theory of Relativity in 1905, everyone read it, and it set off a revolution. He did not have to do a single thing. Some people wrote a piece called “100 scientists against Einstein”, which was full of anti-semitism and wrong arguments. Einstein just said “If I am wrong, one is enough.”

  22. philg

    June 29, 2017 @ 1:43 pm


    Neal: Of course as an Econ 101 graduate I agree with you regarding the need to tax externalities if you want an efficient market. However, I don’t see how it can work without a world government (cue Thomas Piketty!). A city can tax drivers for using roads during peak hours and causing local congestion (of course this doesn’t work in the U.S. because we aren’t organized with the transponder and readout infrastructure AND we apparently don’t have the political will to create a functional road transportation system). But how can the government of Botswana tax the Canadian tar sands project for pushing CO2 into the shared atmosphere?

  23. Neal

    June 29, 2017 @ 2:27 pm


    @philg: A carbon tax would indeed need to be globally coordinated. However, diplomacy and international agreements can effect the necessary coordination without “world government”. I don’t think the big problem is that Botswana will be unable to tax Canadian tar sands projects. According to Russil at least some Canadian provinces are already taxing their carbon production. I think the problem is that the regressive nature of the carbon tax applies internationally and is harder to resolve at that level. How can Botswana justify any carbon tax at all on its citizens when the relative burden of such a tax is so severe in comparison to the relative burden of a Canadian carbon tax on Canadians?

  24. Vince

    June 29, 2017 @ 3:52 pm


    Fox News doesn’t enforce a party line on all of its hosts and programs. If you spend an hour a day in the minivan, an easy way to keep up with the right wing media complex is to listen to the local right wing AM talk station while you’re driving around. I see in the Boston area there’s one that includes Limbaugh, Hannity, Glenn Beck and Mark Levin. You can hear a whole range of arguments. Sometimes they say that the climate is not in fact warming. Other times, it is warming, but it’s not caused by carbon dioxide. Sometimes they claim that the energy required to manufacture solar panels or Prius batteries actually makes such technologies counter-productive. You can also learn that Al Gore lives in a very big house which must require vast amounts of energy to heat and cool and that Hollywood celebrities who talk about the issue spend much of their lives flying around the world, burning up jet fuel. That proves that they don’t believe in the consensus and that it’s a plan to direct money to third world countries. If you also add Brietbart and the DailyCaller to your daily web surfing, you can learn that Time Magazine had a cover story back in the 70s warning about global cooling.

  25. Russil Wvong

    June 29, 2017 @ 6:48 pm


    Philip: Glad you’re talking to Richard Lindzen. He acknowledges the basic physics (doubling CO2 results in an energy imbalance of 3.7 watts per square metre); he just thinks there’s an “iris effect” (higher sea-surface temperatures will reduce tropical cloudiness, allowing more heat to escape) which will reduce the rate of warming to a level which isn’t too dangerous. Unfortunately the iris-effect hypothesis hasn’t really panned out.

    Reducing CO2 emissions without a world government is a collective action problem: the costs of reducing emissions by switching away from fossil fuels are borne by the individual countries, while the benefits are spread out over the entire globe. So free-riding is a big problem. William Nordhaus suggests using tariffs. A New Solution: The Climate Club (2015).

    The major challenge for climate policy is to overcome free-riding. The answer, I would suggest, is to rethink the design of climate treaties. We can look at successful treaties such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, or military alliances as models for a more promising climate treaty.The essence of these successful treaties is the “club model.” A club is a voluntary group deriving mutual benefits from sharing the costs of producing an activity. Members get the benefits but also pay the dues. The benefits of a successful club are sufficiently large that members will pay dues and adhere to club rules in order to gain them. If we look at successful international clubs, we might see the seeds of an effective international system to deal with climate change.

    I recently described a possible Climate Club in the American Economic Review. Under the club rules, participating countries would undertake harmonized but costly emissions reductions. For example, they might agree that each country would implement policies that produce a minimum domestic carbon price of $40 per ton of CO2. The easiest way to raise the price is through a carbon tax, but countries might prefer other approaches such as setting quantitative limits on emissions, or hybrid approaches.

    A crucial aspect of the club is that countries who are outside the club—and do not share in the burden of emissions reductions—are penalized. Penalties for those outside the club are central to the club mechanism, and penalties are the major difference from all other proposals from Kyoto to the upcoming meeting in Paris. Economic modeling indicates that the most promising penalty is uniform percentage tariffs on the imports of nonparticipants into the club region. A country considering whether to undertake costly abatement would have to weigh those costs against the potentially larger costs of reduced trade with countries in the club.

    A central feature of the club is that it creates a strategic situation that is the opposite of today’s free-riding incentives. With a Climate Club, countries acting in their self-interest will choose to enter the club and undertake high levels of emissions reductions because of the penalties for nonparticipation.

    Neal: for poorer countries (like Botswana or India), Nordhaus suggests (in his 2006 “After Kyoto” paper) that it’d be reasonable for them to have a lower carbon price until they reach a certain level of economic development, say full participation at $10,000 GDP per capita. The IEA takes this into account when projecting the price path necessary to stabilize CO2 at a level consistent with no more than 2 degrees C of warming.

    Also, when a country like India imposes a carbon tax, they can simultaneously lighten the burden on their population by reducing other taxes by the same amount. This is exactly what British Columbia did in 2008. Paul Krugman.

  26. Russil Wvong

    June 29, 2017 @ 6:49 pm


    Oops, forgot to add the link. A New Solution: The Climate Club.

  27. rjh

    June 30, 2017 @ 2:12 pm


    For a considerably more in depth discussion, see from Yale Law School.

  28. dean

    June 30, 2017 @ 2:53 pm


    spl #14: “But one guy called Albert Einstein kept on claiming that it (Newtonian mechanics) was wrong, and kept advocating his own alternative explaination.”
    Einstein did not claim that Newton was wrong per se, he investigated known problems on intersection of Maxwell and Newton theories and came up with special relativity that extended our conceptual understanding and ability to describe very fast things mathematically, using his knowledge of classical theories, contemporary scientific works and his famous elevator though experiments. It enables our ability to create new technologies such as GPS that using geo-stationary satellites, as well as gave ideas for atomic nuclear split and fission reactions (e=mc2 and that combining faster particles into slower nucleus releases energy respectively). And of course for anything precise in long range optics and space travel. But Newtonian mechanics is still a very good model for everyday things on earth.

  29. philg

    June 30, 2017 @ 5:13 pm


    Russil: If countries were going to be able to agree on CO2 taxes and tariffs, wouldn’t they already have agreed? We can’t blame the Trumpenfuhrer for this, right, can we? Countries could have agreed either during the glorious years of Obama or could agree without the U.S. and then use tariffs to bring the U.S. functionally into the fold.

    Are you saying that there will be an agreement at some future date because people will panic in response to a big sea level rise or monster heat wave? Sort of the way that countries came together around the ozone hole issue (see )? If it is obvious that Earth is trending towards Venus then why no action so far? If the answer is “there were better substitutes for CFCs than there are for oil/gas,” doesn’t that get us back to working on technology rather than politics?

  30. Russil Wvong

    June 30, 2017 @ 7:00 pm


    “If countries were going to be able to agree on CO2 taxes and tariffs, wouldn’t they already have agreed? … If it is obvious that Earth is trending towards Venus then why no action so far?”

    Collective action problems are always like this. Cooperation is surprisingly difficult. If any one country takes action, it bears the costs, but it doesn’t get the benefits – they’re spread out over the entire world. So everyone hangs back, and nothing happens.

    Another example that comes to mind is the interwar belief that “collective security” would suffice to keep the peace, discussed at length by E. H. Carr in The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939. All nations have an interest in peace; therefore, if an aggressor tries to break the peace, other nations will join their efforts to stop the aggressor. Unfortunately they failed to realize that this was a collective action problem. So when it came down to it, nobody was willing to stop Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, or Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and China, or the rearming of Nazi Germany.

    “Are you saying that there will be an agreement at some future date because people will panic in response to a big sea level rise or monster heat wave?”

    There’s already the Paris agreement. Trump’s not helping, obviously, but I doubt his pulling the US out of the agreement will kill it.

    I think what’s likely to happen is that as global warming continues, and monster heat waves continue to happen, governments will face increasing domestic to do something, and they’ll agree to take more aggressive actions to cut emissions faster. My favorite example of a weather anomaly is the Pacific Blob.

    “… doesn’t that get us back to working on technology rather than politics?”

    Obviously we should keep working on technology, but as economists like to say, incentives matter. With a carbon price of zero, it’s pretty hard to compete with just dumping CO2 into the atmosphere for free. An example.

  31. Neal

    June 30, 2017 @ 8:29 pm


    >We can’t blame the Trumpenfuhrer for this,
    right, can we? Countries could have agreed
    >either during the glorious years of Obama
    >or could agree without the U.S. and then
    >use tariffs to bring the U.S. functionally
    >into the fold.

    We can place blame on the Republicans who controlled the congress for most of Obama’s Presidency and the Presidency before that. That has positioned them to block the best US policy response (a carbon tax) for almost two decades. That in turn severely limited President Obama’s ability to provide international leadership. The U.S. remains world’s largest economy and the dominant military power making it unlikely the rest of the world could pull off what you propose. Blaming the rest of the world for not forcing the US to the climate change table rather than accepting responsibility for our own intransigence (mostly caused by President Trump’s party) is a clever but ultimately incorrect and outrageous argument.

  32. MVI5

    July 1, 2017 @ 1:11 am


    >Scientists working at universities (which are left wing institutions, according >to them) certainly fit into that category.
    As far as I know university professors are at least 90% liberal (but maybe you were making a comment that science is removed from political ideology).

    >You can also learn that Al Gore lives in a very big house which must require >vast amounts of energy to heat and cool and that Hollywood celebrities who >talk about the issue spend much of their lives flying around the world, >burning up jet fuel.
    This probably just annoys them as a liberal in town might berate them for not paying money to make new soda can collection boxes while also supporting Al Gore despite his large amounts of fossil fuel use.

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