by Becky De Oliveira—
As a child, I was routinely taught that scientists were most just “guessing” about their theories. “They have to have faith just as much as we do,” teachers and other adults said. These adults made scientific-sounding arguments for a young earth, evolution being the primary scientific theory they were eager to debunk. When my children were in elementary school, they came home telling me they’d been informed that dinosaur bones had been placed in the earth by Satan himself, to trick us and cause us to lose our faith.
“Interesting,” I said. “That certainly is a theory.”
My oldest son has gone on to study environmental earth science at university—basically, geology. This sits uncomfortably with certain Adventist church members, who raise their eyebrows and cluck about the “dangers” involved in studying earth science.
What are those dangers?
I suppose the primary danger is that increased knowledge would lead to a corresponding and highly correlated decrease in faith. That is possible. But as many a wise person before me has pointed out, faith that is untested is not faith at all. Faith based on ignorance is…what, exactly?
Skepticism toward the scientific community has led to some foolish and destructive behavior by individuals and leaders, in this country and many others. How many outbreaks of measles have resulted from an insistence—against overwhelming consensus to the contrary from the medical community—that the MMR vaccine is responsible for autism? It is interesting that so many people are convinced of the likelihood that doctors, medical researchers, and other experts are conspiring to cause harm to millions of people (for profit perhaps)—but that the sources they trust that call these experts’ claims into question are blameless and trustworthy with no ulterior agendas whatsoever. Why would that be the case?
Sometimes it is easy enough to see why people reject evidence they don’t like. Certain discoveries may “touch on people’s lifestyle or worldviews, or impinge on corporate interests” (Lewandowsky & Oberaur, 2016). Other times rejection of science appears to be an identity-based decision, a sort of tribal impulse. Perhaps alignment against a much-hated political party?
One interesting factor with climate change denial is its association with low tolerance for ambiguity (Jessani & Harris, 2018). The science surrounding climate change is complicated and messy and contains a high level of complexity. People with low tolerance for ambiguity like familiar explanations and black-and-white conclusions. I am reminded of a person who wrote to me about a year ago complaining that I raise unsettling questions in my writing and, at that time, on the podcast I co-hosted. She did not want to think about hard or uncomfortable things. And fair enough. It’s a free world. But it’s also a complicated world, which won’t get any easier from our collective refusal to see problems. If we truly have faith, perhaps it’s time to stop being so afraid of what we may see if we look. “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel” (Proverbs 20:15, NIV).
Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado. This blog will also appear in the spring issue of Mountain Views, the quarterly magazine of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Jessani, Z., & Harris, P. B. (2018). Personality, politics, and denial: Tolerance of ambiguity, political orientation and disbelief in climate change. Personality and Individual Differences, 131, 121-123.
Lewandowsky, S., & Oberauer, K. (2016). Motivated rejection of science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(4), 217–222.