In his speech to the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the US Oval Office’s annual function honoring its press corps, Seth Meyers essentially remarked how skepticism has gotten so out of hand that when it came to President Barack Obama’s birthplace, some may have to have been there to witness him being born before believing that it took place in America. When it comes to public interest issues, fact-based scrutiny is always needed, but focusing dialogue based on unwarranted skepticism hinders progress in a way that can have real consequences as has been seen in the recent outbreak of measles connected to the anti-vaccination movement.
As far as skepticism in science is concerned that sustains such movements, there was an excellent article recently written by Tom Spears, the Ottawa Citizen’s science reporter, that broadly discusses the lack of trust in that discipline by some in society. He accompanied the article with a brief outline of six wild and enduring anti-science theories, including the one against vaccines.
As for the upcoming Metro Vancouver public transportation plebiscite, the skepticism over Translink, the regional public transit authority, has dominated the debate even though the long term transportation plan, not the organization, is what is being voted upon. Bloggers like Daryl Dela Cruz have done an excellent job of debunking the claims of the No side about Translink Inefficiency and Executive Pay, but voters appear to be unmoved by these revelations.
The challenge in dealing with skepticism is overcoming the comfort, confidence and dependence skeptics have in their own views and opinions, even in the face of contrary evidence. To me, the main problem remains in the natural advantage in terms of certainty one has in your self perspective and experience versus that of anyone else, no matter how much more educated or qualified that external opinion may be. What the No side is succeeding in doing is reinforcing that self perspective in its audience which may have been formed through past history with the public transit system.
What’s worse is that it doesn’t matter how often public transit did its job well, and Translink has done so much more than people are giving it credit for. It’s the times it didn’t work that’s sticking in people’s minds, making them even more receptive to the claims of system’s critics.
As I’ve discussed before in the Moving beyond certainty post, the natural greater certainty that comes with self-perspective does not necessarily give it greater standing in debates over public interest. To contribute an answer to Tom Spear’s question, skeptics and critics who don’t trust science are taking advantage of science’s inherent acceptance that the search for knowledge is imperfect and ongoing. This tactic serves the needs of anti-science followers, but fails to support the greater good.
The same applies to those leading the opposition to the long term public transportation plan. By using loose-with-the-facts skepticism to motivate its followers, the No side continues to demonstrate whose interests they are truly serving.
Forgot to give a quick update to the 125 Dollar Challenge post several days ago. Had some good initial response, but little feedback, including none from any leaders. Unfortunately things came up over the past two weeks that kept me from following up on this idea, but will press on. The Yes side certainly needs support. Announcing an accountability committee headed by billionaire businessman Jim Pattison was helpful, but won’t likely sway that many voters sitting on the fence right now.