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Festival of Books: Personal beliefs + science = what? Authors examine why we believe what we believe

April 30, 2011 |  1:48 pm


You have to appreciate irony at a book festival. The panel on "Inconvenient Truths" wound up short one panelist, author Erik  M. Conway, who encountered an inconvenient truth about Los Angeles: Traffic. Conway never made it in time from his Pasadena home for the 11 a.m. start for a panel that aired live on Book TV. But his writing partner, Naomi Oreskes, made it, joining fellow authors Timothy Ferris 
and Seth Mnookin to talk about the persistence of ignorance in national debates on issues of science.

With one hour, you can’t reach a consensus, but the  general idea they all agreed upon is that people look at science through their own prisms, weighted by religious faith, political views and personal experience, even when it is debunked by scientific inquiry.

Thus, explained Mnookin, author of "The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear," parents of autistic children cling to their perceptions that vaccinations caused the condition, even though independent scientific assessments find no weight to the argument. And occasionally, he said, pre-vaccine  videotapes and doctors’ notes surface that directly refute the parents’ observations. Yet, they still believe the vaccine caused the medical condition.

"The most fervent believers in this theory are almost entirely parents who genuinely believe their children were injured by vaccines," Mnookin said, adding that media coverage that gives equal weight to thin anecdotal stories as well as scientific studies exacerbate the wrong beliefs. The parents also feel as though "they have been let down by the medical establishment," which feeds their suspicions of the science.

Yet even the science gets skewed, said Oseskes, co-author of "The Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth in Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming," about scientists and pseudo-scientists whose tainted voices have steered cultural and political debates over life-and-death issues.

"We’re awash in a sea" of information, especially after the advent of the intent, she said. And it's a polluted sea. "A lot of that information is not just indigestible or incoherent but, in fact, is disinformation." Yet, much like the autism-vaccine debate, the unverified spin is given the same weight as the scientifically established.

It is as it ever was, said Timothy Ferris, author of "The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason and the Laws of Nature," who dove into the disconnect between religious or political faith, and scientific inquiry.

"It is flabbergasting to imagine that this world is being controlled by some sort of superior intelligence who cares about us, because the world looks exactly as it would if there was no such thing" as a superior being, Ferris said. "The only reason you can believe is that you believe." And American culture is filled with the concept: Believe. "It’s best if you know," Ferris said. "And the best tool for knowing is science."

Or, in the case of the missing Conway, checking Sigalert.com.

-- Scott Martelle

Photo: Authors Timothy Ferris, left, and Seth Mnookin at the Saturday panel "Inconvenient Truths."  Credit: Scott Martelle