Science can be truly wondrous—as we’ve all come to appreciate now that scientists have developed a COVID-19 vaccine (several, in fact) less than a year into the pandemic. And even when it isn’t saving our lives, science moves our understanding of the world forward in a way that everyone can get behind. With rare exceptions, for instance, people of all political orientations, races, and nationalities can agree that water freezes at 0°C, gravity draws objects toward the ground, and the Earth rotates around the Sun and not vice versa.
The wonders of science are so great that many philosophers and religious leaders predicted—with a sense of either hope or fear—that science would replace religion as the central organizing principle of our intellectual lives. Yet that hasn’t happened, despite the saturation of daily life with the fruits of science, from our tiny smartphones to the massive machines that power our globalized mass-market economy. When it comes to some of the most important ideological, political, and moral questions we face, the principles of scientific inquiry—including even basic statistical analysis and empirical observation—don’t always help us achieve consensus.
About a year and a half ago, I sat with a friend at the Open Future conference in Chicago put on by the Economist. We were watching a panel debate on gun control (the video is available here, with the panel in question beginning shortly after the four-hour mark). Unsurprisingly, the conversation grew heated, and soon the participants stopped even pretending to give a fair hearing to views that conflicted with their own:
Person A (opposing gun restrictions): Seventy percent of the homicides in Illinois [are in] Chicago. [Yet] most of the gun restrictions are [applicable] in Chicago. It is a contradiction. [Gun control] does not solve [the problem] at all… We have the data to prove it. Over 90 percent of mass shootings… are in gun-free zones. [What we need instead is] more education, less legislation, [safer], and more responsible firearm ownership.
Person B (advocating gun restrictions): Forty-nine percent of Texans [now] support an [assault-rifle] ban and buyback… So I think that we’re really seeing a shift [in opinion].
Person A: That’s the silliest thing in the world… We’ve just proven that the data shows, for over 30 years, that more legislation and taking Americans’ private property [doesn’t work]. So what if I don’t want to sell [my gun] back [to the state]? You’re going to send somebody with a gun to come and take it from me?
Person C (advocating gun restrictions): I don’t want to hear NRA talking points recited back to me… And to be very clear about what the research does show… You are wrong on the facts… The research is very, very clear.
And so on, and so forth. Everyone was sure that the available “data” and “facts” showed that they were unambiguously right, full stop. Yet based on this summary from the RAND Corporation, both sides were partly right and partly wrong that day.
Fifteen months after sitting through the entire panel, I can’t remember a single point anyone on that stage made. What I remember instead is each panelist’s indignation that anyone would dispute the obvious truth of what they were arguing. I’m guessing that no one in the room—neither on stage nor in the audience—was convinced of anything new that day.
The kind of interaction I observed at the conference helps explain why I’m skeptical of those who say they’re “just following the science” when it comes to controversial topics. Everyone thinks they’re “just following the science.” And in some sense, they are. But, for several reasons, that’s very different from getting to the actual truth and solving problems.
First, statistics don’t interpret themselves. There are often multiple, competing explanations for the same result, and we are left to choose among them. Sometimes, in fact, the same data can even be used to support opposing positions—especially when there is a dispute about cause and effect (or about whether there is no cause or effect at all, but rather just correlation). A 2019 study showed that about 38 million Americans were living below the poverty line, an alarmingly high number. But a different study, produced at around the same time, indicated that if the poorest fifth of America’s population made up their own nation, it would be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Is America an unconscionably cruel bastion of feudal inequality—or a beacon of prosperity where even the least fortunate live relatively comfortable lives? Both claims are supported by data.
Second, motivated reasoning and confirmation bias are powerful psychological forces, and they are difficult to overcome. To consider one especially controversial question by way of example: Is gender entirely a social construct? Both sides of this heated debate have assembled what amount to entire libraries of peer-reviewed sources and footnotes to support their position, and regard the other side as cultish peddlers of ideologically-driven pseudo-science. We may eventually come to a consensus on the gender question—as we did on how water becomes ice and how the Earth moves through space—but we’re not there now.
Third, efforts to address complex social problems will always come with tradeoffs. And people will disagree on how certain factors should be weighted, and on the moral basis for their consideration. A prime example here is the debate about whether anti-racism protests should have been permitted (let alone encouraged) during the summer or 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On one side were those who emphasized the plain fact that any large gathering of people offered an opportunity for the virus to spread. Others, including some public-health specialists, insisted that one must impute the (unmeasurable) benefit that a protest could achieve in regard to racial equality. The two sides may have agreed about the science, but they saw the tradeoffs very differently.
In the gun-debate example, likewise, there are tradeoffs to be had between freedom and safety—and how much a person values one versus the other often comes down to fundamental philosophical questions, including what does it mean to lead a life well-lived? That question is important to many of us, and how we answer it both shapes and reflects a wide range of our intuitions about the world.
The upshot is this: When a topic has moral or ideological implications, people typically have an a priori point of view that they then use as an end point, at least on a subconscious level. They then go about gathering scientific evidence—eagerly including that which supports their view, while ignoring the rest. The aversion to hearing opposing viewpoints is strong. In fact, one recent study found that people will actually give up money to avoid exposing themselves to the other side of a debate—a response we might expect to see among strict religious followers seeking to avoid being required to attend another sect’s services. Perhaps, in certain ostensibly secular debates, science and faith aren’t nearly so distinct as we often like to think.
I’m not arguing that there’s no truth out there. For many issues, there is—although we could certainly do a better job of recognizing when we simply don’t know what that truth is yet. And for issues that touch on morality and ideology, in particular—often topics on which opposing sides all claim the mantle of science—we might do well to pause before digging in our heels. Sometimes, what we have isn’t “science” per se, but rather a strong conviction tethered to a set of scientific data and propositions. True dialogue requires a willingness to recognize that occasionally our opponents do, too.
In the end, the way forward on such controversial topics probably doesn’t involve throwing more statistics and citations at our opponents. It’s with a focus on conversation and a search for common ground—two things we could use a lot more of.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.