Science in a Postmodern Age

by Matt McKinnon


I am not a scientist.

Just like many prominent, mostly Republican, politicians responding to the issue of climate change—trying their best to refrain from losing votes from their conservative constituencies while not coming across as being completely out of touch with the modern world—I am not a scientist.

Of course, if you ask most people who are in fact scientists, then somewhere around 87% of them agree that climate change is real and that it is mostly due to human activity (or at least if you ask those scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as reported by the Pew Research Center).


Then again, if you ask average Americans (the ones who are not scientists), then only about 50% think that human activity is the largest cause of climate change.

That’s quite a disparity (37 points), especially since getting 87% of scientists to agree on anything is not all that easy and arguably represents what we could call a scientific consensus.

This, of course, provides much fodder for comedians like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart as well as many liberals and progressives, who have come to see the problem of science and a skeptical public as a characteristic of contemporary American conservatism.


And this characterization is buttressed by the even more overwhelming discrepancy between the public and scientists on the question of evolution. A 2009 study by Pew found that only 54% of the public believe in evolution (22% of whom believe that it was guided by a supreme being) versus 95% of scientists (where only 8% believe it to be guided by a supernatural power). And that more recent 2014 Pew study bumped the public percentage up to 65% and the scientific consensus up to 98%.

That’s a gap of 33 points, a bit less than the 37 points on the issue of climate change. Sure there’s something to be said for the idea that contemporary conservatism is at odds with science on some fundamental issues.

But not so fast.

For while there is a large discrepancy between scientists and the American public on these core conservative questions, there is also a large and seemingly growing discrepancy between the public and science on issues that cross political lines, or that could even be considered liberal issues.


Take the recent controversy about immunizations.

Just as with climate change and evolution, a large majority of scientists not only think that they are safe and effective, but also think that certain immunizations should be mandatory for participation in the wider society. That same 2014 Pew study found that 86% of scientists think immunizations should be mandatory, compared to 68% of the public.

And the very liberal left is often just as vocal as the conservative right on this issue, with folks like Jenny McCarthy who has claimed that her son’s autism was the result of immunizations despite clear scientific evidence that has debunked any link. At least one study by Yale law professor Dan Kahan shows that those who fear childhood immunizations are pretty much split between liberals and conservatives.


Still, with an 18-point gap between scientists and the public on this issue, that leaves a lot of progressives seemingly in the same position as those conservatives denying the role of human activity in climate change.

Just as interesting, however, is the discrepancy between scientists and the public on building more nuclear power plants—a gap that is greater (20 points) though scientific opinion is less certain. Pew found that 45% of the public favors more nuclear power compared to 65% of scientists.

But what is even more intriguing is that all of these gaps between scientific consensus and public opinion are far less than the discrepancy that exists on the issue of biomedical science, from the use of pesticides to animal testing and the most controversial: genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


That same Pew study found that a whopping 88% of scientists believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, a larger consensus than agree on human activity and climate change, compared to public opinion, which languishes very far back at 37% (a disparity of 51%!).

And 68% of those scientists agree that it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared to 28% of the public (a gap of 40 points).

But you won’t find many liberal politicians wading publicly into this issue, championing the views of science over a skeptical public. Nor will you find much sympathy from those comedians either.


It seems that when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot, then it is either not problematic that so many plain old folks diverge from scientific opinion, or there is in fact good reason for their skepticism.

Which brings me to my point about science in a postmodern age. For while it is true that there are good reasons to be skeptical of the science on the use of pesticides and GMOs, as well as some of these other issues, the problem is: who decides when to be skeptical and how skeptical we should be?


That is the problem of postmodernism, which strives for a leveling of discourse and has more than a bit of anti-clerical skepticism about it. For if postmodernism teaches us anything it’s that the certitude of reason in the modern age is anything but certain. And while this makes for fun philosophical frolicking by folks like Heidegger, Foucoult, and Habbermas, it is problematic for science, which relies completely on the intuition that reason and observation are the only certain means of discovery we have.

But in a postmodern age, nothing is certain, and nothing is beyond reproach—not the government, or business, or think tanks, or even institutions of higher learning. Not scientific studies or scientists or even science itself. Indeed, not even reason for that matter.


The moorings of the modern era in reason have become unmoored to some extent in our postmodern culture. And this, more than anything else, explains the large gaps on many issues between scientific opinion and that of the public.

And in the interest of full disclosure: I believe human activity is causing climate change and that immunizations are safe and should be required but I am very skeptical of the use of pesticides and eating GMOs.

But what do I know? I’m not a scientist.


One response to “Science in a Postmodern Age

  1. And the cover story on the March 2015 National Geographic that just arrived in my mailbox? “The War On Science.” Subheadline: “Climate Change / does not exist. Evolution / never happened. The Moon Landing / was fake. Vaccinations / can lead to autism. Genetically Modified Food / is evil.” I haven’t read it yet, but it looks like Matt’s in good company here.