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Crippled By Cynicism

Our culture’s current, growing cynical attitude toward science, politics, art, and religion threatens to undermine our very civilization.

Atul Gawande recently wrote at the New Yorker about a growing mistrust of science.

He, and other science writers, have become alarmed at a growing number of people in our culture who flat-out don’t trust authoritative scientific research.

Quoting from Gawande’s article (emphasis mine):

People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs. They don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. They do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.”

Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. But once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains—especially when they do not trust scientific authorities. And we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities.

Why is the public’s trust of science decreasing? I’ve seen accusations leveled at religion, politics, and other things. However, despite the increase in the political coverage in the news, and regardless of the political noise on the various social media platforms, political engagement has also decreased.

Religious engagement is also declining, with church attendance in America down to all-time lows.

Taken together, the problem is way bigger than attitudes toward science. What we have is an apathetic attitude, and growing cynicism, toward anything that seeks to engage and preserve truth and beauty.

While I won’t pretend to know what the answer is, I would like to suggest that a terrible strategy would be for proponents of various disciplines to point fingers of blame at other disciplines.

Rather, we need to find ways to instill hope. Again, I don’t have specific answers per se—but I do know that hope is an antidote to cynicism.

So rather than writing negative, snarky pieces about religion, science writers can focus instead on writing stories of wonder and hope. On a similar note, politicians ought to reach people through hope; and religious writers and commentators can preach messages of hope.

Hey, figures like Saint John Paul the Great and the 14th Dalai Lama attract huge followings for a reason. It’s my opinion that the reason can be summed up in a word: Hope.

Only hope will rescue our civilization from collapsing under the paralyzing weight of all this cynical baggage we’ve accumulated.

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2 Comments

  1. Nathan Holtrey Nathan Holtrey

    “Taken together, the problem is way bigger than attitudes toward science. What we have is an apathetic attitude, and growing cynicism, toward anything that seeks to engage and preserve truth and beauty.”

    Wow. Yes. This is very well worded. The alarming distrust of the science community does not bode well at all for the future of the country (or the world for that matter). We live in a society that praises individual belief so highly that I think it’s created an entitlement complex so that when the regular person hears something FACTUAL that they disagree with or don’t like they just don’t believe it. There is also this echo-chamber of fear and falsehoods in contemporary news media. For over a decade science deniers have come on TV and ranted over and over again about how certain facts are wrong and scientists are selfish, self interested, and not to be trusted. It really worries me to see so many people disconnected from the natural beauty of the physical world and consumed by their own perception. I would venture so far to say that most Americans are starving for hope, but when we are constantly surrounded by messages of war and fear, hope seems like a longshot.

    • Daniel LaPonsie Daniel LaPonsie

      Nathan! Thanks for visiting, reading, and taking the time to comment

      And that’s so well put. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I can see how selfishness and self-interest can breed a relativistic attitude toward truth and beauty. Right on.

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