Is polarization inevitable? Can we *not* agree to disagree?

The American Council on Science and Health thinks disagreements over facts – even ones based on scientific evidence – may well naturally lead to the kind of divisive polarization we see in today’s politics:

A world in which facts can be easily verified should not become so polarized, right?

Well, maybe not, according to a new paper in the European Journal for Philosophy of Science. The authors, Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall, argue that polarization is the natural outcome when groups of people disagree. In fact, they document a major example of polarization within the scientific community itself.

Lyme disease is due to a bacterial infection transmitted by ticks. Untreated, it can cause arthritis, pain, fatigue, and other problems. Some patients, who have these symptoms but no sign of an active infection, are convinced that they suffer from “chronic Lyme disease.” Many doctors are convinced the condition is real, so they provide their patients with long-term antibiotic therapy.

No matter which side a scientist takes in the Lyme War, there is a common set of facts upon which we should all agree. (For what it’s worth, ACSH is in the anti-chronic Lyme disease camp.) First, nobody wants these patients to suffer. Second, we want to find a cure, if there is one. And third, there is an ultimate truth yet to be discovered. Either “chronic Lyme” is real or it’s not. (If it’s not, there are several alternative explanations for the symptoms, such as an autoimmune disorder, perhaps triggered by Lyme disease.)

Given this dedication to public health and goodwill, it is difficult to see how the biomedical community could ever become polarized. And yet it has. The man who discovered Lyme disease, Allen Steere, was skeptical of the chronic Lyme diagnosis as well as long-term antibiotic therapy. So, he started receiving death threats from patients who were convinced he was wrong.

That’s right. The hero is now a villain. People who are working for the exact same goal have turned against each other. That’s the effect that polarization has. And here’s the scary part: The authors of the aforementioned paper demonstrate using a mathematical model that there is nothing we can do to prevent it.

Original research, which concludes, “polarization emerges even though agents gather evidence about their beliefs, and true belief yields a payoff advantage,” is here.