As a millennial, I am proud of my generation. We are the most progressive in social issues, we are steadfastly optimistic of the economy, and we are the most educated generation in America’s history. It comes as quite a surprise, then, that such a forward-thinking group of young adults is so accepting of pseudoscience.
On one hand, millennials are far less likely to believe in creationism or to dispute humanity’s role in global warming. Good for us. But on the other hand, a recent poll by YouGov indicates that millennials are also at the heart of the anti-vaxxer movement, with 1-in-5 believing that vaccines are linked to autism. Caught in the middle of the worst measles outbreak in decades, it is exceedingly counterintuitive to believe that many of the oh-so educated millennials are refuting all scientific evidence in favor of a single, debunked study. The question then is, why are we turning our backs on science while we chastise others for ignoring…science?
The easy answer is that, being so young, millennials never saw how devastating measles was before the vaccine. We never witnessed it take our children or spread through our communities, and being so early in its resurgence, we simply cannot yet comprehend the severity of the disease. There may additionally be compounding factors at play, however, that can also explain another of the millennial’s favorite obsessions: health and wellness.
In the era of organic foods, fitness trackers, and skintight clothes, it is arguably easier than ever to lead a healthy life. Through legitimate products and services, the wellness industry has helped the general public to become more health conscious than in decades past. However, in their pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, many people become distracted and mislead by a hidden, pseudoscientific doppelganger. A good example is Whole Foods. I’m not talking about the supposed efficacy of organic foods, but the aisles and aisles of “scientifically proven” oils, supplements, and superfoods marketed as being essentially magical. Similarly, celebrity fad diets have corralled significant followings, sometimes comprising largely of millennials. Yet while there is very little scientific evidence supporting such diets or superfoods, any sense of judgment gained through their prized education seems to vanish as soon as a millennial sees that a product “prevents cancer”, “slows aging”, or “cleanses the body”.
As I mentioned before, there may be common trends that explain the millennial’s selective belief in science. First, with only 19% believing that most people can be trusted, we have trust issues. From government, to companies, to people in general, our faith in institutions and the public has been shaken. Subsequently, rather than base their decisions off of a single conclusion, millennials are likely to search for multiple opinions and decide for themselves which is best. We have unofficially become the “you do you” generation, putting great value in independence and self-sufficiency. Millennials try their own thing, blaze their own path; we don’t judge people for unorthodoxy, and we’re certainly not fond of people (or governments or companies) who tell us what to do. Luckily for us, we have the internet. The endless web of information has provided the ideal tool for millennials to share and exchange their ideas. In minutes, any twenty-some year old can find a dozen different treatments for a cold, discuss the issues of consumerism, and yes, even debate the health benefits of vaccines.
With the entirety of human knowledge in our pockets, millennials have become a generation of free thinking individuals with a tendency to question authority. Generally, this attitude has proven beneficial; it has diminished hyperpartisanship, hypernationalism, and made us more globally conscious, individual thinkers. However, this same individuality may be to blame for the millennial’s selective belief in science. Despite any empirical evidence appealing to their education, some millennials have come to view the scientific community as just another institution to be mistrusted, especially in corporate manifestations such as Big Pharma.
So that’s it. Maybe our mistrusting, free thinking nature (and the internet) has caused some millennials to not vaccinate their kids, or spend fifteen dollars on a chia seed smoothie. But to label us as scientific hypocrites paints an incomplete picture, as that same thought process would also make us religious, political, and economic hypocrites. Maybe we are simply a hypocritical generation. Or perhaps we are not hypocritical at all. Perhaps what people see as hypocrisy is really a multitude of well voiced opinions. Can a whole generation even be hypocritical? Can you assign a single viewpoint to an entire generation? Perhaps in the past, single-image generations were made possible by overwhelmingly defining world events that we have yet to experience, or simply by a lack of platform for competing opinions that we now enjoy as the internet. But I think that millennials are still searching for our image, and I question whether or not we will ever be unified by a single idea. And I believe that this division is what older generations view as hypocrisy. So be it optimism or bias towards my own generation, but I don’t see us as scientific hypocrites or hypocrites of any kind. I believe that we are a generation that loudly and proudly voices our opinions, however unconventional, and may be destined to be the generation without an image. Better yet, maybe we will be remembered as several images. That’d make me proud to be a millennial; for us, one picture just isn’t enough.