Why people don’t trust science

So a colleague posted this article on my Facebook wall and queried me for my thoughts on the matter.  With longer things to say, I think I am going to use my blog more than Facebook.  Partly because of the easier formatting, but also the more permanency of keeping my ideas in one place.  The article is a NY Times article in which the author talks about the growing anti-science strain in this country called Welcome to the Age of Denial. Perhaps none of my ideas on the subject our very original and there are a number of excellent comments made under the article itself, but I think it’s worth sort of collecting a lot of them in one place.

The problem itself is much like Climate Change itself in that it is quite complex and no single factor can be completely to blame.  To start simply however many have pointed to a weakening economy as the reason for this change.  Of course weaker economies do tend to breed more extremism, more faith based reasoning as the amount of people living near poverty increases.  The great irony being that as the nation rejects science more the innovation and growth science can bring also goes away too.  In addition the strength of our economy is built on this growth in science and innovation and if we had all that going for us, where did we falter?

Please keep in mind that what I am going to say is a lot of opinion based on what I’ve read and what I’ve observed as an educator for now 11 years.

I think if we are going to make things better there are numerous factors that have to change:

  1. The corporation is out of control.  Money carries a lot of weight and everyone knows that.  Corporations do not want to take responsibility to the damage they’ve caused to the environment or the human body in the case of pharmaceuticals or fast food.  It’s not even conspiracy theory thinking to say that in a capitalistic society that corporations have a vested interested in making sure you are not concerned about important issues and so the spreading of misinformation in an age where information is easily disseminated is a big factor in the growing anti-trust in science.
  2. The politicization of science.  It was interesting to read this article and learn how in a way things have gotten worse in regards to scientific issues according to pulls from 1982 until now.  Especially when I had read about the increased secular population in the U.S.  According to polls also the number of agnostics, atheists or people who do not associate themselves with any particular religion is also growing.  Initially I thought these things were at odds, but not so if you think that U.S. is becoming increasingly polarized.  The continued two party system in this country is getting uglier and uglier, and despite that their is almost no difference between what the two parties actually do when operating the government the platforms they run on give a staggeringly different perception.  Especially when it comes to social issues. It is these social issues that are the main reason why I remain a democrat because quite simply science demonstrates that the democrats are right.  But there are many things I disagree with in terms of how they run the government.  That being said, somehow the democrats have sort of taken science as part of their party platform.  It shocks the hell out of me when, if I support scientific consensus on an issue, that makes me automatically a liberal democrat.  Science doesn’t take sides.  If the science is properly done it simply shows you what is, and once we are okay with that, we can move forward and figure out what is to be done about it, or done with it.  And just for the record I also am quite aware that while the democratic party has sort of taken up the reins of “pro-science” it does very little good with it.
  3. The devaluing of education.  Much could be said about this topic.  Of course it’s no big news that we continue to fare rather poorly in comparison with many other countries on the scientific literacy of youths coming out of school.  This is all too apparent to me as a professor who teaches many freshmen every semester.  Schools continue to get less funding, tuitions continue to rise.  Best practices in teaching are pushed aside in favor of standardized metrics that can be used to compare different schools to figure out who should get a piece of the every shrinking pie of funding.  This leads to increased class sizes, meaning less interaction between student and teacher, this leads to grade inflation where students do not get a meaningful evaluation of their actual abilities, and it leads to less critical thinking skills in place of rote memorization.  One day I will write an entire post probably regarding this subject, but suffice to say there is good reason why a lot of people don’t even respect the institution of education more when many students come out of school without basic writing skills let alone good quantitative skills, how to think critically and understand how science is done.  There is also politicization here too, and there should be one place where both parties agree, is that you can’t really spend too much money on education.
  4. Increasing transparency of science.  There is a word I was looking for instead of transparency, but I need the skills of the person who posted the article to my Facebook page to be able to find it. lol  What I mean by transparency here is that we take less notice of how it impacts our lives.  One commenter on the article said something to the fact that things are so small now we don’t see the gears and the machinery that makes things move so we wonder less how things work.  Well I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but I think he is right in some way.    Just like Republicans fail to see how taxes have actually benefitted their lives, I think many don’t understand how science is part of their everyday world and how knowledge of science would actually improve their lives regardless of what they do for their career.  Especially when so many important issues in government rely on a scientifically literate population.  I already have a blog post on this, so I won’t go into too much detail, but there does seem to be a general lack of awareness on why science is important and how many things in this world are actually rooted in science.  This is also a place where perhaps education is failing the young.
  5. Increased strain of biblical literalism.  In Europe, the fact that the Catholic church has publicly said that evolution is not in conflict with biblical teaching is huge in telling you that, while Catholicism may still have its problems it is at least trying to get away from the biblical literalism that plagues science today in this country.  A close relationship with good, good morals, and the happiness that people gain from faith should not in conflict with scientific advance.  One of my big problems is how people here can take one particular part of the bible so literally but ignore many of the other parts that are no longer practiced.  Any time words from the bible are literally used as a direct argument against scientific findings, I think we have a problem.  Much like I am annoyed that science has been associated with the democratic party, I know many good Christians who are annoyed that Christianity has become associated with the Republican Party.  Ultimately we have to take both religion and science out of party associations even if sometimes political decisions have to be made regarding science and religion.

 

Well those are the top 5 I can think of and I think they require a greater amount of overhaul than just one thing.  I think ultimately the most important is to continue the fight to make government value education, and also to make corporations responsible for poor practices.  I feel like the other ones sort of fade away if we can start to increase scientific literacy and not let corporations run the government.

 

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17 thoughts on “Why people don’t trust science

  1. Interesting analysis. I think something you overlooked is the shift that we are undergoing from a modern to a post-modern society. As more people embrace the idea that we create our own reality, that truth is relative, facts and evidence and reason become opinion, and one person’s opinion is as good as the next.

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    1. That could be Chris. The easy access to information makes everyone feel like an expert, but few have the expertise to actually understand the information to determine whether it is good or bad information. You watch any news channel and even the pundits they use are from knowledgeable in the areas they are supposed to be commenting on. But they are marketed as experts. And that also is a form of bad information. I think this can still be tied to poor education in critical thinking and science. I guess I tend to stay away from terms like modern and post-modern, because these are just labels. Ultimately there has to be a root cause for why we think differently about the world now as opposed to 30 or 40 years ago.

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      1. I agree there has to be a root cause, but I don’t know what it is, so I resort to the convenience of labels. 😉 I don’t think that education is the cause, however, but rather an effect of the same cause.

        Although access to information certainly enables the armchair expert, you still need the gall to think, “I don’t care what this guy with three degrees and 20 years experience in the field that he’s speaking about says; I know better because I read about it on Wikipedia.” This type of thinking is brought to you by…post-modernism.

        Whatever the cause is, it’s a disturbing trend. It’s harder and harder to find well-paying jobs in science fields. Here in Canada, the government is slashing research programmes and has said that they only want to fund research that leads directly to jobs (known in the rest of the world as product development) while muzzling federally employed scientists. The world ‘technology’ has been hijacked by consumer electronics and software applications. When a person’s technical ability is measured by how well they can navigate a smart phone menu, we have problems.

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        1. I agree with all that you are saying. I’ve sort of always seen technology as the product of scientific research. Science discovers how the world works and technology is the application of that discovery. It seems like nowadays all we do is focus on the result and not on how we got there. I am saddened more and more everyday when I hear Harper bring the strain of anti-intellectualism and anti-education that is rampant through the U.S. right now. The very heart of an economy is the freedom of it’s people to explore innovative ideas and it’s applications. The investment you make into the development of a lot of ideas, even when only a small percentage of them pan out, leads to much more job creation and I’m not sure why people can’t see that.

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  2. My first thought on reading this article is “because in the past the scientific community has very confidently mislead us on some important issues and now we are left with the consequences”. Transparency and accessibility, we should give all the scientists public profiles, so the public is aware of how many heroes are out there figuring stuff out. What I learnt in school about science took all the fun out of exploring life and some of it has later proven to be completely inaccurate. Also can’t think of a single person who believes that scientific research and discovery requires any creative skills… Life requires experimentation to get any good at it 😉 so I propose we do whatever it takes to get kids a disciplined framework for that experimentation regardless of their interests – science contains that kind of discipline. IMHO.

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  3. Thank you for your comment Robyn. It’s interesting that you frame the process of exploration as something separate than science. I would guess that many scientists would describe themselves as a type of explorer. Scientists like myself are driven by questions and curiosity which to me sounds very much like exploration.

    I remember reading a comment one time under an article about some scientific issue and the gentleman was quite upset that he couldn’t trust science because science was wrong sometimes. He seemed especially upset that there was no Brontosaurus even though that was what he was taught in school. I think the idea that science is supposed to be right always is an incorrect notion. What should be though instead is that science is as right as it can be given the available evidence. One of the questions I ask my students when teaching about astronomy is “What evidence, simply with your own eyes, do you have that the sun is at the center of the solar system as opposed to the Earth being at the center and everything was revolving around it. We walk through what are eyes observe and the fact that we don’t feel ourselves rotating with the Earth and so from our perspective we appear to be stationary while the heavens move around us. The idea that the Earth is at the center was easily eradicated once more careful observations were possible especially once the telescope became an observational tool. Should we not trust scientists however based on their earlier findings. Given the tools they had at their disposal the idea of an Earth centered universe was as possible as a Sun centered one. Perhaps even more so when one considers that nobody an Earth can feel that rotational motion of the earth. So science is going to be wrong sometimes, but it is going to be the most right it can be given the present state of knowledge about the problem.

    And you’re absolutely right that many question whether we are teaching science properly in schools. The process of discovery is what is missing from education and we need to incorporate that, because tied to that process of discovery is the process of critical thinking which asks all to be a bit skeptical of our own discovery since the methodology we use for making our discovery can greatly influence what we find. As well as any mistakes we make in the process of discovery. That being said, there is much knowledge long since revealed by science that has been so well tested and verified that to expect every child to rediscover all of that on their own would be extremely time consuming. But I believe that we can let them rediscover some of it so gain the knowledge in how science is done.

    I am not familiar with every facet of scientific history, but I would be interested in some examples of times when scientists mislead people confidently. Perhaps in my mind I think of the word mislead as implying some sort of intent to lead people away from the truth. I can think of many cases where scientific results were hidden by governments or corporations in order to push an agenda beneficial to them. Nowadays we have problems with the media misrepresenting scientific research. I have done some personal research on this in regards to climate change and Hurricane Katrina when it hit New Orleans. I find the scientific community as a whole to be a fairly altruistic bunch who are tireless in their search for answers even though many times experiments fail or colleagues find flaws in their research. A good scientist benefits from failure as much as from success, perhaps even more so. More importantly, history shows that no individual scientist does it on his/her own. Even significant leaps in scientific understanding by people like Newton and Einstein are on the backs of many who came before laying a foundation. We all do have our own biases, but through that collective effort ideas get refined and we do make significant progress.

    If we look at a problem like climate change we have a large volume of evidence that the climate is changing and that man’s burning of fossil fuels is at least partly responsible. So it could be that we are not doing it right. That we are missing some key piece of evidence which no scientist is aware of. Or that we are approaching the problem in the wrong way. If that is the case, some day some scientist will come up with a better theory and show us that in fact climate change is natural and show us what evidence we were missing in addressing the problem. This is scientific progress. A few scientists feelings might be a bit hurt that they were wrong all this time, but in the end they will acknowledge that they were missing a key piece to the puzzle and thus could not see the whole picture properly. 🙂

    Finally you are correct that few people believe that scientists do not require any creative skills, but history shows that many of the genius scientists have also been extremely creative. And a lot of brilliant scientists I have met have been excellent artists. Photography, painting, music. Anecdotally I also find that anytime I have had good artists in my classes they have been extremely adept at grasping scientific concepts. The division between the arts and sciences I believe is a societal one and there is actually an important connection between the two. 🙂 I for one find the explanation to be as beautiful as the question and has as much ability to inspire as a mystery. 🙂

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    1. I agree with you. What I gave you was the impression I have, even though I know it not to be an accurate representation of the facts. When I say “confidently mislead” I mean exactly what you pointed out – they may not be aware they are wrong, they may be at the mercy of other forces such as governments or corporations, there may be new information discovered later, etc. It’s perception that is incorrect. They are working away behind closed doors on secret discoveries which may be to help us or they may be making even more weapons who knows – it’s currently all totally inaccessible to the public if they never get to see the reality or get inspired enough to do some serious digging themselves.

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      1. I understand. 🙂 I enjoy talking about these kind of things a lot, as you can see, so I tend not to be very good at being concise when it comes to science. Which is perhaps a bad thing! lol

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  4. Joel Hoffman

    I really enjoyed reading the article, and your analysis. I have one thing to add to your list 🙂

    I feel that one major issue with science as it stands today is that observable scientific progress in the eyes of a layman has plateaued. It would be incorrect to say that advancements in science in reality have stagnated, but I believe the advancements made recently have not been relevant or groundbreaking enough for the general public to be interested.
    In my opinion, science needs to become MORE politicized, but not as a means to create policy change. The government has been heavily involved with several of the most ground breaking scientific achievements in the US in the 20th century. We as a people, using our government as a tool, need to set an observable goal that the population in general could be proud of, and then go out and achieve it. We went to the moon, no question about it. We created and used an atomic bomb, period. Science needs to come up with something to stir the imagination of people who see things in black and white. We need to achieve something that people never thought possible. Once we do that, people will not only believe in science again, but they will start believing in our government and each other again. I know it’s a pipe dream, but I truly feel that that is what it’s going to take to turn this problem around.

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    1. I see what you’re saying Joel, but I think it sort of ties to the seamlessness of science and discovery in our everyday world. I might actually argue from the other direction that scientific discovery happens so fast that we almost miss it in that way, rather than to think that scientific achievements have lessened. I think also the perspective on how impressive a scientific discovery is has also changed. The landing of the MARS Rover is arguably as challenging as landing on the moon from a scientific point of view, yet I doubt few would see it that way. There have been some incredible discoveries in the last 30 years or so. The mapping of the human genome and DNA fingerprinting jumps out immediately. Other one’s might include the cloning of a sheep, the discovery of extrasolar planets, Hubble Launch. And there are other ones like the discovery of stem cells, but look at how that one has been fought in the U.S. as somehow killing babies. Or the discovery of the Higgs boson which is rejected by the religious right on the grounds that it contradiction the story of creation. People these days are constantly poo-pooing solid scientific findings. Maybe we need better marketing instead! lol

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        1. Haha. 🙂 I think it is a really good question, that I don’t know I know the answer to is what qualifies a scientific discovery to be considered groundbreaking? Is it just a matter of perspective or are their some good criteria to be used to determine this. In some ways I don’t think the scientist who usually makes the discovery can fully even appreciate the impact. It is only after numerous years and significant applications can we sometimes appreciate the magnitude of the discovery. One could easily say the proof of plate tectonics is a groundbreaking discovery in the field of geology, but how much does the average person realize how major that was?

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  5. I really enjoyed reading this article and your post. I have one thing to possibly add to your list. 🙂

    I think one of the major problems with science as it stands today is that there have not been any recent ground-breaking advances in science when viewed through the eyes of the general public. It would be incorrect to say that scientific advancement has stagnated of course, but I’m willing to bet that a large percentage of the population are not aware of what those advancements are.

    I think if we are to correct this problem, it is my opinion that science needs to become MORE politicized, not as a means to create or change policy, but as a means to allow a more reliable way for an idea to push forward to completion. I believe going to the moon would not have been possible any other way. We need to come up with the same kind of ground breaking and observable “scientific” goal, and then go out and achieve it. It needs to be something that people never thought the human existence could achieve, but also something that the general public could readily observe. We went to the moon, no question about it. We created and used the atomic bomb, period. We created the light bulb, period, and so on.
    I know it’s a pipe dream, but I truly believe that if we do this, it would not only restore people’s faith in science, but it would also restore people’s faith in our government.

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