Friday, August 07, 2009

Rings a bell...

Timely comments about public opinion and scientists.
Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science unveiled the latest embarrassing evidence of our nation’s scientific illiteracy. Only 52 percent of Americans in their survey knew why stem cells differ from other kinds of cells; just 46 percent knew that atoms are larger than electrons. On a highly contentious issue like global warming, meanwhile, the gap between scientists and the public was vast: 84 percent of scientists, but just 49 percent of Americans, think human emissions are causing global warming.

Scientists are fond of citing statistics such as these in explaining conflicts between the public and the scientific community. On politicized issues like climate change, embryonic stem cell research, the teaching of evolution, and the safety of vaccines, many Americans not only question scientific expertise but even feel entitled to discard it completely. The reason, many scientists infer, is that the public is just clueless; perhaps we wouldn’t have these problems if the average citizen were better educated, more knowledgeable, better informed.
Yet while scientific illiteracy is nothing to shrug at, the truth is that it’s only part of a broader problem for which scientists themselves must shoulder a significant portion of the responsibility. Decrying ignorance and scientific illiteracy, many scientists treat their fellow citizens as empty vessels waiting for an infusion of knowledge. That is exactly wrong, and exactly why so many people, in turn, see science and scientists as distant, inscrutable, aloof, arrogant. Rather than blaming, scientists ought to be engaging with the public, trying to personally make their knowledge hit home and to instill by example (rather than from a distance) the nature and virtues of the scientific mindset - while also encouraging average Americans to ask their own questions and have their say. Scientists must make it clear that while they don’t have all the answers, science is about searching for the truth, an imperfect process of doing the best one can with the information available, while knowing there is always more to learn - the epitome of humility. [More]

Oddly, farmers also are affected by anti-intellectualism on many fronts, as Blake Hurst pointed out. It seems to me our commitment to the scientific method extends no further than our own prejudices.

Still, it doesn't matter if you are right (or at least more nearly so) if you can't persuade anyone else.  This is the hurdle facing our culture for many issues.  For various reasons, there appears to be a cafeteria approach to knowledge, perhaps grounded in our traditions of egalitarianism and democracy.  Choose those facts that fit your world view, deny the rest.

Unfortunately, opinions are not as equal as the political standing of those who espouse them.  Nonetheless, as several have said, " Folks are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts."

It does not help to be discussing Big Issues in a time of economic fear.  I think those anxieties bleed over into other areas, despite our best efforts to be impartial. 

Still, the conclusions drawn by the author above are helpful, I think.  And time has a way of eroding all but the truth.


Anonymous said...

Truth win out? Well maybe. Anti-intellectualism is a strong force in some humans. It and religious fervor are what brought on the dark ages long ago and we may be headed for another dark period. A good book to read on the subject is Chris Mooney's; The Republican War on Science. At a time when we need science more than ever to solve problems, science is being attacked on all fronts. Our ag colleges are starved for funds and the public's appreciation of science and agriculture reach new lows. Is it only a matter of time before the mobs gather to burn down the library, greenhouse, animal barn or climate change research lab? Its happened before

Anonymous said...

I am also perplexed on the decrease in critical thinking and general scientific knowledge. I always thought that as more individuals achieve college degrees than in previous years, many of our fear based prejudices of the past would slowly erode. At times it seems the opposite is true.

Anonymous said...

There are those who are well educated and informed who may fall for a particular philosophy and no amount of reasoning and information can shake them of their new beliefs. My best friend was one of them. He ruined his life and that of his family. I can now see where lesser people can become suicide bombers and others are just fanatics, be it religious, politicAL or social.