There are many excellent newspaper and magazine columns (and internet sites and blogs) that publicize the latest research findings in science. They are important because they inform the general public about scientific findings funded by their taxes, and they communicate the excitement of scientific discovery in a way that undoubtedly inspires many young people.
However, what is also sorely needed is some sort of column that explains basic science to the lay public. I don’t mean a development of Newton’s laws of motion for beginners, but rather an understanding of how the enterprise of science works, and how to interpret what one reads in the popular media. When one reads shouting headlines that a recent study shows that Vitamin E is dangerous (without some perspective about the population of the study, the strength of the effect, the time over which the study took place, the control group, and so on), and then reads another shouting headline saying that coffee is good for you after all, really, one can’t help but have sympathy for the poor man in the street who doesn’t know what to think, and then just discounts it all because it is too difficult and troubling to think about (in the same way that the antics of some politicians cast them all into disrepute). And by the way, how did the Knicks fare last night against the Lakers? Linsanity!
This bewilderment leaves citizens particularly vulnerable to nefarious agents who actively foment confusion by loudly trumpeting complete nonsense, in the (unfortunately quite realistic) hope that doubt will be engendered in the minds of many people, which furthers their cause.
One case in point is the despicable Discovery Institute, which is completely anti-science, but tries to let on that its arguments for the existence of God are scientific. Their not-so-hidden agenda is to promote their religious views and do everything in their power (which is well-funded and quite considerable) to force their religious views to be taught in science classes. Amongst their many transgressions, their claim that evolution is “just a theory” confuses the every-day meaning of the term with its scientific meaning, a strategy that is intended to sow uncertainty in the minds of the uninformed. Citizens with a strong sense for what science is and how it works would be far less likely to be hoodwinked by such transparent fallacies.
Some striking instances of the effectiveness of this strategy are to be found in this unintentionally funny clip, showing beauty pageant contestants answering the question, “Should evolution be taught in schools?” (This spawned the hilarious parody, “Should mathematics be taught in schools?” Sometimes humour is the best teacher. More scary, for me at least, is this “news report” from The Daily Show on 26 October 2011, entitled “Science — What’s it up to?” (Here is the link for those based in the U.S.; I haven’t been able to find a link that works in Canada (not sure about the rest of the world; try the U.S. link), but a partial transcript is here.) Interviewer Aasif Mandvi gets political strategist Noelle Nikpour to admit the most ridiculous things about science, including, “Scientists are scamming the American people right and left for their own financial gain.”
Nikpour: “It’s very confusing for a child to be only taught evolution, to go home to a household where their parents say, “Well, wait a minute, God created the Earth.”
Mandvi: “What is the point of teaching children facts if it’s just going to confuse them?”
Nikpour: “It confuses the children when they go home. We as Americans, we are paying tax dollars for our children to be educated. We need to offer them every theory that’s out there. It’s all about choice. It’s all about freedom.”
Mandvi: “I mean it should be up to the American people to decide what’s true.”
Nikpour: “Absolutely! Doesn’t it make common sense?”
Another case in point is climate change denialism, which has been supported by very rich and powerful interests. A news story yesterday reports that climate denialists want to get their propaganda into schools (see also here). Nobody knows what the climate is going to be like in the next decade, the next century, or the next millennium. The system is just too complex, and nonlinear, for any kind of prediction to be meaningful. But this is exactly what is alarming; it seems clear that the system is out of equilibrium, and like a car swerving out of control, who knows where it will end up? Maybe it will end up upright and the passengers will breathe a sigh of relief at a close brush with death, but maybe the car will roll over several times, end up in a ditch and all the passengers will die. Maybe we will turn the planet into a desert, maybe we will freeze. Who knows? So the conservative action would be to plan for a car crash, and to take steps to mitigate potential catastrophes that might arise. But for the giant oil companies, and related industries and hangers-on, any sense that our actions might be causing climate change must be crushed, because mitigating action would be very bad for business. And that’s the bottom line; we must protect profits at all costs, and business must proceed as usual.
What does a scientifically educated person think about all this? Well there are many possible reasonable opinions, but categorical denial that human actions could possibly have any effect on climate change is not one of them. Weighing the evidence and taking prudent action, including funding projects that monitor weather and research historical climate changes, is essential. Just because we don’t know exactly what will happen in future does not excuse us from taking wise prophylactic action now. Doing nothing is radical and dangerous. Advocating that nothing be done using self-serving fallacious arguments, and fraudulently casting doubt on solid scientific research, is reprehensible and dangerous.
What does a person who is ignorant of the ways of science think about all this? Oh, there is a controversy, who knows who is right, nobody knows, so let’s just hope for the best and not bother any further with the issue. Those elitist scientists are confusing, and they always make me feel dumb. Pass me the chips, and turn on the flat-screen, I want to watch my Knicks. (Full disclosure: I would never think like this; I am fanatical about the Raptors.)
ps. On a brighter note, Scientists In School is a group that is taking positive action to help interest young people in science (via hands-on activities) in my locale. Undoubtedly there is some group in your area that is similarly interested in promoting public understanding of science that is worth supporting.