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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

8 Reasons Why We Don't Trust Science

A recent study showed that only 30% of American respondents expressed an overall trust in science.  While this study is contradicted by more detailed surveys that break science down by issue and discipline, the unmistakable fact is emerging that we are, as a nation, losing out faith in science.

People are, in my estimation, insufficiently alarmed by this.  Webster’s New World Dictionary defines science as Systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied”.  So when one says they don’t trust science, they’re really saying that they don’t trust observation, study and experimentation.  Science is the very means by which we acquire knowledge and as a method, it is infallible because it is self correcting.  Despite that, we are increasingly favoring non-scientific “feel-good” explanations over rational observation.

When something is established by science, it means that the subject has been exhaustively studied by accredited experts, confirmed by other scientists, peer reviewed by academics and vetted by the scientific community as a whole.  Even given all of this, the door is always left open for other scientists who (eagerly) try to disprove the conclusions of their predecessors.  To say that we doubt the conclusions of science is to say that we doubt the human capacity for garnering and interpreting information.

So how could this happen?  How could something as simple as “If we can prove it, it’s true” be called into question?  Would it surprise you to find out that I’ve conveniently divided the issue into 8 points?

 #1) Bad science education:

Coming face to face with our scientific ignorance has become an annual embarrassment in the US.  This year’s humiliation comes in the form of a survey that shows that 53% of Americans did not know how long it took the earth to revolve around the sun.  Keep in mind that they weren’t looking for 365 ¼ days or anything.   They didn’t bury the correct answer in a multiple choice that included 8,766 hours.  The answer they were looking for was “one year”… and 53% of us got it wrong.

Think about what a profound lack of knowledge this represents.  This means that more than half of our nation lacks even the most fundamental understanding of how the solar system works.  This would be an embarrassment if it was a study of 8th graders, but this was a random sampling of American adults.

The failings of our educational system are nothing new and there is little mystery behind it.  As budgets tighten, many schools are replacing the specialized science teachers they can no longer afford with more generally educated teachers that may or may not have any real knowledge (or interest) in science.  I know that my high school biology class was taught by the tennis coach and it often fell to me to explain elements of the curriculum to him.  I can’t say for certain, but I would not be surprised to find that Coach Strickland didn’t know how long it took the earth to revolve around the sun.

 #2) Bad science reporting:

All types of reporting have been hard hit by the prolonged death throes of print media, but science reporting might be the most brutal casualty.  Like science teachers, science reporters are fast being replaced by people with no specialized knowledge or experience.  These reporters are given jargon-heavy surveys and analyses to comb through without context and try to translate for the scientifically-impaired populace.  This often leads to the most outlandish misinterpretations of data and claims that are laughably incorrect.

Compounding this problem is the fact that editor’s don’t believe in incremental advances so every science headline must contain the words “revolution” and/or “breakthrough”.  The actual “Eureka” moments of science usually seem pretty inconsequential to anyone not steeped in the discipline at hand.  But headlines like “Scientists isolate a protein that might have significance in the reduction of certain cancerous cells in lab rats, though human application is still uncertain” doesn’t sell papers like “Miracle breakthrough promises cure for cancer”.

Sometimes the errors in reporting are merely humorous, such as when an Albuquerque paper reported that scientists had invented a machine that allows radio waves to travel at the speed of light (radio waves are light).   But it can also be downright dangerous, such as the frenzy that was touched off in 2006 when newspapers and outlets all over the world erroneously reported that a Korean scientist had cloned human beings, touching off an ethical scare that still plagues Asian geneticists.

As a consequence, one can hardly blame the public for their skepticism toward the claims of science.  Most people don’t separate the reporter presenting the information from the scientist studying it and after decades of seeing headlines about miracle cancer drugs, is it not reasonable to expect one of them would be out there curing cancer by now?

 #3) Nonexistent Controversies

Bad science reporting is not always the fault of the reporters or even the editors.  Very often it is the conscious decision of legal departments, ownership and other boycott-phobic powers that are afraid of seeming biased if they present only the “scientific” point of view.  For this reason, science articles are often weighted down by nonsensical claims made by fringe groups that deny the “official” explanation.

Countless examples of this exist.  The Anti-vaccination movement gets a few sentences in nearly every article written about vaccinations despite the fact that all of their scientific claims have been falsified.  While many of these articles will go ahead and say that their claims are baseless, they leave them in anyway.  It’s much like a news article on the President’s economic plan that includes the line “my cousin Harry thinks Obama’s going to make mushrooms into our new currency, though the overwhelming majority of economists disagree”.  It does not add to the discussion, but it does create the shadow of uncertainty where none should exist.

There are countless non-scientific claims that continue to dominate the media landscape despite having been thoroughly debunked by science.  These manufactured controversies cloud otherwise useful discussions.  More importantly, they also reroute valuable scientific funding and resources to prove that something already known to not exist still doesn't exist.

 #4) Pseudo-Science

Given our sporadic understanding of science, it comes as no surprise that most people are unable to distinguish the claims of genuine science from those made by hacks that merely infuse their work with a bunch of sciency sounding words.  The principles of cutting edge science are so baffling that logic is a poor yardstick of credibility.  After all, which is more logically befuddling: The notion that the entire universe once fit into a space smaller than an atom or the notion that the position of the stars at your birth determine your future?  Is the claim that there is a nearly unobservable substance in the universe called “dark matter” really any more sensational than the notion that the vibrations of certain chemicals can imbue plain water with healing properties?

Holistic medicine, homeopathy, anthroposophy, hand writing analysts and many others disguise their superstition in the trappings of science.  They use laughable experimental methods, but the average person does not know how to sort through the data contained in a study and even if they did, most would be unable to spot the errors in the experimental model or determine a significant outcome from a random one.

Unscrupulous purveyors of quackery take full advantage of this and hitch their unstable wagons to the train of clinical science.  Genuine scientists are often handicapped in fighting these claims because the very nature of the “alternative” science is designed to create the illusion of a conflict of interest.  If the pseudo scientists are pushing a natural herb as a cure for multiple sclerosis and the scientific community says “No, this cure is ineffective, we need more money to research the disease further”, it is understandable for the public to look skeptically at the objection.

But even if skepticism is natural, an educated person should be able to see past that.  The grandiose conspiracy theories that pseudo-science propagates are far too eclectic to be credible.  The very idea that tens or even hundreds of thousands of research scientists are all in on this global conspiracy to hide the truth about Echinacea is a lot harder to believe than the alternative hypothesis that a much smaller group is out there selling snake-oil. 

 #5) Politics  

Humans have a curious ability called “confirmation bias” that allows us to filter out information that challenges what we think we know.  We tend to recall things that support our points of view far quicker than those things that challenge them.  We tend to lend more credence to studies that confirm our beliefs while finding holes in the ones that cast doubt over them.  We tend to fit the facts to our preconceived notions and nowhere is this more true than it is in the intersection between science and politics.

The obvious example of this is global warming.  An overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the world is getting warmer and that it is the result of human action.  Most surveys put this number over eighty percent.  When this number is checked against political affiliation, you find that it is an insignificant correlation.  In other words, 80%+ of democratic scientists agree and 80%+ of republican scientists agree.  Yet when that same survey asks the general populace about their beliefs, a clear correlation between belief in global warming and political affiliation appears.

Now, this number is alarming whether or not you believe that global warming is a manmade phenomenon.  Whether it is true or not (and it is), we should all be equally concerned that we are allowing political rhetoric to interfere with our ability to assess a set of facts.  Facts are unambiguous and when we allow politicians to rewrite them it is a problem regardless of whether or not you like the new facts better than the old ones. 

 #6) Scientists are bad communicators

One can hardly blame a theoretical physicist for being unable to explain the cutting edge discoveries in his or her field to the average person.  There are some things too complex for analogy and even the brightest of minds can be left struggling to keep up unless they have years of experience and education within the discipline.  Hours upon hours might be needed just to lay the groundwork explaining the problem that is being addressed by the theory and even then it might take a few mental breakthroughs to get there.

This is to be expected, of course.  Science builds upon science so to get where the most forward thinking minds are today one must mire through the incremental advancements of some of the brightest minds the world has ever known.  Centuries of brilliant deductions and complex theories were needed just to build the foundation so it’s unlikely that the average person is ever going to understand the capstone.  Even the simplest explanation of special relativity tests the mental boundaries of the most functional minds on the planet.

But science exacerbates this problem by largely ignoring it.  Attempts at direct communication from the scientific community usually come off as pedantic and condescending and even then they aren’t very elucidating.  Add to this the frustrating specificity in science-speak (such as referring to arms as “upper extremities”) and you have a fantastic recipe for temple rubbing and blank stares.

 #7) Corporate Funded “Science”

Not all corporate funded science is bad, of course.  Many if not most of the medical and technological breakthroughs of the past fifty years have come from privately funded experiments.  Chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies, bio-tech companies and engineers are constantly pushing the boundaries of human ingenuity.  Sometimes they come up with life saving drugs and sometimes they come up with color-catching fabric sheets, but regardless of the application, none of this should be considered “bad” science.

The bad science comes in when the corporation funding the research has a vested interest in the outcome.  We obviously can’t trust Quaker Oats to do fair and unbiased research on oats, can we?  Even if their experimental methods were impeccable and the scientist conducting the studies were given full autonomy, the group funding the research will ultimately control the dissemination of that information.  If the outcome is positive, they will publish and promote the study.  If it is negative, the data may never see the light of day.

This is exactly what happened back in the 80s when we trusted Quaker Oats to fund studies on the efficacy of oatmeal in reducing cholesterol.  Data was cherry picked to make the results look a lot more convincing than they really were and studies that might have lowered the perceived value of oat bran were discarded.  It would take legitimate science more than a decade to hash out the real effects (oat bran does seem to have a very moderate effect on lowering bad cholesterol), but you never would have suspected the data was ambiguous at the time.  By 1989 even beers were advertising their oat-bran content.

 #8) Lack of “good” funding

The main vehicle to counteract the bias of privately funded science is, of course, publicly funded science.  Tax dollars are advocated to science based (theoretically) on the general applicability of the information which means that scientists have no vested interest in producing a particular outcome.  Professional integrity acts as a stop gap to ambitious scientists who might be tempted to cut corners to sensationalize their studies and peer-reviewed journals ensure that such self-promoters can be sniffed out quickly.

But the dollars for this truly objective science are dwindling.  The US, once the world’s leader in scientific research, now lags behind more research friendly nations like China, Korea, India and Japan.  As our priorities shifted so did the location of the cutting edge research facilities and the cutting edge minds in the scientific community.  Fear of deficit spending causes us to largely ignore the massive incentive that investing in science offers.

In addition, silly news stories that sum up scientific research with no attempt at context make even the most promising research seem frivolous.  After all, if someone told you that millions were being spent to figure out how geckos stick to the wall that might have seemed like a waste of money.  The fact that this research all but created the modern field of nanotech might get lost in the belly laugh that followed.

The greatest achievements of our country are offered by science.  The two most significant economic booms of my lifetime were created by the space race and the internet, both products of massive government expenditures and both projects that saw few commercial applications until decades after the initial investments.

There are good signs that things are heading in the right direction but we have some serious catching up to do if we want our country to retake its place as the world’s technological pioneer.  We don’t lack the knowledge, the drive or the resources; we’ve simply lost our faith.

1 comment:

  1. Another excellent discussion (although I do hope that "sciency" was just a typo). I rather like the way your mind works and the range of your intellectual curiosity.