Hopefully many people reading this blog will shake their heads in disbelief and recognize that these statements are wrong. They are not just wrong – they are dangerous! Michael Specter, a writer for the New Yorker and author of a book on scientific denialism, gave an excellent TED talk about the danger of denying science.
Denouncing deniers of science with strong words such as fraudsters and terrorists, Spector blasts these individuals and groups for propagating incorrect information and impacting the lives and well-being of others by doing. An interesting question, and one most people do not bother to consider, is why. Why do these people have such strong anti-science opinions?
Specter suggests people deny science because we increasingly live in a world of fear. He argues that people are grown increasingly untrusting of authority and institutions. Although I agree that the general public appears to have lost their faith in science, I do not think fear completely explains the rationale behind science skeptics. People who deny science are not backward, fervent, obsessive psychopaths. They are normal, educated, articulate people. Why then, do they pursue lines of thinking that others consider an act of terrorism?
“Believe nothing, Question everything”
In an ever-connected, digital world, with 24- hour news cycles, where every Tom, Dick and Harriet can publicize their opinion on the soapbox that is the internet, we are (hopefully) becoming increasingly skeptical at the information presented to us. Is it (as Specter suggests) that we demand evidence, but cannot accept what is put forth if we find it disagreeable? This premise is based on the assumption that the general populace has the ability to understand the evidence and on that basis, does not accept it. Perhaps, people who deny scientific claims simply do not understand how science is done?
The reason why scientific training takes decades and why undergraduate scientific training programs do not even aim to produce functional scientists (which is what graduate school is supposed to be for), is due to the overwhelming amount of information a scientist must have to properly do their job. Scientists need to understand what is known about biological systems (the theory), the technical aspects of how to formulate, plan and complete an experiment and perhaps the most difficult to teach: how to connect their theoretical and technical knowledge to formulate an experiment to clarify a scientific question. If this takes decades of intensive training, how can we possible expect laypeople to understand science if they do not comprehend the underlying methodology of the scientific process?
“Give a man a truth and he will think for a day, Teach a man to reason and he will think for a lifetime”
– Phil Plait aka the Bad Astronomer
I agree, Scientists should do more to articulate not just their results, but also how they came to their conclusions. We should be answering questions like – How does their research fill the knowledge gap? What does it realistically add to what we already know? So what is standing in our way of this? Not surprisingly – several things. Simply put, scientists see the world a little differently than the average person. We have been trained to! Although it does give us the ability to push the envelope of human knowledge, it doesn’t necessarily make it easy for us to communicate what we do to the world.
Well firstly, scientists rarely speak in absolutes. We slowly test a particular idea by approaching it from multiple angles and seeing if it fails. If it does, then we change our perspective, think of an explanation, and test that avenue. If it doesn’t fail, it doesn’t necessary mean that our idea was 100% correct, rather it just means that we correctly hypothesized that particular aspect. So, we keep testing other aspects until we have a bigger picture, changing our perspective and thinking of other questions to ask and trying to fit the observations into a model of what is happening.
This does not fit with punchy headlines and the 24 hour media cycle. We are not trying to sound unsure; we are fairly confident in the results of our experiments. We have toiled over them, ensured, to the best of our abilities, that they were done currently and that our data is not a technical artifact or a fluke. We say that our experiments show that X most likely = Y but we will almost never say that X = Y, because we have not tested, beyond all doubt, every possibility. This makes it appear that we are unsure, thus not properly communicating our science to the public and leading them to think that there is doubt in our data.
The inability of scientists to be able to effectively communicate our findings was most recently highlighted on a now viral segment that John Oliver did on his HBO show “Last Week Today.” He pointed out that the argument over climate change in the media is largely based on public opinion and that whenever it was debated in the media, there was even representation on both sides of the argument. However, in the climate change field, 97% of all research papers agreed that climate change was happening and humans had contributed to it.  To better represent this, John Oliver invited a climate change skeptic and 2 supporters to debate Bill Nye the Science Guy and 96 other scientists. Ironically, when the skeptic was asked his opinion on climate change, he could answer with a clear and coherent answer, however when the scientists were asked, the sheer number of voices drowned out any coherent reply.
The way scientists communicate is also convoluted, largely due to the requirement of scientists to apply for funding so that we can do our jobs. Public and philanthropic funding of research is the major source of funds for basic research worldwide. To get any of this funding is often a hair-pulling exercise that is now a vital component of scientific research. It is also immensely competitive, with only 16% of all research proposals received by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) being successful and thus funded.
To apply for money, you need to convey, in several pages, what your proposal is, that what you are working on is important and that it is critical it should get funded. Due to the competitiveness, it ends up sounding like THE means to the end! The saviour to the problem of X, Y or Z! (This now also applies to scientific articles, but that is beast for another time).
When a research result is discussed in the media, it is often in a similar light as our incredulous grant proposals in terms of what the translational endpoint of the study or data might be. “This discovery could mean a potential new drug avenue” or “we are one step closer to curing cancer.” All these bring in readers and inspire the public, but it also leaves them with a false hope of progress. We are not much closer to curing cancer then we were 20 years ago; we know a lot more about the disease and have a handful of new drugs to treat it with, but it is still a very dangerous disease that claims millions of lives worldwide. Ultimately – scientists are doing themselves and the public a disservice by failing to contextualize their achievements in light of our current understanding of science and by not delineating a clear timeline of what needs to occur next for their work to fully translate into a benefit for the individual.
Lastly, although it is my opinion that scientists should try and communicate to the public, to help educate, inspire and better understand what we know of the world, unfortunately it is not in our job description. We are not paid to communicate to the public and there are very few jobs for scientists who wish to do so.
As a young “early career” researcher, I am expected to work my butt off so that I can generate results and write several papers as publication record is one of the most used metrics to determine our worth as researchers.Ultimately, the more papers, the better record and the higher likelihood that you can land a job that pays better than a manager of a fast food restaurant. Whether you have tried to communicate to the public does not increase your scientific standing, and in some cases, can even work against you.
However, as people, citizens of a global society, scientists cannot sit and wait for someone else to take up their cause. People are dying due to inability of some in our world to “believe” what we do. By not helping people to understand the ideas behind science, we are aiding and abetting the science deniers. Of course, some people won’t change their minds, no matter how much reason you throw at them, but I just can’t concede that all skeptics are unswayable.
We cannot do nothing, but — what can we do? I don’t think there is a perfect answer for this, but I am going to do all I can to publicize the work of scientists in a way that is easy to understand and contextualize. Whether it be on this blog, via twitter or teaching, I am not going to rest on my laurels and expect change – I am going to try and be the change I want to see in the scientific community and in the way the general public perceives science.
Special thanks for Kayla Gross for proof-reading and suggestions!