Thursday, March 12, 2009

Science in Public Discourse

I generally love the idea of science getting public attention, and the fact that our new administration seems to see science as worthy of respect (and funding) is a good thing. I still don't know how to think about the way that science is conveyed and perceived by the general public.

There are two major problems: 1. Scientists generally do not do a very good job of conveying their studies and message to a general audience, 2. Those who do convey messages well to a general audience typically don't understand science worth a damn. This is why news outlets (tv and papers) so easily fall into the traps of anti-science types. Anti-scientists are dominated, publicly, by religious (anti-evolution, anti-stem cells) and industrial (anti-global warming) anti-science groups. Both groups are much better at presenting things to the public because they represent the same level of science understanding, i.e. virtually none.

I can explain the cyclic voltammetric response to increased solution resistance very well to another electrochemist. And electrochemistry pretty well to a chemist. And I can even do a fair job of explaining general chemistry to a chem student or a physicist. Explaining any level of science to someone who has no background, and little interest in, science is virtually impossible. The language is just too different. The subtle distinction between scientific theory and hypothesis is easily lost to someone who uses the word "theory" synonymously with "guess." The elegance behind the statement that 0% and 100% do not exist in real probabilities is lost when the listener has no familiarity with numbers like 10^-34.

On the one hand it is incumbent on scientists to do our best to share valuable information with the public in a way that they can comprehend. On the other it is the responsibility of media outlets (and the public) to understand that the complexities of scientific discovery and debate are not being kept from them because we are a secretive cabal of elitist decision-makers who are hell bent on silencing all dissenting voices, but because the complexities are just that: complex. They are well beyond the comprehension of most people, including most scientists not in the field being discussed. The anti-scientist arguments meant to sound rational but are not, they are emotional, and most scientists don't like to drag themselves into the mud to argue with them. (It is impossible to debate against a lie if viewers of the debate will not acknowledge the lie for what it is.)

In the face of complexity, it becomes easy to sound correct using the correct talking points against someone who lacks sufficient knowledge/background to dispute. Your high school biology teacher is very unlikely to even have awareness of the real scientific debates and controversies related to evolution, much less the related sciences that contribute and support the theory(like geology). Your high school physics teacher probably knows about relativity, but probably does not understand the mathematics that result, and is probably every bit as lost when it comes to string theory as I am.

Next time: where the hell am I going with this?


Michael L. Heien said...

I am sure you did not mean to say something like this in a short communcation...but when you say

"...anti-science types. Anti-scientists are dominated, publicly, by religious (anti-evolution, anti-stem cells) and industrial (anti-global warming) anti-science groups..."

Do you really mean to say (or imply) that if someone is opposed to stem cell research, or say global warming propoganda (I am making a distiction between Al Gore here and actual climate science) that they are "anti-science?" I think it is possible to have moral objections to what we are willing to do. These questions need to be asked. Even Obama said "no cloning." Does this mean he is "anti-science" since we have the technology to clone?" No it doesn't. I think by paining people as "anti-science" for a position you can fall into the same Dogma which they possess (ie you are unwilling to entertain challenges to your point of view).

Jacob said...

There's a bit of oversimplification due to the brevity, but those were given as example of the public nature of anti-science sentiment that is displayed as a result of religion.

The majority of noise from the anti-stem cell people is from those who dislike and distrust science in general. Your extrapolations are specious.

And global warming? Propaganda aside (and, in my opinion, probably necessary if distasteful), I will say that people who do not believe that humans have had and are having an impact on the global climate that has been producing and is likely to continue to produce increasing average temperatures (over base changes, and behind wildly fluctuating year to year temps) which will have unpredictable results, is anti-science.

We'll see how good Obama really is for science. All signs now point to orders of magnitude better than Bush.

Michael L. Heien said...

I still think you are being dismissive of people's viewpoints, and you don't leave much room for debate/legitimate disagreement (somthing you accuse those you disagree with of doing). I will tell you what is anti-science, saying "the time for debate is over" (Al Gore). Or, "the science is settled."

In other news, Freeman Dyson is not a scientist (

As soon as global warming produces a testable hypothesis that is verified, I'll get fully on board. Until then, I will remain a skeptic.