Sunday, November 9, 2008

Science and Politics - Let's get it on

Science's influence on society is immeasurable. Medicine, technology, engineering, telecommunications, and education, owe their modern existence to systematic observation and experimentation - the scientific method. Whether or not you care at all about it, science has had a direct and profound impact on your quality of life, health, communication, and entertainment. For these reasons, and zillions of others, science matters.

Unfortunately, public perception of the importance of science has significantly diminished over the past decade, particularly in the United States. There are myriad reasons for this, but a large share of the burden may lie with scientists themselves. Sure, the Bush administration has done their best to discredit and make irrelevant science for eight years, and religious conservatives have waged the so called "war on science" for even longer. Those factors matter, a lot, but I think a large portion of the blame lies within the scientific community and people that call themselves science advocates. As a bunch, I think we've become complacent, satisfied to remain within our own tiny spheres of influence. We run experiments, publish papers, give talks, and maybe even blog, but at the same time, we allow the constant denigration of our craft - within government, among the media, and at the hands of anti-science groups. This passivity has become all too common; scientists are quick to spout their misgivings about the state of research in America, when provoked (for taped interview, say), but self-motivated outrage at their own cheapened status is seldom seen.

That is not to say that the devaluation of science in America was caused by inaction among scientists. This is hardly the case, but I think this anti-science society persists in part because scientists as a group, and any science friendlies among the public, have not spoken up loudly and angrily enough. When the government rejects thousands of research studies from 50 years of investigation, and denies anthropogenic global warming, for example, the science-friendly public should have stood up, shouting and calling their congresspersons. We shouldn't have allowed this to pass, letting the big bad government rework reality as they pleased. We all share the blame for the current predicament, and so we all share responsibility to fix it.

We need to return (were we ever there?) to the days when science was the first and last resort of public policy. When we need answers, we should look to the research, examine the data. Health care, energy, immigration, foreign policy, *the economy*, and many other hot-button political issues are directly informed and influenced by knowledge gleaned from scientific research. This isn't just about some "elitist," academic pursuit of knowledge (though there's nothing wrong with that!), this is about coming to real-world solutions for current imperative issues.

So we are now past the blame game, past pointing fingers, past all those hand-wringing cliches. There are real crises in the world that need fixing NOW, and science can help. There may not be much time to begin fostering trust and excitement in science among the public, and enacting science-based policy. Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal, two unabashedly anti-science politicians, are among those that may challenge the future. We have in front of us an opportunity, the chance to take advantage of a science friendly administration to reinstate science as the driving force behind prudent government.

Consider the multifaceted nature of your world. Consider the influences on your everyday life, where many disparate ideas coalesce into what you call society. For each of us, this world has its vital and precious parts. Let's keep it all intact.


Lukas said...

I do agree with you that a decent amount of blame lies with the scientific community, but I also think that the media deserves a large portion of blame. The media is always searching for the big news story that will get ratings regardless of the validity of the research. Case in very good point, the anti-vaccination mob. They continue to get media coverage despite total lack of evidence supporting their claims. You can watch any of the news stations left, right, or middle, and they will show jenny mccarthy and jim carrey preaching for ten minutes about why vaccinations are bad based on anecdotal evidence, at which time they turn around and give 30 seconds to a researcher that has studies and evidence to support that increased numbers are due to increased diagnosis and that no correlation exists between vaccines and autism. I obviously realize that they aren't the entire problem, but I really believe that people do like hearing about interesting studies and interesting scientific information, they are just not willing to search for it. Also, it has to be information they can understand and truly comprehend, for example, the study where a research team traced the genetics of a certain bacterial population over 40+ years to prove evolution by showing that the bacteria in the lab evolved to be able to live on a culture medium composed of nutrients that the original progenitor bacteria could not metabolize. While this is extremely interesting to me, I seriously doubt that much of the population truly understands what the study is, or the magnitude of the meaning of the study. This is where I think scientists face their biggest challenge in relating this information so more people can understand and enjoy this type of information (maybe some less controversial topics would be a slightly better start). Anyway, I was bored, so I thought I would post a dumb long comment. Also, I don't feel like re-reading this comment, so it is not spell or grammar checked.

Ben said...

I definitely agree the media is at fault. Whether by omitting, dumbing-down, or incorrectly reporting science news, they have a big effect. I would also say though, that scientists have to be more responsible in the way they communicate their findings to the public (through MSM, the internet, whatever). I think part of the problem is a feeling of irrelevance; given that science is downplayed so often in popular culture - in a country where a former Playboy model/actress has more credibility than thousands of researchers - it's easy to give up.

I think my main point is that nothing is going to change unless scientists and pro-science people (it's weird that I even have to distinguish them from other people) take a stand against science devaluation. It's not enough for a researcher to complain to other researchers about the problem, they have to be more public about it. We can't rely on the MSM to get it right. They have ulterior motives (ratings, readership, etc) that prevent them from fully supporting the facts, and allow them to continue supporting pseudoscience.

I think you illustrate a great point too, by noting that you are one that finds science reporting really interesting. I think there are a lot of people that feel the same way, but we need to shift the culture in that direction more for broad acceptance of science as a legitimate, necessary component of society. I don't care if everyone finds it personally interesting, though, I just want them to appreciate/accept it for what it is.

Anne said...

I don't think that most people are anti-science. For example, when Palin comments that fruit fly research is pointless, it gets a lot of press because it's ridiculous. I think that most people don't think scientifically, so while they may appreciate science and respect it, they don't have the tools necessary to understand how the process works, the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, etc. The scientific process isn't intuitive and the results of published studies often run counter to observations of personal experiences. That's what I taught the first week in research methods, Peirce's methods of fixing belief. Most people rely on anecdotes, tenacity, and authority to inform their opinions. It's going to take a lot to fight these inclinations.

Ben said...

I agree, but I think that's sort of a different issue, also important. First, though, people have to accept that an empirical, evidence-based way of looking at the world is the way to go. But your right about changing people's inclinations. That's where better communication and education come in.

Ben said...

I'm not sure most people appreciate science and accept it. Or, they do to a weak point, until it conflicts with any personal beliefs, what their cousin said, what they heard on Rush Limbaugh, etc. My problem is that most people take the information from unreliable sources, information that's based on ideology, gut feeling, or faith, and put that above all scrutiny.

Lukas said...

Yeah, I see what you're saying Ben when you state that someone puts information based on ideology, gut feeling, or faith above scrutiny, and that is clearly wrong and a hard habit to break. So many people are guilty of that than the religious right. A few quick examples...1. scientists who work for years trying to prove a correlation or theory only to have their work shattered when they realize that what they have been researching is in fact false, but they continue to hold on to their life's work because of how much time and effort they spent on it. Failing to realize that just because the correlation isn't their, doesn't mean that their work isn't an invaluable process and success in the scientific method. 2. Atheists, are guilty of using faith even when they don't realize it. I feel cheap, because this point has been argued several times on the skeptics guide, but I will reiterate it. If you only surrender yourself to science, the most you can be either way is agnostic. You can't submit that there definitely isn't a higher power because it cannot be proven, just as the same as believing that there is a higher power is just that a belief. There is really no circumstantial evidence either way. Now given that, there are Deists and Atheists that realize that there is no scientific evidence to believe what they believe, but just faith, which is fine. The problem occurs when they allow articles of their faith to be injected into the scientific realm where they do not belong. Now, obviously that last statement primarily applies to the deists and not the atheists, as in forcing the teaching of creationism or preventing vaccinations for "religious" reasons. Sorry to get so far off topic, I will digress. I do think that the general public appreciates science more than they realize and more than they are given credit for. I have had multiple conversations (unfortunately here comes the vaccines again) about various vaccines with people that 1. I would consider the lay public and b. don't necessarily have a vested interest in what the vaccinations does exactly. Multiple people have asked if Gardasil has really been linked to sudden death or if MMR really causes autism. Obviously I realize that these are large topics, but I think this is evidence that people are interested at least a little bit. I think a large deficit lies in connecting the two sides. It is as I said earlier it is not only presenting the information people, but presenting it in a light so they can understand what it means to them as a person. One more example and they I will quit blabbering on. This one is a little bit more about how science can be misleading. Jimmy posted an article on facebook yesterday about a man being cured of HIV. Now while any of us can quickly read that article and marvel at the achievement at man, but at the same time comprehend that this isn't a cure for everyone or really many other people, it is not that readily visible to everyone. Anyway, I somewhat think I have lost sight of what I am even talking about, so I will end it here. Once again I don't feel like spell checking or grammar checking. Before it happens, I will add in that I am so terrible sometimes that I will use the wrong homophone. Sorry if this comment doesn't make any sense.