Science is struggling
Following the development of the scientific method in the Enlightenment in the 18th century using Ancient Greek precedents, science has had fluctuating fortunes. Science and its products have arguably been the preeminent human achievement revolutionizing the human experience. And the achievements of the scientific world are widely acclaimed. Nevertheless, science is simultaneously glorified yet reviled, relied upon yet ignored and praised yet lampooned. And the critics, while often an ignorant minority, have been persuasive in critical debates particularly in recent climate change and COVID discussions.
Yet some science persuades almost universally. Take flight for example. Flight, a mere hundred and twenty years ago, existed only in fantasy. Now we have such trust in the science of flight that we happily sit in a wobbly metal can, a mile above the earth, with total trust in the science of flight. Amazing stuff. Yet other science is disbelieved or poisoned by conspiracy theories. Let’s unpack that distinction, to see why there is almost universal belief in some science and not in others. We now have a duty to defend and promote science from the unruly mob.
For years, science has been ridiculed, ignored and mocked by some. So what? Does it matter if a few doubters ventilate their uninformed objections to even uncontroversial scientific positions? Well now it really matters as we are facing existential challenges in climate and COVID and the unscientific are given disproportionate power. So it seems apposite that a defence of science is mounted for the good of humanity and our earth.
We all know the most obvious science deniers:
- Psychics communing with the dead (with traumatic cost to the bereaved).
- The Anti vaccination movement.
- Wind Farm Disease advocates (now largely dissipated).
- Climate change deniers.
- Fluoridation “science”
- The tenacious belief of the Creation narrative of Genesis (In the USA, findings by both the Pew Center and Gallup shows that this hovers between 38% and 42% – remarkable in such a technologically advanced country. And even more remarkable now where the evolution of the COVID virus is so palpable and so important to observe and counter).
The failure to persuade the laity about science involves a number of political, psychological and cultural forces. In this piece, we quickly look at many issues combined to promote disbelief.
THE EFFORT OF EXPERTISE
Expertise can be a demanding overseer. Remarkably, expert opinions occasionally need more than 280 words to do them justice. And not only may expert opinions be long and arduous to read, they may be complicated. Oh dear. These are significant barriers for science to reach out to hearts and minds – length and complexity.
For example, the basic explanation of climate change gases is very difficult. One almost never sees the basic explanation of the impact of radiative forcing on the equilibrium of solar radiation absorption and re-emission. The role of triatomic molecules in the atmosphere is seldom discussed. This stuff is never explained to the laity or indeed, easily explainable.
Some science, because it is so useful and so tangible, like cars and computers, avoid such criticism. The laity, this writer included, has no idea what is under the bonnet or keyboard but don’t seek understanding because the commercialized products are so damn useful. Utility defeats the consumer’s urge to denigrate the science. That is not the case, however, in theoretical or less product based science.
Several universities have commenced the process of skilling up science communicators such as https://handbook.unimelb.edu.au/2017/subjects/scie90012 But the question of accessibility is a fundamental challenge for the scientific establishment to conquer.
THE MISTAKES OF SCIENCE
The scientific enterprise is not perfect. There are some mistakes and some frightening consequences of science from iatrogenic disease to humanitarian disasters.
The mistakes include medical scandals such as the Thalidomide disgrace, the ecological disaster of the cane toad introduction to Australia and the failure of some popular science-like theories such as Peak Oil.
Often, in hindsight, we could point to poor science but that doesn’t exonerate the discipline. Scientific method assumes mistakes will be made and that improvements can always be made. Some of these mistakes feed the sense that scientific hubris and error enables the nonscientific world to ignore or attack science. This sense is exacerbated when science is not wrong but creates horrific outcomes such as nuclear weaponry and other lethal weapons enabled by clever science.
THE RESENTMENT OF EXPERTISE
The hubris of some experts is annoying for the laity. This is exemplified by the Logical Positivists (or Logical Empiricists) of the 1920s and they were truly irritating. This doctrine held that only statements supportable through logic or observation had any value in truth. It is an interesting view but arrogant. Similarly, in economics, lay observers used to call some of the profession by the pejorative name “Economic Rationalists”. On their face, those are two good words. But people outside a profession get alienated by expertise and then feel it is ok to marginalise that expertise. It is a natural human emotion which flies in the face of the achievements of those academic areas.
So some responses to irrational anti science have tried not to inflame the community. For example, some recent rebuttals of vaccination reluctance have been very gentle. This gentility is a bit frustrating but may be more persuasive. The temptation to abuse and demean ignorant anti vaxxers has been avoided by our leaders and this strategy seems to be working with clever incentives and explanations. There are well behaved tactics to not inflame the resentment of expertise. This forbearance though has failed in parts of Republican USA. There is of course the counter veiling view that dangerous opportunists and/or morons (like Craig Kelly’s misleading and dangerous texts) should be called out. There is a difficult balance in correcting charlatans whilst not inflaming resentment in the face of superior expertise.
PAST POOR BEHAVIOUR OF SCIENCE
In times past, when science was less challenged than now, poor behaviour has occurred from indifference to animal suffering or nuking the central Australian desert or the Pacific. Science could have been accused of cavalier behaviour. Now that is reversed as scientists wrestle with a mountain of paper, ethical committees and other protections to further their research. This problem has been addressed but the odium and suspicion remain.
EPISTEMOLOGY AND KNOWLEDGE.
The nature and scope of knowledge, epistemology, addresses what is the difference between knowledge, truth and belief. Let us just allude to this ground as the literature on the difference is venerable and voluminous. But what counts as truth or knowledge can be distinguished from faith and belief and there are different paths to each outcome.
This is summarised in this famous graphic
There are three challenges. One challenge for science is to understand how ill-formed nonsense propagates and address that. Another challenge is to understand how falsehoods prosper. And a final challenge is to get beliefs, including theistic beliefs into their proper context. These three challenges are monumental.
THE PROBLEM OF TANGIBILITY
Belief is far easier in stuff that can be seen and touched. The problem for science is that some of its theories or outcomes can be perceived and others not so. It would seem that an explanation for the dichotomy between some science which is believed and indeed worshipped and other science that is subject to suspicion is just how damn obvious it is to the laity. Geology is believed because it is tangible – a rock is a rock. Quantum physics is so abstract that it is easy to marginalize or even repudiate. The most contentious science is maybe abstract and therefore easily impugned.
So here is a hierarchy of science. A one end science can be marginalized, ignored or lampooned because it is invisible. At the other end, science that is commercialized is accepted.
Hierarchy of Believability – the lower on this intangibility spectrum, the more public acceptance prevails.
- Pure Science – easily ignored by the community – for example astrophysics or pure maths – too intangible for the laity. Pure science, intangible and invisible is not attacked by outsiders. Occasionally it will be derided as the folly of fools in lab coats (even though these people don’t wear lab coats);
- Applied intangible science – statistics and Climate Change – These subjects seem to arouse the most suspicion and hostility from the critical laity. The maths or science is not obvious to the naked eye.
- Applied tangible science – for example, materials engineering and drug research – there is often acclamation of this science with puff pieces in the tabloid media about “miraculous” outcomes. This is at the other end of the spectrum about scientific acceptance where scientists are lionized;
- Commercialised science – flight and surgery – heroic trust. Whilst there is some scepticism, the scientific laity trust science to fly planes and surgical science to cut open our bodies and sew them up. Commerce takes science to the people and there is large, almost not universal, acceptance and belief. This contrasts with less tangible science.
So the problem area is principally found in section 2 above – applied intangible science. People know that this area of science exists and feel able to attack it because of the intangible nature of the evidence.
The task is to create tangible evidence. In climate change, this is emerging. Extreme events consistent with climate models are now manifest. Unprecedented bush fires from the western USA to Greece and in southeastern Australia make change impossible to ignore. Floods in Europe and disappearing Pacific nations make all but the stubbornest understand that the science which was theoretical is now upon us. The task of the scientific establishment is to make this science manifest. After all, evidence is the cornerstone of the scientific method so compiling accessible evidence should be a skill scientists or their allies could foster.
POLITICAL AND CULTURAL FACTORS
Science will find itself inevitably embroiled in culture and political wars. Take this example.
“US radio host Bob Enyart — a self-proclaimed “right-wing religious fanatic” who urged a boycott of Covid-19 vaccines — has died after contracting the coronavirus earlier this month while fighting mask and social distancing restrictions in court.”
Bob Enyart was a cruel homophobe. His death is belated but welcome natural selection.
There are theistic, cultural and political determinants of the belief that shackle the ability of believers to accept scientific propositions. Science can only defeat this enemy by constant advocacy and hope that the political and cultural momentums change.
FINANCIAL RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
Sometimes this political dimension is driven by perceived self-interest. The well-documented support of the resources industry for anti-climate change campaigning is an example. The resistance of the smoking industry to reform, often with the support of compliant scientists, is the most scandalous example.
THE POWER OF ENTRENCHED BELIEFS
This gives rise to a related point – incumbent beliefs are resilient. Once a mind is made up, it is generally not for turning. Accordingly, where science tries to shift an existing belief, the advantage of incumbency is considerable. Will Bob Enyart’s disciples be able to shift their views now that his blind anti-rational prejudice led to his fortunate demise? I suspect not.
This power was demonstrated by Festinger et al who studied a cult that believed in invasion by flying saucers from the Planet Clarion in the 1950s (“When Prophesies Fail”). When the anointed date of invasion, came and went, the initial response of the failed prophecy was increased belief in the prophecy! When there is a group supporting believers, disconfirmatory evidence can lead, paradoxically, to stronger belief. In 2021, psychologist Stuart Vyse found similar outcomes in the repudiation of QAnon assertions using the Festinger methodology.
THE DEFINITION OF NEWS
Science relies upon news transmitted by mainstream or social media. News is best understood by what it isn’t. It is not information, entertainment or education. So a Britany Spears video is entertainment, her age is information, her wiki entry might be education but her well-publicised battles with her father are news.
News is generally recent stories of importance or interest to the community (Crispin Hull, former editor Canberra Times). The attributes of news are:
- Recent not past
- Stories not facts
- Interesting not necessarily important
- Community relevance
- Celebrity, conflict and photos increase news values.
Evolutionary biologists would say that news is nothing more than village gossip writ large. (Frank T McAndrew http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-science-of-gossip )
The rise of social media has increased the choice and velocity of information. Very quickly readers can choose their own digital echo chambers. Anecdotally I have met climate deniers who read nothing but self-selected sites and regard scientists as driven only by self-interest. It is truly demoralising. Science must learn to craft their stories as news.
The media protocol of equal time for all sides can be problematic too. Certain media outlets have argued that all voices are entitled to equal time. So a research scientist of renown might be accorded the same level of exposure with a deluded conspiracy theorist. The ABC has in recent years moved away from that protocol in parts of the organisation. Climate denial is presumed incorrect.
News values are not necessarily good for science stories. But good science journalists can take the battle to the field. Here is a photo of Sam from the bushfires of the Millennial Drought. Sam and her suffering is a climate change story in a photo. We need more Sams in the fight for science.
THE SALVATION OF SCIENCE
This is a tough task. Scientists have been lampooned as white-coated fools by the ignorant and bigoted for years. The scientific establishment, however, ought not give up. Making the scientific world accessible ought not to be a little interest at the margins of academic life. It has to be a central academic duty. Scientific courses ought to include communication skills and practice. The key is tangible evidence and great photos. We need to take this admittedly difficult body of knowledge and make it comprehensible for as many open-minded humans as possible. And the non-scientists must, like the righteous gentiles of the WWII, be the righteous outsiders who lend a helping hand.
Dick Gross AM
Lecturer and Fellow, School of Earth Sciences
University of Melbourne