The crisis of public confidence in science and scientists

Today Radio 4 reported that some scientists are complaining that public confidence in them is too low. As an example, they cited the admittedly alarming fact that 50% of Americans, and 33% of Britons, believe that the issue of global warming is being exaggerated. And this, despite the overwhelming evidence that global warming is not only real, but now cannot be prevented from exceeding the 2 degrees centigrade that the science suggests is the maximum that can occur without very serious, and probably irreversible, consequences.

The impression that was given strongly in the report was that the complaining scientists see the problem as being not in science or scientists, but in public gullibility, or ignorance, or political and commercial distortion. I do not doubt for one moment that all of those woeful things do indeed exist, and are leading to unhelpful and positively dangerous denials of scientific fact. The average person is hugely vulnerable to the charge of gullibility. Homoeopathy, astrology, superstition, responding to unsolicited emails promising unlikely riches and even more unlikely generosity on the part of the emailer; all these, and many, many more besides, are enough to make anyone despair about the ability of passengers on Clapham omnibuses to discriminate between sense and nonsense. Asking those same passengers to interpret even the most basic statistics is unlikely to restore one’s confidence. And of course, people everywhere are open to the distortions generated by their personal financial interests and their pre-existing political persuasions.

However, I think that if scientists are content to see these difficulties as entirely of others’ making, and themselves as heroically standing up for dispassionate intellectual purity, then they delude themselves, and have fallen victim to their own self-perceptions. It is indeed sad that public opinion seems so immune to scientific illumination, but I fear that much of the blame for this must fall upon the scientists themselves. They have not only supped with the devils of commerce and politics, they’ve positively feasted with them. It seems that almost any commercial interest can field a respected scientist or two to produce objective science that just happens to support their position. Unfortunately, their commercial opponents seem to be able to do exactly the same, along with equally objective science that proves precisely the opposite. A little investigative journalism then exposes a web of payments for research that jeopardises the whole concept of scientific disinterest. And this is not only the case for commercial interests. The pro- and anti-fox-hunting lobbies seemed to have no difficulty in producing scientific evidence to prove conclusively that foxes were simultaneously grateful for fox-hunting’s assistance in the elimination of weakened or diseased individuals, whilst also experiencing untold and unnecessary stress and pain. Today, medical scientist A tells us that without statins we’re all doomed; tomorrow medical scientist B tells us that most of  the people who take it don’t need it, it does them no good, and probably significant harm. Almost as an aside, we learn that the leading statin is the most profitable drug ever. Is it any wonder that the public grows weary and suspicious?

Scientists might with some justice complain that this is less their fault than it is that of the media, which distorts their conclusions, overly simplifies their results, and plays fast and loose with their statistics, banking on that public ignorance that I wrote about a moment ago. But that will not do. Scientists need to be less sloppy themselves as well. For example, on the same Radio 4 programme this morning we learnt about some scientists whose “study, published in the journal Animal Behaviour, reveals that the nematode has developed this tactic to warn birds to keep away from its host and therefore avoid being eaten.” It reveals what? A nematode worm with the intelligence to plan a campaign of such sophistication that it can decide to use its skill and judgement to change the colour of its host with the express purpose of not being eaten by robins? And scientists then wring their hands in despair when crazy people in America and elsewhere say they believe not in evolution, but in intelligent design. At least those purveyors of arrant crap have the decency to attribute the intelligent design to a transcendent Being, which sounds a lot less daft than attributing it to a nematode worm. Nematode worms do not “change” the colour of their host larvae with any purpose in mind whatsoever. A random genetic change (or changes) led to the production of this colour change, which then had the happy, but entirely unintended, consequence of robins exercising their pickiness by avoiding eating them. Thus were colour-changing nematodes given a competitive advantage that they had no part in planning. This is not a “tactic”. You think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill? I beg to differ. If you want (rightly in my opinion) to castigate and ridicule creationists, using the exact same conceptual language isn’t a clever or convincing way of doing it.

No. Scientists are right to be alarmed at how misguided most of their fellow citizens are in their inability to understand and appreciate scientific knowledge. If they want to be part of the solution, and not add to the problem, then they need to distance themselves from commercial and political interests, and to stop lapsing into lazy teleology.

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5 thoughts on “The crisis of public confidence in science and scientists

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The crisis of public confidence in science and scientists « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. As a scientist distancing myself from commercial interests is equivalent to putting myself out of a job. Commercial interests paid for my PhD, they paid for my postdoctoral work and they pay me now in the private sector!

    • And that, my friend, is the problem in a nutshell! A problem that can only get worse as public support for science is squeezed, and more and more reliance is placed on commercial funding.

      Of course, there is no problem about commerce employing scientists to further their technological advances, but that is a different matter. Where scientists are supposed to be providing guidance to society as a whole – global warming being a case in point – then we need public funding, and not funding by the oil industry that amazingly enough finds that burning fossil fuel is not such a danger after all, or by the renewable energy industry that equally surprisingly finds that wind farms will save the world!

  3. The oil industry isn’t funding climate change research; a few oil companies are funding freemarket think-tanks, principally in the US and they are exceedingly effective in getting their message into the media because the media feels the need to provide “balance”. It’s something like using Christian Voice to stand for Christian views.

  4. I do agree that part of the problem is that the communication skills of scientists are atrocious. So, when the media distorts what they say, they’re alarmed, but they would have been misunderstood if they tried to say it themselves (in general). Part of the problem is that every field uses its own jargon that to the layperson means something completely different. Another part is that there are underlying assumptions that everyone in the field knows about but when the scientist speaks to the media, they forget, and hence it may seem like a wild leap. Yet another problem is that to get to where they are, scientists didn’t have to communicate with anyone but other scientists. Their public speaking skills are severely lacking, which is incredibly unfortunate. I listened to a panel of 4 physics Nobel Laureates … I don’t even remember what it was about, but it was one of the most boring hours I’ve spent because these men could not communicate. And I’m saying this as an astrophysicist.

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