For Such Smart People, You Just Don’t Get It
August 29, 2012
The Failure of the Science Community to Take Reality into Account
SETIcon II in Santa Clara in June offered a diverse range of tracks, panels, and conversations with packed audiences filled with science fans and scientists. No matter the topic of the panel or initial audience question, four themes kept popping up: the public, frustration, what we do not know, and value. It became clear that the themes were no more separate than branches of a tree are from its roots, and that the scientific community is lost in a forest of these issues. It is evident in America’s current financial, political, and societal climate that this conversation could have occurred at any summit of scientists and their fans.
The individual songs of hindrance became a harmony of frustration with the general public’s fear of science or inability or unwillingness to understand science’s methods. Some blamed relaxed educational standards, while others struck at the internet for making it harder to tell the difference between truth and hooey. While it was never explicitly said, it seemed the panelists felt the public has become so disassociated from science, they do not understand what science is anymore.
“It’s this funny thing as a scientist, I can’t understand; once you have shown something to be flawed and fallacious, why that does not end the argument. Why it is that it can come back in a different a guise, and not be recognized for being the same thing in different clothing,” lamented SETI scientist Jill Tarter in an interview for Skeptical Inquirer.
As a consequence, many scientists think that American public policy no longer values scientific conclusions. Creationist hypotheses are shoved into public school textbooks, curricula, and standards. Anthropogenic global climate changes are poo-pooed as non-existent or the changed temperatures disregarded as a natural fluctuation in global temperatures. Under the banner of fairness, and in an unintentional display of ignorance, some factions of the general public demand that scientists address or teach controversies that do not exist in science. To seem equitable and just, the media often covers “both sides” of stories without explanation of the difference between the two; even if it creates a skewed perception of scientific consensus or lack thereof.
The continued devaluing of and misconceptions about science has big budgetary consequences in these hard financial times. Science programs (like those at universities), NASA and SETI are taking huge cuts; a fact that did not go unlamented at SETIcon and is a common complaint in scientific circles.
All scientific programs require public support, no matter their origin. Private groups like SETI Institute rely on philanthropic support as well as strategic partnerships, which rely on public funds. NASA, DARPA, public universities, and other governmental agencies rely on support from the general constituency to put pressure on legislators during budget time and to elect legislators who value science. Even private universities rely on funds from the public and their former students to fund research.
In SETI’s case, the lack of public support has had devastating consequences, especially in the case of their partnership with the University of California Berkeley to build a radio telescope array. Frank Drake, founder of SETI explained the scope of the problem, “The deal was, we [SETI Institute] would pay to build the telescope and they would provide operating funds. We paid $30 million dollars to build it. It’s built, it is there, and it works. About the time it was finished there was this big budget crunch at the State of California and it hit the university really hard. The end result was the funding to science parts at UC Berkeley was cut so much they said sorry, we can’t pay the operating costs of the telescope; sorry we can’t carry out our part of it, and they walked away. Here we have this telescope and no money to operate it. We spent $30 million dollars and we actually had to put it in hibernation; mothballed for about six months.”
The public is not withholding from taking sides or ponying up the cash to support a position in the struggle between science and pseudo-science. Creationist groups, UFO groups, homeopathic remedies, holistic healers, and other anti-scientific products and positions are raking in the cash while scientific programs atrophy and wither away. While science museums struggle to keep their doors open, creationist museums welcome throngs of believers. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which presents a literal biblical view of the origins of the universe, cost about twenty-seven million dollars to build, about the same amount as SETI’s radio telescope array, and has not spent a day out of business. In fact, they have purchased property and raised another five million dollars to create a life sized Noah’s Arc in Williamstown, Kentucky. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says Americans spend $34 million a year on alternative remedies. Even in these hard times, there is money to be had.
As previous administrations have demonstrated when they stunted stem cell research for religious reasons, it is not just financial support that scientists need. Dealing with the public perception of a body of research is a harsh reality. Even personal philanthropists have to deal with public pressures about their funding choices. A wave of unfavorable feelings from a powerful group can disrupt research. Panelists at SETIcon seemed to be trying to articulate the position that inspiration of the public and buy in by the average person is essential to success for scientists.
Jill Tarter observed, “The why in this case, part of the answer, is it’s [pseudo-science] well financed and it is difficult to deal with a well-financed campaign. We see that it’s growing. It’s not just denying evolution, we now see people denying climate change with the same strategies and tools by those folks who originally denied evolution. That is, there is a way to do things, if you want to swing public opinion. There’s a very well understood way to orchestrate, to market, to sell that. We see the climate deniers using the same principles, and tactics as evolution deniers.”
The SETIcon panelists unintentionally stumbled across something; the universal dependence of scientists on the public coupled with the public disassociation from science creates funding problems, financial devaluing of scientific research, and policies that ignore or actively dismiss scientific conclusions.
Why science has been isolated from the rest of society is not entirely clear. Even though scientific accomplishments have resulted in huge leaps in quality of life for many Americans, many do not associate one with the other. For example, even though Americans carry a cell phone and use computers, they may not make the connection to their electronics and quantum mechanics or know their microwave was developed at NASA or that research into vampire bats helped develop stroke medicine.
The wealth of advancements could make it challenging for an average person to keep up with how science affects them. It could be a lack of effort to make sure the effects of research on society are clear to the average American. It could be an active resistance to these ideas by highly organized, well-funded groups. It could be a perception, well-earned or not, that scientists are unfriendly snobs. It could be that civilians do not see or speak with scientists often enough because they a busy toiling in university workrooms and not on television. It is probably a combination of all of those things.
Creationists and anti-science religious groups learned a lesson long ago that the scientific community still has not figured out; it is the responsibility of the person who wants to influence the public’s perspectives to do the outreach. It must be done in a way that is interesting to the public, relevant to their lives, and captures their interest. There has to be a support structure for members of the public who want to be a prophet for ideas. It does not matter how many times science has proven itself in the past. Each person, every single one, requires convincing. Human beings do not have inborn ancestral knowledge, so each person needs to have the acorn of science planted in their brain. It may not be fair, but it is no less a reality than is evolution.
Every Sunday in church, creationist views are reinforced, the community provides emotional support for the idea, and teaches a new way to share the idea with other people. Anyone, no matter how poor, no matter how uneducated, no matter their profession, has a place at the table. The average person is encouraged to attend. Churches are masterful meme-spreading machines and they are exceptional at infecting average folks with their ideas. There is no scientific equivalent once someone leaves school—and sometimes not even when they are in school.
One of the most exclusionary aspects of modern science is the total lack of access for an average person. Much of science is reaching out to fields that require huge, expensive equipment that necessarily excludes most people from participation on a casual level or require a level of understanding that limits the people who are even capable of participating. The only opportunity for an average busy American to learn about research is when it is published in mainstream media outlets, which often get the details wrong. However, even if a person wanted to double check the results, when they are published, they are published in journals, locked away from average eyes without costly subscriptions.
The scientific community, skeptics, and science enthusiasts often get frustrated and stamp their feet at the ignorance of the public when the public assumes the media’s accounts are true and do not critically examine the whole story. Their frustrations resemble that of a human in an ape-ruled world yelling in dismay at a beachfront Statue of Liberty.
The public is instructed to read the actual results or reference the actual study. While it should be apparent that the media gets scientific stories wrong all the time, it is hardly the fault of the public for not knowing what they have no ability to learn because access to the information is expensive and many could not understand the information even if they could access it.
At the same time the scientific community is asking for support from the public or demanding they rely more on scientific research to make decisions, the public has less and less ability to understand or verify or even view what they are being asked to support. As a consequence, the busy general public is less inspired to support because of the huge rift between science and the average person.
At SETIcon, there was an echo of pleas from scientists of all disciplines and their enthusiasts to integrate the public into science. The SETI scientists wore bright yellow badges that said “Let’s Talk” to encourage people to ask questions of them. SETI staff described numerous citizen scientist projects, UC Berkeley representatives discussed how computers could be used to process data, and numerous websites to find galaxies or otherwise get involved with space exploration were explained. By engaging them in their research, many groups hope not only to make progress in research but to get enough buy in to ask for their money, or for their efforts to advocate for them to decision maker on their behalf. However, this is mostly just singing gospel to the converted.
One of the mistakes the scientific community has made has been seeking the support of the general public by organized and concerted efforts exclusively aimed at children, and to write off the adults in the general public. No one is saying that efforts to educate children are misplaced; however, the exclusivity is the problem. Children do not have money. Children do not vote. Generally, children do not raise children. It is rare for a child to start a campaign to influence perspectives and opinion away from science. It is extremely important to reach out to adults and advertise ideas to them.
Ariel Waldman, founder of www.spacehack.org, a website that gets average people involved in space exploration explains, “So much of the focus is around kids, and getting kids interested in science which is totally noble and I’m not critiquing it at all. It’s what a lot of people should be focusing on, but I think people who have grown up and chosen a different career are considered lost to science.”
No matter how uncomfortable, it must become an expectation of professional scientists to interact with the public in a way the public can comprehend. It is not another person’s responsibility to understandably explain a scientist’s positions to the public. It is downright irrational to presume that an average person will seek out an idea. The harsh reality is that scientific ideas, like all ideas, have to enter the public forum. Without champions, any idea will enter the waste bin—even if it is true. Scientists need to be expected to spend time presenting ideas to the people who ultimately decide the fate of their research.
“If I don my pure-scientist hat, I would say just send robots [into space]; I'll stay down here and get the data. But nobody's ever given a parade for a robot. Nobody's ever named a high school after a robot. So when I don my public-educator hat, I have to recognize the elements of exploration that excite people. It's not only the discoveries and the beautiful photos that come down from the heavens; it's the vicarious participation in discovery itself,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science communicator.
It is not demeaning to present ideas to people with less education. Until the general science education level comes up in the US, it may even require some background science education to present higher level ideas. This is no different than the expectations put on mechanics to articulate a problem in a way a non-gear-head can understand or doctors to explain medical procedures to patients. Scientists and their enthusiasts should be expected to present ideas with the same patience and articulation as any other profession that requires public understanding and assistance continue to stay in business.
Scientists also have to drop the two magisteria argument; the argument that science and religion answer different questions. They do not. Both science and religion state they are attempting to find the truth. Since the time of Galileo, it has been obvious that science invades the magisteria of religion and vice versa. If the science community does not have the courage to say that scientific methods of understanding are superior, the public will continue to devalue the conclusions of science.
There must also be a shift in the written communication between the two sides. Science writers have been used to dumb down research for too long. Writers need to not only convince the public of the value of science but write about the public in a way that interests or illuminates the scientifically-minded. If anything is clear, scientists need as much help to understand the public as the public needs to understand the scientific community.
Both the scientific community and the public as a whole need intermediaries who understand scientific advancements and why those advancements are important to the public, and who can also articulate both sides in a way that shows the advantages of both to each side. John Q. Public and the Ivory Tower will have to assign ambassadors between them. This will probably come in the form of articulate, accurate science writers who can reach out to the average reader, and public advocates who viciously defend science curricula and push for public policy based on scientific results.
Science and the public are like two sides of a zipper. Until they are used in tandem, neither side benefits. American culture sorely lacks ambassadors to pull the two together and forward. Worse though, both sides are only now starting to realize that they need the other to hold their pants up.