26 September 2008

Promoting Science

The other night, I attended a presentation sponsored by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, which seeks to promote more (and accurate) understanding of science and technology. The speaker was Alan Leshner, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and he talked about science challenges for the new millennium.

These mainly involve the disconnect between a large swath of American opinion and the goals and conclusions of science. Where science conflicts with what Leshner called "core values," Americans tend to just look the other way. So we have a remarkable proportion of citizens who don't accept that humans developed from a simian ancestor, or that the earth is billions of years old. A remarkable proportion of Americans simply don't trust scientists, and look at scientific conclusions as opinions they can take or leave.

Leshner proposed that to deal with this problem, scientists need to do a better job of communicating with the public rather than to the public.

This response seems rather facile. A preposition change is not sufficient. I think the problem needs to be dealt with by dramatizing why these scientific conclusions matter. I am not entirely sure how to do this, but I think it's crucial. For example, millions of Americans are able to reject Darwin's theory of evolution (particularly as it pertains to human beings) because ultimately they feel it doesn't make any difference what they think about it.

We do not live in a society where truth/reality is valued for its own sake. Our public discourse is riddled with lies and spin, and we pretty much have to decide what we think before we decide who we're going to listen to. People are treating scientific conclusions the same way. After all, there are so many scientific conclusions, and they frequently contradict each other: coffee is good for you; coffee is bad for you. In a society where we're overloaded with information, we largely ignore stuff we don't see a way to use or doesn't fit with our world view.

Scientists (and their communicators and policymakers) need to figure out how to make critical scientific conclusions relevant to Americans. Maybe it's by reminding us of why the practice of science is important. What happens when you don't do science properly? How do problems get solved if you pick and choose the conclusions you like best? As some scientists like to joke (with regard to creationists who call evolution "just a theory"), gravity is just a theory--how would you like to jump out that window?

Maybe what we need is an ad campaign that warns us of the consequences of bad science and of ignoring scientific conclusions. People hear about the rewards all the time; they're all around us. The rewards of science are so ubiquitous that we almost feel they're natural occurences. So let's focus on what happens when we don't teach kids to be good scientists, and when our decision makers and policy makers are science ignoramuses (ignorami?).

Our society in recent years has come perilously close to valorizing ignorance (see Idiocracy).

Let's change that.

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