Weekend Wandering 6: Why do many reasonable people doubt science?

whydoubtscienceTypically, Weekend Wandering posts take the reader to a website filled with links allowing you to surf in a variety of different directions. Today’s post is the opposite. The essay by Washington Post science writer Joel Achenbach, posted on National Geographic last week – Why do many reasonable people doubt science? – is an exploration of your own thoughts and meanderings about science and how you might interpret it.

From my perspective, the most prescient quote of the whole article is from Marcia McNutt, editor of the journal Science:

Science is not a body of facts. Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.

The trouble is, we’ve been led to believe by the media and by pseudo- or pop-scientists in the media that science has all the answers. Then, when science is “wrong” or the “answers” turn out to be untrue, all of science is questioned. What science actually does, is provide possible answers, theories, typically, but not always, with 95% significance, knowing that there are other possibilities – but people and the media gloss over that part. As Joel Achenbach states:

Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation.

The other problem is that “science” has been co-opted by corporations to generate income. Too often, with motives of profit, science and ethics are often blurred in the business world. Add to that governments who often see their job as supporting and promoting business and we get disasters like Thalidomide.

Furthermore, we get corporate claims like “GMOs are being developed to feed a hungry world” and it’s no wonder people are questioning “science”. (Aside: Let’s face it, rightly or wrongly, GMOs are being pursued to increase profits through a host of questionable ethical practices, not the least of which is tying the sale of pesticides to specific GMO seeds).

What about climate science? Why does one detractor garner as much attention as a thousand legitimate climate scientists? The media hides behind their attempt to provide “balance”, yet, where’s the balance if a thousand people say one thing and one person says another and they both get equal air time? Any good scientist welcomes alternate views, but why is that one detractor is given equal weight when their legitimacy is clearly in doubt due to their salary or research grants being funded by big oil? The the real problem is what’s going in the background which is often obscured by the bigger foreground discussion.

“Real” science is complex. One must think to understand. So, it’s no wonder that pseudo-science, “pop” science and the media portrayal of science have caused people to question all science. How does the average person possibly judge the difference in a 30-second sound bite or a one-column article? Perhaps we must look to education… have we created a class of people educated enough to understand a little, but not academic enough to delve deeper? Has our teaching of “critical thinking” failed us in that we’ve produced critical thinkers who don’t have the discipline to learn before thinking? Perhaps Alexander Pope was correct when he said, in his 1709 An Essay on Criticism:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

Anyway… I’ve said enough. Read what Joel Achenbach has to say…

And – Happy Valentine’s Day!


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