Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Credibility of Science

As happy as I was with the Melendez-Dias decision, I am also bothered by some longer term implications for science, namely its credibility.

Being a scientist, I am fully aware of all its flaws and shortcomings. I know what they are and how to best deal with them. The general public is not. The most common perception, which is desirable to me, is that they look upon science as providing factual answers that are generally not be questioned. With every passing scandal however, this perception fades. The decision mentioned above adds to this. While I certainly have no problem with people understanding that science is not perfect, the attitude that is arising seems to be that science is just an opinion, and since it is an opinion, anyone can hold their own and they are all equally valid. (This is analogous to the people that downplay evolutionary theory by stating it is "just a theory", although that argument is fatally flawed for reasons that I won't get into here.)

"Voting" in science certainly doesn't help, such as when the IAU voted that Pluto was not a planet or when 1500 scientists formed a 'consensus' opinion on global warming. This continues to give the general public the perception that science is an opinion.

Add to that the endless "health" stories about how eating ___________(insert the food the day here) is prevents __________________ (insert the illness of the day here) only to be contradicted by a report next week that the same food actually causes that same disease and you have the makings of a immensely poor perception of that factuality of science.

I'm not sure what can be done. Education is desirable, but won't work. Newly minted scientists have a very poor understanding of the inner workings of science including the flaws that I alluded to above. It takes more than a few years to really see the true picture - some never do. There is no way we can expect better of the general public given that most of them thought their science classes were dreadful.

I wish I could think of something.


Carmen said...

One improvement to education might be a move away from the standard "let's memorize a bunch of facts" nonmajors courses and toward more general courses about the way scientists (regardless of discipline) are supposed to think. Concepts like probability and uncertainty would be discussed. I haven't the foggiest as to how to set up such a class, but there is a pretty decent layperson intro to statistics in the book "A Field Guide for Science Writers".

John said...

Not a bad suggestion. Only a small percentage of the population attends college, let alone graduates.

What I'd really be worried about is that the "Philosophy of Science" crowd would take over. They have a whitewashed-and-pretty view of how science is done. Pretty much the same picture that you infer from published research articles. They're all whitewashed-and-pretty too, giving you the impression that the experimenters walked into the lab, ran the experiment(s) which worked every time and didn't need any trial-and-error

To me, it really has to be based entirely on the real world.

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