Iconoclasts Anonymous

Inane ravings of an irreverent slacker

Open for criticism

Posted by Jeff on September 10, 2009

A while back I posted the first draft of a paper I was writing on scientific credibility. I had promised to also post the final draft when I was finished but then I forgot and went on with my life. Well, for anyone who is interested, here is the final draft that I turned in. I’d very much apprectiate any comments or criticism on my approach and/or writing style. I’d love to hear from anyone who has something to say, so read it after the fold and hold nothing back.

Introduction

            For as long as humankind has had the capacity for wonder we have yearned to understand how the Universe works. Showing stubborn diligence and a refusal to be defeated by the mysteries of nature we have solved one riddle after another, each answer opening the door to a myriad of previously unasked questions. Through this process we have harnessed fire, developed agriculture, learned about the motion of the heavens, prolonged human life, and unlocked the power of the atom. The mechanism of these discoveries has come to be known as science, and in the 21st Century it is advancing at an exponential rate. In fact, our scientific knowledge is increasing so quickly that each branch of science has broken into many sub-branches, each requiring intensive study and specialization to master. As the study of science becomes more and more specialized, detailed understanding of any field becomes limited to the experts in that field as the majority of people lack the training to properly understand rigorous explanations of scientific phenomena.

            This lack of common understanding often leads to scientific controversies which affect the everyday lives of scientists and non-scientists alike. In many cases, judgments concerning these debates will affect education standards or government policy. When faced with such a controversy, how does the non-scientist determine the credibility of scientific claims and to what extent does that judgment impact policy decisions? What are the best ways to distinguish between legitimate science and ‘pseudoscience’? How important is it for members of the general public to form a rudimentary understanding of the scientific method and accepted theories? As Carl Sagan once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”  Perhaps if the population were more knowledgeable about the workings of science, many of the controversies of our time could be avoided.

 

Credibility Concerning Scientific Controversies

            Many of the most notable controversies in science today are actually the result of a misunderstanding of scientific knowledge. One example of this is the debate over the safety of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. Many people are convinced that the LHC will bring about the destruction of the world by creating a miniature black hole once it is operational. One man, Walter Wagner, even filed a law suit in an attempt to have the LHC project delayed long enough to reassess the collider’s safety.[1] As a result of the hysteria surrounding this issue a 16 year old girl in India, convinced the world was coming to an end, committed suicide by drinking pesticide the day before the LHC was scheduled to go online.[2] Despite emphatic assurances by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and a majority of the physics community that there was no danger inherent in the LHC – the collisions produced would be less powerful than cosmic ray collisions occurring constantly in the atmosphere[3] – these people chose to believe the apocalypse rhetoric over the testimony of experts.

            Another example of this type of controversy is that of human-induced global climate change. While a vast majority of environmental scientists the world over are in consensus that global warming is, in fact, man-made,[4] there are still a great many people who believe that global warming is a hoax. One such group describes themselves as fighting “the faith-based religion of global warming” on their website.[5] This group attributes global climate change to normal geological changes in the weather patterns of the planet.

            Over the past several years a large portion of the population has stopped inoculating their children with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The reason given for neglecting the vaccination is an alleged link between Thimerosal in the vaccine and autism.[6] Several studies, however, have shown no link between the MMR vaccine and autism[7] and in fact many researchers are convinced that the vaccine is completely safe.[8] The Center for Disease Control recently reported that between January and July of 2008 there were 131 cases of measles in the US and 90% of those were in unvaccinated children. While that may not seem like a large number of cases, the United States had declared measles eradicated in 2000. Measles is a serious disease and according to the CDC, over 242,000 children died worldwide from infection in 2006.[9] Despite these facts, the organization known as Generation Rescue – founded by Jenny McCarthy of MTV fame – continues to indirectly encourage parents to avoid vaccinating their children.[10]

            One of the most heated controversies over the past century has been the debate over evolution by natural selection. Beginning with the Scopes trial of 1925 in Tennessee,[11] Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has been repeatedly attacked by creationists who did not want the idea of common descent to be taught in public schools. Even though the teaching of creationism was determined to be a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in 1968,[12] the issue has still returned to the courts several times since. In the most recent case, Kitzmiller vs. Dover in Harrisburg, PA in 2004, the teaching of ‘Intelligent Design’ was determined to be unconstitutional since the judge ruled that ID was merely creationism masquerading as science.[13]

            In each of the cases mentioned, there is a common attitude that accepted science is the result of a conspiracy or scientific dogmatism. The Discovery Institute, a think-tank which champions Intelligent Design, claims in a briefing pack for educators that evolution is a religion and should not be taught in class.[14] Likewise, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a recent film which is highly critical of the scientific community for shunning Intelligent Design, considers mainstream scientists dogmatic and even likens the scientific community to Nazi Germany.[15] While these views do not apply to all non-scientists, many people still simply do not trust scientific expertise. Some maintain that this mistrust stems from a lack of social inclusion on the part of scientists,[16] creating an atmosphere of elitism and aloofness around scientific enterprises.

            In order to understand the nature of these controversies, it is important to discuss ways in which the legitimacy of scientific claims can be determined. The scientific method is not a dogmatic set of beliefs as some of the supporters of Intelligent Design might assert. It is, in actuality, merely a technique used to discover the way the world around us works, and as such is as imperfect as those wielding it. One physicist describes science as an effort to “find out how things really are,” which makes progress in the right direction but one must realize that the “goal will always be incompletely achieved.”[17] One of the most powerful tools science possesses to ensure its accuracy is the peer review process. When a theory or hypothesis undergoes peer review, other scientists in the respective field will attempt to find flaws in the research or disprove it altogether. If the idea passes this process, then it will generally be accepted until a superior theory or idea is presented. Since science has no canonical doctrine[18] there are often disagreements between scientists. However, in cases where the vast majority of the scientific community is in agreement about something, A few people who disagree will not be seen as credible unless they have significant evidence to back their position.

 

Public Understanding of Science

            Much of the information the general public receives regarding science comes from reporters and journalists who do not specialize in science. One of the reasons for this is that often science stories are an aspect of the general news.[19] As a result of this, sometimes science stories can be misunderstood or misrepresented. There are countless misconceptions about evolution, for example, which have been perpetuated by inaccurate media reporting and poorly devised depictions of evolution in pop culture. Movies such as Evolution and video games such as Spore completely misrepresent the mechanisms of natural selection yet many people might not recognize the depictions as non-credible. When non-experts receive much of their information about scientific topics from other non-experts, then they are judging the credibility not of the scientific information, but of the testimony presented to them. In this case, people are much more likely to accept claims that are consistent with their beliefs rather than try to analyze the evidence and form a conclusion that might not be comfortable.[20] When getting information from someone who is an expert in the field, the non-expert is less likely to dismiss that testimony if it doesn’t instantly agree with their beliefs.

            Expertise and specialization in science fields, however, tends to alienate the non-specialist. A fine example of this can be shown by this excerpt from a recent issue of the journal Nature: “The triphoton states we study are of the form , where  represents m and n photons in the orthogonal horizontal (H) and vertical (V) polarization modes respectively.”[21] This single sentence is all but incomprehensible to anyone who is not a specialist in the field or understands the physics and mathematics involved. The language used in most peer reviewed journals is intended specifically for an audience of experts in a particular field. Peer review ensures that a scientist’s work can only be judged by another scientist who is also an expert in that field.[22] There is an old saying that maintains that an “expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less.”[23]

            This type of jargon-heavy writing will obviously be ineffective at conveying scientific knowledge to non-experts. This implies that it should be the job of the scientist to make an effort toward making scientific knowledge accessible to the general public. While some believe that in explaining highly technical and complicated ideas to non-specialists those ideas become “unspecific and overly simplistic,”[24] others feel that it is necessary to convey science to every citizen in order to avoid producing a small ‘priesthood’ of professionals.[25] In the preface to his popular book on String Theory, Leonard Susskind writes of his time “daydreaming – telling an imaginary admiring audience of laymen how to understand some difficult scientific idea.”[26] The more scientists who hold views like this the better off our society will be. In helping non-scientists to understand science, the credibility of science will increase among the general public. Apart from discarding the image of elitism associated with scientists, it is important that the public is educated about science so that they can make better informed decisions about issues that affect their lives.

            If scientific ideas are included in a person’s education and belief structure from an early age, they will be less likely to reject out of hand scientific claims which do not agree completely with their beliefs. As of May 2008, 44% of US citizens believed that evolution was wrong and that man was created in his present form less than 10,000 years ago.[27] Nearly half the population of one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world believes that one of the most empirically supported and widely accepted theories of the last century is simply not true. An article published in Social Studies of Science on the interplay between creationism and science described creationists as attempting to use “fundamentalist beliefs to control scientific knowledge.”[28] An unfortunate side effect of this is that non-specialist journalists and reporters who report on evolution vs. creationism controversies tend to try to create a sense of balance and often distort the science that is presented.[29] Ultimately this can be harmful to the public at large as people who reject science for ideological reasons often get elected to public school boards and have the power to affect science education standards. This was the case in the 2004 Dover trial.

 

Policy

            A person’s own educational background is rarely a deciding factor in school board elections or elections for government office. This means that non-specialists are quite often placed into position to judge the credibility of scientific issues which they may not understand and to form policy based upon those judgments. In fact, most people who are involved in deciding on policies regarding scientific matters have little or no background in science. [30]As long as the public and elected officials remain uneducated on scientific matters, it becomes less likely that a democratic method of deciding science policy will remain effective as technology becomes more complex and specialized,[31] providing that the US intends to retain a competitive technological standing in the world.

            An example of this can be seen in the United States’ stance on stem cell research. Severe restrictions were placed on stem cell research in the US in 2001[32] as a result of President Bush’s attempt to appease a pro-life constituency which perceived stem cell research to be immoral for religious reasons.[33] Some feel that policy-makers should be advised by ‘independent analysis groups’ that specialize in whatever field is under consideration[34] but the effectiveness of that approach may not help since politicians often find it in their own best interest to go along with the views of the public.[35] Global studies have also shown that over historical time periods policy tends to reflect public opinion.[36] These points all serve as evidence that the key to having an informed and science-conscious government is to have an informed and science-conscious public.

 

Conclusion

            As technological advances and scientific achievements progress at such an astounding rate, the US must dramatically alter its stance and policies regarding science research and education or risk being dethroned as a world superpower. It is vital that non-scientists are given at least a rudimentary scientific education and provided the tools with which to evaluate the credibility of scientific and pseudoscientific claims. This is necessary to ensure that the government continues to fund stem cell research which promises countless medical advances, to put a stop to the anti-vaccination movement before any more innocent children die from a curable disease, and to ensure that our students are receiving a proper science education without fear of indoctrination. While it would not be realistic to expect everyone to become an expert in all fields of science, it would be enough to change the world if more people were taught to employ critical thinking skills in determining where credibility should lie.

 

*Works cited page omitted to save space. If you’d like to know a cited source, just ask.

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