Defending Science in a Skeptical Society

The following is an excerpt from the report “Top 10 Trends Driving Science,” a look at the social, political, and economic forces affecting researchers in 2017.

Scientists have always challenged the public with new ideas, but sometimes it takes a while for a scientific finding to find broad public support. Research shows even trained scientists have to battle a subconscious level of uncertainty when presented with a true yet counter-intuitive statement. But with persistence, even once-unthinkable ideas can gain wide acceptance.

Recently, however, we’ve seen a flurry of intense skepticism around ideas that were once uncontroversial, such as the safety of vaccines and fluoridated water, especially in the U.S. Old fights on subjects such as evolution and climate change seem to have a new intensity. “Unfortunately, many in society do not trust the opinions of scientists in important areas. For example, the notions that vaccines cause autism, or choosing to ignore the impact of human activity on climate change, to name a few. This leads to less enthusiasm for the funding of science,” says Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Merz.

The good news is there’s little evidence to suggest a widespread, catastrophic decline in public trust in science in recent years. Almost 4 –in-5 Americans say science improves their lives. The bad news is that while Americans say they have positive views of science and scientists, they often say they won’t accept certain scientific findings. Many Americans express sharply divergent views from scientists on topics such as climate science, the safety of genetically modified foods and human evolution.

It’s tempting to blame this on a lack of education. Surveys suggest both the public and scientists harbor dim views of U.S. education in science and math. But U.S. primary and secondary science education performs better than many people expect in international science education rankings. Scientists continue to have high regard for post-secondary science education at U.S. institutions. “The U.S. is recognized as a leader at the college and graduate level,” says Norbert Pienta, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Chemical Education.

But additional education doesn’t appear to improve matters. In some cases, a high level of education correlates with mistrusting scientists around a particular issue. Political and religious views, however, may impact a person’s views on science, though no one factor is a sure indicator of this.

“On issues such as climate change, many in the world (especially in the U.S.) are choosing to ignore or deny data and verifiable facts in favor of deeply held beliefs of a wishful or magical nature (in the sense that they are not or cannot ultimately be backed up by tangible data). To the degree that public policy is influenced by wishful and magical thinking that is contrary to verifiable facts, we abandon the potential fruit of science to help shape a better world. Don’t get me wrong—I am not talking about here about religion—whose interests are often well-aligned with science. I am talking about willful know-nothingness that evades or denies facts based on a political or social agenda,” said Charles Sanders, Interim Editor of Biochemistry.

While the number of people with a political or religious objection to a scientific finding may be comparatively small, their attacks may exact a disproportionate toll. “Politically motivated ‘attacks’ on science research are taking a toll on the positive public perception of university-performed science research, especially in some scientific disciplines,” says Analytical Chemistry Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Sweedler. “Scientists need to spend their valuable time to ensure the informed dissemination of their scientific results in the media.”

Europeans express high levels of enthusiasm for science as a force for good in the world. But religious concerns about science persist, especially in southern Europe. Almost 4-in-10 European Union citizens say society relies too much on science and not enough on faith.  The same survey finds 60% of EU citizens say the world is changing too quickly and almost three-quarters say they’re concerned about unforeseen side effects of scientific progress.

In China, government support for research funding is strong. A majority of students surveyed express an interest in pursuing a career in science and technology. Research shows the Chinese are among the most likely to accept findings on evolution. Yet alternative medical practices based on tradition continue to flourish there. When it comes to climate change, both China and India lag behind other major carbon-emitting nations regarding awareness and concern about the effects of climate change.

In India, attitudes toward science can be somewhat stratified. More than 1-in-4 Indian citizens are illiterate. These illiterate citizens are much less likely to know basic scientific principles and report high rates of acceptance of folk beliefs than citizens who can read. They are also less likely to feel that science improves their quality of life.

International comparisons on this issue are difficult to make, as no universal survey exists to measure shifting attitudes on a global scale. It would be a mistake to look at some societies as more “scientific” than others. There are no purely evidence-based societies. The particular issues that are controversial may vary from place to place, but the idea that science can be controversial does not. Yet surveys from around the world reveal a healthy regard for science and scientists, even when people struggle with certain scientific findings.

Regardless of the nation, it is important to remember that popular skepticism toward science is not new. What is new is the ability of like-minded deniers to organize online, and to be fueled by those with a vested interest in denying the truth. In the face of these challenges, scientists must do more than just discover the truth. They must be advocates for truth in an increasingly skeptical world.

 

If you have comments or questions for the author of this post, please e-mail: Axial@acs.org.