The fifth annual World Science Festival  took place over five days in New York City in June. (You can find my blog posts from the festival here .) I attended four events on a range of fascinating topics, from the “elusive neutrino” to the disruptive technological power of the Internet. What was perhaps most intriguing, though, was one theme that pervaded all of the discussions. The panelists at each forum described how they struggled more with a crisis of public faith in their work than unraveling the mysteries of the universe. The gap between science and public understanding seems to be greater than ever.
The talks represented a fair sampling of the diversity of scientific research today. “How We Bounce Back: The Science of Human Resiliency” brought to light new research in the field of trauma recovery. “The Elusive Neutrino and the Nature of the Cosmos” concerned the science of some of nature’s tiniest, most difficult to detect subatomic particles. The grandiosely-titled “Internet Everywhere: The Future of History’s Most Disruptive Technology” brought tech-savvy thinkers together to discuss how the Internet has impacted society and how it might evolve further in the future. Finally, “Pandemic Fix: Seeking Universal Vaccines” examined the state of vaccine research and immunization today.
The panelists spent as much time talking about perceptions of their work as the work itself. Physicists bemoaned the lack of support from the public, and therefore from Congress, for projects critical to the advancement of fundamental particle physics like the cancelled Superconducting Super Collider. Epidemiologists signaled their alarm and disgust with recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, with thousands of cases of mumps on the east coast and tens of thousands of whooping cough on the west. Social psychologists complained of an entrenched popular psychology that damages victims of trauma, while the architects of the Internet try to counter the abandonment of the net’s foundational, dispersed-computing principles represented by the cloud.
This growing awareness of public skepticism might shock some scientists. After all, advances in our collective knowledge have led to marvels like modern medicine, space travel and mass transportation. When it comes to the scientific facts of anthropogenic global warming or the extensively shown safety of vaccinations, then, one might expect the public to give similar credence to researchers. It does not. Gallup polls indicate that greater numbers of Americans than ever think that the media greatly exaggerate the seriousness of global warming, leaving many scientists bewildered, wondering what causes this too-common ignorance and what to do about it.
Many of these strategies made an appearance at the World Science Festival. Psychologists interested in human resiliency blamed mass media for hindering the uptake of their research. At another session, a noted physicist and atheist, Lawrence Krauss, went out of his way to pillory the faithful for unthinking dogmatism, for disregarding the proper relationship between faith and reason. Both the psychologists and the physicists had seemingly convinced themselves that educating society more effectively could counter the troubling trends in public opinion.
The health experts presented a different perspective. They observed that outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States differed significantly from those in third world countries. In the latter, the citizens’ levels of poverty and education most often impacted whether the vaccine successfully achieved widespread distribution. The United States provided a contrast in that its wealthy and educated populations suffered the worst outbreaks. The panelists admitted that high levels of education and extensive public information campaigns exerted little positive influence on vaccination rates in the States, and they entertained no illusions that further education efforts would yield different results. Some people simply refuse to believe the ample evidence that vaccines do not cause autism.
Seven years ago, Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to designate the subjectification of fact. While used primarily as a critique of the current political atmosphere, it applies equally well to the way many Americans approach science. Truthiness in the sciences takes root in an essential scientific assumption—that everybody, making the same observations, can universalize from them to arrive at the same rule.
Unfortunately, such a belief in the equal potential of each person to draw the same sound conclusions relies on a prior, often-neglected condition. People can only actually do so if they have developed the proper habits of thought and action. An example here might illustrate the point. In their medical training, doctors do not simply study the information available in books. If that were the case, anybody could become a doctor with some intense reading at the local library. After a period of study and classroom education, medical students must continue their formation with hands-on work under the tutelage of active medical professionals. This period trains doctors to think and act with certain habits that enable them to use the knowledge they acquired in the classroom properly. Similarly, interpreting scientific facts well requires a certain amount of practice, something scientists don’t often emphasize to the public.
A further complication arises when well-qualified people disagree among themselves about the interpretation of research. An example from my own undergraduate experience comes to mind. During my study of chemistry, I took a tutorial called “Agents of Global Change.” My professor specialized in geochemistry, having worked for a petrochemical company before entering academia. During our meetings, the two of us argued ad nauseum about whether scientists could currently prove global warming, and if so, whether humans cause it. We two scientists looked at the same data and drew different conclusions. I would argue that my professor’s petrochemical background biased her reasoning—not that she made her case in bad faith, but that her history negatively impacted her ability to see what a more objectively formed scientist would see. Thus, even if a layman defers to scientific expertise, the question of whose expertise to trust poses a legitimately thorny issue.
Finally, the ease of communication brought about by the information age has amplified the above two problems. The free flow of data enabled by the Internet, itself a good thing, has made it easier for people to access scientific research and to think that they can draw their own conclusions from its results. It has also given those same people a far-reaching platform for disseminating their amateur opinions. Compounded with well-heeled support for Web sites advancing bad science, some public confusion should hardly come as a surprise.
To confront the truthiness creeping into its field, the scientific community will indeed need to go beyond simple education of the masses. It will need to find new ways to engage and shape culture, emphasizing the importance of professional opinion and providing accessible, trustworthy sources to that expertise. Organizations like the World Science Festival have started to do exactly that. I am grateful for their work, and hope they will find a larger and more receptive audience over the coming years.
Photos: Greg Kessler / 2012 World Science Festival