The thing that makes science so extraordinary is it’s so much fun. It’s so cool to know about science because it just makes your world so much more interesting. @AdamFrank4 #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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A smartphone would have got you burned at the stake in the Middle Ages. But everyone just takes it for granted, this tremendous amount of science and engineering that works perfectly. @DerekLowe #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Jayshree Seth: Are you skeptical of science? Nearly a third of the people we surveyed said they were. Is skepticism about science a new development, or is it just more noticeable now? How can science educators and communicators earn trust with the public? We’ll explore the question on this episode of Champions of Science.
Welcome to Champions of Science. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
In some ways, skepticism is a healthy component of scientific research. Scientists should question their experiments, making sure they’re free of anything that would contaminate the findings — everything from bacteria to bias. We should question results, as well, making sure they’re verifiable and duplicatable. That skepticism is part of our overall search for truth.
However, skepticism of the entire practice and methodology of science is counterproductive. Society needs to be able to trust scientists’ expertise and the scientific method itself. Otherwise, we risk getting bogged down in endless unproductive debate.
My guests this episode have a great deal of experience in dealing with public skepticism and distrust. Derek Lowe is a chemist working in the pharmaceutical industry, while Adam Frank is an astrophysicist and expert on stellar evolution.
Derek, can you tell us a little about your work?
Derek Lowe: My name is Derek Lowe. I'm a chemist by training and I’ve been working on drug research in the pharmaceutical industry for 28 years now against all sorts of different diseases. So, I’ve had a chance to learn a lot about biology, a lot about medicine, a lot more about chemistry and a lot about the public's attitude towards many of these things.
JS: Thanks, Derek. Adam can you please introduce yourself as well?
Adam Frank: My name is Adam Frank. I'm a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. I'm also a science communicator. I am the co-founder of NPR's 13.7 cosmos and culture blog. I do commentary for All Things Considered. I write from near time sometimes. I'm also the author of a new book "Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth".
JS: Thanks, Adam. Let’s set the stage a little: How do you feel the trust level is in science as a whole right now?
AF: I think this is a very unique and unfortunately dangerous time for American science. You know the science has been fundamental to the American experiment and the American project, the founding fathers you know many of them were actually scientists or at strong interest in science. And science has been responsible for both our prosperity and our security for you know over our entire course of our country's life. And yet now we're in this bizarre time. We see a lot of fundamental doubt about the veracity of science. And I think it's a very, very, very dangerous time for the for American science.
JS: How did we get here? Is this a recent development, do you think?
AF: I think it's really connected to climate. So, you know after World War II there was a very amazing and useful agreement that happened between sort of you know politicians and of science. Because it was agreed you know it was recognized that American science had very much been you know instrumental to winning that war. And So, there was a sense of like look you know we will fund you to do the work that you're going to do. We're going to leave you alone about the answers you come up with. We're not going to get politics involved the answers you come up with. I mean in return you know you will provide us the basis for our prosperity and security and that was an amazing deal and it worked very well. And then certain people in the political domain began to have problems with the results that scientists were finding. [Snip]And it wasn't the scientists fault that was just what they were finding. And So, then to push back against it they actually they started to purposely cast doubt on the science and the scientists themselves. They began to say that it was a hoax or that the scientists were corrupt or that you know other issues. And it was done for particular reasons and that spread like a cancer. I think from the whole body politic to the point where you know. [Snip] The last thing scientists want is for their work to be politicized. It’s just about the research and the research should be evaluated as much as possible on its own Merits. So, this is I think the thing that has become difficult for the future of the American scientific enterprise.
JS: There are definitely some substantial challenges there, yes. Derek, what do you think the trust level in science looks like right now?
DL: You know not as high as I would like. Although to be honest, if you'd asked me that same question any time during my entire lifetime, I might have given the same answer. But now, I do have to say it's not as high as I would like. There are a lot of odd beliefs out there that have gotten more traction than I think they should. I like to hope that the same thing would be true in years past, but it can be a little discouraging.
I mean as they say the cream rises to the top but so does the pond scum unfortunately. You can get a tremendous amount of wonderful information now, more easily than anyone's ever been able to get it, but you can also get a tremendous amount of, well, garbage, easily available.
JS: What is the conversation about science like in your social circles?
DL: I'm an outlier because what social circles I have are often made up of scientific and technical people. So, I can tell you we're all for it but at the same time, I realize that I have nowhere near a representative sample of anything. I mean I work in an area that has a very high percentage of science and math PhDs. I work surrounded by very well accomplished and technically proficient chemists and biologists and MDS and etc. So, I really don't have a feel for what it's like out in what you'd have to call the real world.
JS: Fair enough. Adam, what about you?
AF: Well, I think we all recognize. I mean you know the overall we're all doing our research and we love our research and we're all excited. You know we're all rending out on our research in our conversations but we all recognize the danger that has happened or that you know that there's really been a shift and we see this in the funding, we see this in the funding directions. We recognize this. I think everyone who's involved in science and technology in the US understands sort of the precipice we're facing.
JS: In the State of Science Index, we found that 32% of respondents somewhat agreed or completely agreed with the statement, “I am skeptical of science.” How does that result strike you? Does it seem high or low?
AF: You said 42% of the people the highest range saying I somewhat disagree 24 percent saying I somewhat agree. But then you look at I believe scientific claims and 59 percent of the people somewhat agreed and 21 percent agreed. That's up huge fraction people saying I believe in scientific claims. Only 19% said I don't believe in scientific claims. So, you know again this all speaks to one of the things which I think that our great challenge is to get people to understand how science works, right. The processes of science need to become more part of the discussion and there's a lot of ways to do this. But I think there's some you know sort of cognitive dissonance as you want to if you might want to put it that way about science. Because I think people have some you know the views that since most people don't work in science, right. I mean of course this is that most people don't work in science. They don't know how it works and So, that's why you can get this kind of polarization in some sense of people kind of believing two opposite things about science at the same time.
JS: Derek, how did you feel about these survey responses?
DL: I would like to know how much that has changed. Not just the past couple of years, but I'd like to know how much that's changed over say the last 50 or 100 years. Of course, we don't know that. My glass half-full feeling is that that has been a fairly steady percentage or perhaps even if I'm really feeling optimistic that it may have dropped over the last hundred years. My glass half-empty perspective is that it has been rising and I just don't know which to believe because on one hand, everyone is using devices and objects every day that were only here because all this science works. I mean pick up a cell phone. A cell phone would have gotten you burned, a smartphone would have gotten you burned at the stake in the Middle Ages. It would have been seen as some kind of alien technology back when I was a kid. But everyone just takes this for granted, that's because the tremendous amount of science and engineering and it works perfectly. So, on the one hand where everyone is surrounded by the successes of science even if they don't think about it but on the other hand you see these statistics about how many people are not quite sure if the world is round or not and you just want to bang your head on the floor.
AF: I think it's a human nature thing to be honest and it has not been helped though by... Well, look at one field for example that everyone feels they have a stake in and that's medicine and nutrition. If you go back over the past 20 or 30 years, every recommendation possible has been made for say human nutrition. Eat this! Don't eat that! This is good for you! Actually, it's bad! You know what, it's not that anymore! We thought that's good. Okay. It's good for some people. Hold it, hold it! We just changed our minds again! I think that news like that especially in the high-profile, headline-grabbing areas of Medicine and nutrition may have desensitized people and made them feel, you know what, these folks don't know what they're talking about. They change their minds every couple of weeks. I might as well just tune it all out. Or on the other hand, the people who don't tune it out, tune in to the one message that fits their preconceptions and run with it and are impervious to anything that comes after that might challenge them.
JS: It seems like human nature plays part here - we’re definitely predisposed to reinforce opinions rather than change them.
DL: Oh yeah! We all want our biases confirmed. We all want to feel that we were right all along. I knew it! I knew it! I always told everyone! That was it! So, it just feels too good to find out that you were correct. You know it's what they said about Henry Clay back in the 1850s that he would rather be right and be President. We all would.
How can scientists and educators work to diminish skepticism and build trust?
AF: Well, there's a bunch of different answers to that one of which is people this scientist needs to get out there, right. Scientists need to get out there and go give talks at local libraries and you know the VA or you know local lodges. You know wherever people are scientists just need to go and give talks. And they need to get talks that are very you should lead with wonder, right. You should show people like wow here's this really cool thing I'm going to show you about the world. You know whether it's planets, or life or you know computers, live with that and then and then talk to people about the issues you know sort of the places where science touches their lives and there are issues that are that touch on policy or politics. But lead with the thing that makes science So, extraordinary which is a. It's just So, much fun. You know it's just So, cool to do science or to know about science because it just makes your world So, much more interesting.
And then make that connection to like you know you guys know that like your lives would be you know you'd be living in a cave. If it wasn't for science I love somewhere in there there's a question which says how different would your life be without science? And there seem to be I’ve sort of remarkable number of people like I would be just the same that's like are you kidding me. You'd be walking to work it would take you five hours you know your car is science, you're the heater, you know that your furnace is science, your obviously your cell phone science. But you know I mean without science we’d be living in huts you know. So, people don't make that connection. So, I think you know we have to sort of you know draw that connection out clearly. And also understanding you know it's very important for people for scientists not to be sort of like you know demeaning like "oh you don't know about science blah, blah, blah, blah, okay you're an idiot you know." that's ridiculous. Most people have lives to lead and you know then they hear about it I think it's kind of cool maybe watch science fiction. But of course, they don't know about a lot of this. And So, you know it's our job as scientists to go out there and help people make the connections and see why this is So, valuable.
JS: It’s true that people don’t make the connection between, say, the scientist doing research and the GPS satellites that keep them from getting lost.
AF: Right and the idea that science and technology is separated these days is to me ridiculous, right. Because there's like you know there's a 15-minute gap from something being discovered in the lab to when it turns into a product buying out you're buying on the shops. So, that that gap between science and technology. You know that may have made sense in like 1890 you know if the even then but not anymore in the modern world. You know there's just you know from every medicine we take, every device we use, you know our computer, our cars are about to be self-driving you know is that technology or science good luck separating them.
JS: Oh, absolutely. Derek, what do you think?
DL: I wish I had some kind of magic bullet but what are you going to do? Stand up there and say trust me. You know trust me, I'm a scientist. Hasn't been working too well. Although it did work in ghostbusters. I mean it's very hard to get someone to trust you if they don't feel as if they have a reason to. And of course, people do have a reason to trust a lot of this stuff. They're relying on it every day. The same people who are convinced that doctors, for example, our drug companies are pushing these evil potions, will be the first to reach for the medicine shelf when they really get sick. So, people, you want to look at what they do rather than listen to what they say. That's the one problem with surveys is that people will say a lot of things, this is my glass half full coming on again, I think people perhaps talk a pretty fearsome game when it comes to not believing in or trusting science, but when the chips are down, they do.
I'd rather it not be like that. I'd rather not have to rely on that. I'd rather they speak up and say, yeah! You know, this stuff works pretty well. I kind of like it. But I guess I have to take what I can get as far as what to do to change people's minds and perceptions, I can't think of any one thing that would do the job. We just have to, we as in scientist since I'm one, we just have to keep trying to do the best science that we can, not over-hype our results, not run with things before we're a lot more sure about what we're talking about, if you could do that was that would be a big step forward because scientists have never been particularly good in any of those.
JF: What have you seen in your interactions with the public that makes you hopeful for the future of science education?
DL: I guess well, part comes from the fact that when I talk to people about what I do for a living which is drug discovery, they generally seem really interested in it and a lot of them in the general public don't even realize that this is a job. You know that there are people who do this for a living. And they tell me, oh wow! That's a really, that's a really neat job. That must really be something. So, I think that people actually do have a sympathy for and an interest in a lot of scientific topics especially ones they can feel relating directly to themselves. It's just that there's a lot of junk out there. So, people are also willing to believe that they're being you know poisoned by the additives in their socks or whatever. This is kind of strange. I don't even know if I want to go here but I think that there's a feeling because of the way a lot of science publicity is aimed toward a younger audience. The feeling is no you've got to get the kids, you've got to give them interested, catch them early. So, a lot of science programming, not all but a lot, and a lot of science museums and public outreach are aimed at kids which is great if you're a kid. But I think it may give some lay adults the idea that this is all something for scientists and for children. It's not something that a regular adult really has to concern themselves with. We have scientists to do that and otherwise it's just one of those things you know that's some kind of fun activity for the kids, some sort of hands-on thing.
AF: Talk to kids man you know. This problem with not trusting science is a problem with old people. Look what frankly you know or it's with older people. I had this amazing experience where Bill Nye was coming to give a talk at the University of Rochester and you know since I do public science. They invited me to you know come along. And So, you know I met with him and you know and a group small group of students and you know it's all great. He was a really nice guy but then we went to the you know where he was giving the lecture. And I walked in and I mean you know this was like a three thousand seat auditorium and it was packed. And it was all these young people who were just thrilled and they were like bill, bill, bill and he got up there. And he talked about using science to save the world, he talked about climate change and how we're going to be able to deal with it and the audience was out of their heads. And I thought like oh yeah things are going to be okay because this is young people are Pro science. I think you could have a hard time finding skin people who are skeptical about science among 20-year-olds. So, the problem here really is the older generation that I think fails to make the connection between science and prosperity and science and you know better living. You know and of course we have to admit we have to acknowledge that you know their science brings both fruits and poisons. You know not everything that science is developed science raises a lot of, but you know difficult issues that we're going to have to have. You know genetically modified, foods genetically modified babies., you know we got a lot of choices to make. And So, you know I think it's right that people are sort of like well you know just because it comes from science. Doesn't mean it's good. These are you know this is where science touches policy. But you know overall what I meet when I talk to young people they are fascinated and thrilled about science. So, you know I mean I think as long as we can manage this bottleneck we're going through right now. I think we'll be more than okay.
JS: Derek and Adam, thanks for joining me today.
There’s no denying that skepticism of science is on the rise. Some of that mistrust stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is. Scientists and educators know that science is a tool we can use to understand the universe we live in. It has no bias or agenda. To counter public mistrust, scientists need to communicate as openly and transparently as possible. Most importantly, we need to talk with — not talk down to — the people we most need to reach.
Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.