This is why I worry about the perception of science

OK, so I’ll dash this off while I’m in a bad mood and then maybe I won’t feel so bad later, but this has really annoyed me. As I’ve noted on here before I do realise that comments on the internet are not the best medium of communication humans have come up with and tend to be exaggerated and problematic etc. etc. and while I typically eschew talking about such issues I’ll do so here if only to get it off my chest.

Science communication is a good thing. Researchers taking time to communicate to the public is a worthwhile exercise and the public is interested in science and helping them stay informed about our work is good when it comes to things like getting their support for important issues among other issues. Good journalists will help this of course, and the main point here is that people can be reached and many want to be reached. We can and should therefore make an effort to do just that. There will be those who will not and cannot be reached, but even influencing those around them and being able to swamp their nonsense with good science is I think valuable, being part of the silent majority is not always a good thing.

So onto the subject of my wrath / annoyance. Yes, as noted, it’s an internet comment but it encapsulates all that is wrong with the apparent anti-science / anti-intellectualism of some and in perhaps the fewest words possible. It was on the Times website on a story on dolphin intelligence and says (all of it) “Dolphins are wonderful creatures, certainly highly intelligent, but please don’t confuse the issue by telling us what ‘scientists’ think.”

Right, so who exactly should be talking about this issue apart for, to pick a non-random example, the highly trained and qualified and experienced researchers who have been studying dolphin intelligence? Oddly enough, I can’t think of any. How can the issue possibly be confused by people voicing a qualified opinion, especially one that basically consists of ‘dolphins are smart and should be protected’. Is that really too complex an idea? Surely people should be contributing ideas and information to a debate on animal intelligence / protection? Also, given that this issue (in the context of the article) was raised by these researchers then how exactly are they supposed to butt out of the debate they started (and / or how is the journalist supposed to avoid mentioning them)? And finally and obviously, why the ‘  ‘s around the word scientists? I assume it’s a simple snide attack to imply that there is (or should be) no such thing as a scientist and blah blah blah they make it all up etc. but it’s pretty lame all round.

Ugh. That’s it really. Not much beyond a mild whinge from me really, but it does so annoy me that people somehow seem to think that all science is wrong or that somehow years of study and research make you unqualified to talk about something, or that a lack of this education makes you as qualified. I’d be genuinely interested to find out exactly how a mind like that operates that increasing education / research / learning on a subject somehow makes you less qualified, but I can’t help but think that it would be very painful to find out.

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14 Responses to “This is why I worry about the perception of science”

  1. 1 Tor Bertin 06/01/2010 at 10:08 am

    I’m currently attending a community college in a very conservative portion of Wyoming. That sort of attitude is all too prevalent here, especially when it comes to things like evolution and global warming.

    Hearing ‘evolution, what a crock!’ never ceases to stun me. I’ve no idea how people can be so belligerent in their ignorance.

    Admittedly, having both high school biology teachers tell their students that evolution is ‘just a theory’ doesn’t help! Not that people here are beyond reaching (one of my professors commonly has people tell him that they had no idea the evidence for evolution was that conclusive), but it still can be frustrating with that philosophy as widespread as it is.

    • 2 David Hone 06/01/2010 at 10:27 am

      Well that at least seems to be largely a case of ignorance, rather than necessarily being anti-intellectualism. What confounds me is the doublethink that doctors know about illness and mechanics know how to fix cars and coaches understand football tactics, but that scientists know nothing about science *because* they are scientists.

  2. 3 Steven Francis-Coombs 06/01/2010 at 11:37 am

    I sometimes wonder around on the internet and see what creationists and so called pseudoscientists talk about, and the more I read, I get the impression that these people have got be joking or something. I try hard to tell myself that, and the more I read, it just sounds like it’s own parody. Seems like logic and reason aren’t something that they are accustomed to.

    • 4 David Hone 06/01/2010 at 11:47 am

      I can understand at least ignorance and even willful ignorance (if you don’t read about evolution you can’t see anything you don’t like or disagree with or that challenges your ideas) but the doublething of expert = right except when it’s something I don’t like just baffles me and it only gets worse when they accept medicine and engineering and astronomy and chemistry BUT evolutionary biology is wrong.

  3. 5 David Stern 06/01/2010 at 1:02 pm

    There are a lot of natural scientists out there that I come across in person and in writing etc. who think that social science is crap or economics in particular is crap. So it’s not surprising that there are members of the public that think some areas of natural science are crap.

    • 6 David Hone 06/01/2010 at 1:30 pm

      Well they might think the science is worthless (which seems, obviously, unreasonable / unlikely) but they could at least acknowledge that the people concerned might know a lot about the stuff. I think all the conspiracy stuff about 9/11 is wrong, but I still think that people who have spent years reading reports and so on might at least know something about the subject, even if it is misguided and based on dodgy science / understanding / etc.

      Still, if anything your point highlights my general issue, that we (by which i mean mainstream science, at any level) are clearly not doing the job we could to reach people if they think that the biological sciences are ‘crap’. Loonies aside, we must reach people at school, college and as adults to explain what we do, how and why it’s important.

  4. 7 knirirr 06/01/2010 at 6:16 pm

    What confounds me is the doublethink that doctors know about illness and mechanics know how to fix cars and coaches understand football tactics, but that scientists know nothing about science *because* they are scientists.

    It is indeed very odd. The only possible reason I can think of would involve a combination of various factors. For example, the public may well assume that someone who is an ‘expert’ in a particular field is in fact paid to promote that field or particular ideas within it, and will thus be blind to contradictory evidence because it will hurt their income and/or status. The fact that the public don’t understand the field would make it easier to believe this. Also, I suspect that scientists are perceived as thinking themselves superior to the public and of “telling people what to do,” both of which will be off-putting as no-one likes being lectured to by smug experts. Mechanics, physicians and football coaches may draw criticism from the public for similar reasons (in my experience many people think their GP patronising and obstructive) but at least these people are generally viewed as quite important to daily life whereas scientists might not be.

    Although my degrees are in biological subjects I’ve ended up working in a research department where climate modelling is performed, and it seems that people are even less likely to believe what we’re talking about than I found when I worked in bioinformatics &c. I wonder if it is related again to public understanding – physicists I have known whose work involved subatomic particles or obscure cosmological phenomena didn’t seem to get bothered by this sort of thing as outside their field no-one could grasp what they were talking about, whereas everyone knows about animals, weather and so on and can come up with an opinion on them.

    • 8 David Hone 07/01/2010 at 9:34 am

      You might well be onto something there with the fact that everyone knows a bit about animals, and also the issue of the importance (or perceived importance) of scientists. Though I’d argue (for the purpose of discourse) that the former at least should be taken care of by the fact that they should have a bit of an understanding that they know so little and that others should know more.

      Still, these are good points, and if anything, I think reaffirm my general concept of researchers putting themselves out there to show what they know and why it’s important and to get the public interested and understanding.

      • 9 knirirr 07/01/2010 at 7:37 pm

        …should have a bit of an understanding that they know so little and that others should know more.

        One would certainly hope so, but it does appear that those with only a little knowledge in a topic often seem to have difficulty in understanding that others will know more, or that knowledge greater than their own is of any practical value. There is a particular term for this phenomenon but I can’t recall what it is at the moment.

  5. 10 Kenneth 07/01/2010 at 1:21 am

    Don’t even act like there isn’t an international cabal of scientists out there, scheming to keep us enslaved to their whims on global warming and non-sin-based nature of homosexuality praise jebus.

    It really makes me sad that such sentiments actually do exist.

  6. 13 mattvr 08/01/2010 at 11:49 am

    Some people simply don’t trust science and scientists for all sorts of reasons.
    I’m not going to go into them all but I think a major contributor is that many people misunderstand the process of science.

    Many people see Scientists as an ‘authority’ and don’t seem to grasp that the information given out by scientists can change when new data or different analysis comes to light.

    When a theory is proven incorrect, especially one that has influenced peoples lives, it’s considered a blow rather than an advance or growth of understanding.

  1. 1 Surely not? Really? Oh. « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 30/09/2010 at 8:29 am
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