Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Do You Trust Scientists?

Last September (2006) John Wilkins wrote a series of posting on why Creationists reject evolution/science. I highly recommend that you read all four essays right now.
  1. Why are creationists creationist?
  2. Why are creationists creationist? 2 - conceptual spaces
  3. Why are creationists creationist? 3: compartments and coherence
  4. Why are creationists creationist? 4: How to oppose anti-science
John explains that much of science is not intuitively obvious and children have a natural tendency to resist notions that go against what they see as common sense. They will encounter serious problems if the authority figures in their lives, such as parents and pastors, are telling them stories that conflict with what they hear in school—especially if these anti-science authority figures are reinforcing their naive common sense notions of the natural world. John outlines the various defensive mechanisms that people adopt when faced with such a dilemma.

Part of the problem is how we present science in a culture that is pre-disposed to mistrust it. As John points out in essay #4, we need to work on making science more trustworthy.
The crucial way to get people to trust science is to show them, by letting them do it, that science is the premier way to learn about the world. Science is a learning process that relies on no single person, but which each individual can engage in. I'm sure science teachers have been trying to get this message across for years, but have been swamped by the demands of curricula designed to make students tertiary ready. A better bet would be to educate the population first, and offer ways in which those who are really committed to science, and are therefore much more likely to actually become scientists or otherwise benefit from it, can become ready for the later education.

This will have a benefit - the policy makers, usually elected from the general population of non-scientists, will understand that even if they do not understand the particular discipline that is cognitively relevant to a given social issue, like global warming or HIV AIDS, that the reasons why the specialists assert these claims is not a matter of simple social construction or dogmatic faith. They may even be better able to assess these claims on their merit, and to critically reject those that are fashionable among scientists but lack the necessary evidentiary support.
I agree that this is a problem. It's more of a problem in some cultures than in others but everyone who is interested in promoting rationalism over superstition should pay attention. Where I might disagree slightly with John is that I think we need a two-pronged attack. Not only do we need to increase the status of science but we need to weaken the hold of religion.

In today's posting, John reiterates these themes [Antiscience is learned in childhood] by referring to a recently published article by by psychologists Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg. Here's the link to their article in The Edge [WHY DO SOME PEOPLE RESIST SCIENCE?].

Bloom and Weisberg make some of the same points that John makes about how children learn. Those are interesting points but I want to focus on whether scientists can be trusted. Here's what Bloom and Skolnick say,
In sum, the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.

We should stress that this failure to defer to scientists in these domains does not necessarily reflect stupidity, ignorance, or malice. In fact, some skepticism toward scientific authority is clearly rational. Scientists have personal biases due to ego or ambition—no reasonable person should ever believe all the claims made in a grant proposal. There are also political and moral biases, particularly in social science research dealing with contentious issues such as the long-term effects of being raised by gay parents or the explanation for gender differences in SAT scores. It would be naïve to ignore all this, and someone who accepted all "scientific" information would be a patsy. The problem is exaggerated when scientists or scientific organizations try to use their authority to make proclamations about controversial social issues. People who disagree with what scientists have to say about these issues might reasonably infer that it is not safe to defer to them more generally.

But this rejection of science would be mistaken in the end. The community of scientists has a legitimate claim to trustworthiness that other social institutions, such as religions and political movements, lack. The structure of scientific inquiry involves procedures, such as experiments and open debate, that are strikingly successful at revealing truths about the world. All other things being equal, a rational person is wise to defer to a geologist about the age of the earth rather than to a priest or to a politician.

Given the role of trust in social learning, it is particularly worrying that national surveys reflect a general decline in the extent to which people trust scientists. To end on a practical note, then, one way to combat resistance to science is to persuade children and adults that the institute of science is, for the most part, worthy of trust.
So here's the problem. How do we convince people that scientists are worthy of trust? It's clear that the front lines are at the interface between what scientists know and what the general public knows about science. This is often framed as an issue about communicating science. Many non-scientists think that scientists need to do a better job. Is this really the problem?

The "burden" of communicating science is often assumed to fall on the shoulders of science writers and science journalists. They are the ones who write the press releases and increasingly they are the ones who write about science in newspapers and magazines. The leading "science" figures on television today are not scientists but science journalists. Even in the leading science journals such as Nature and Science it's the science journalists and not scientists who write the articles that will be read by a wide audience.

In today's world we have a rather paradoxical situation where non-scientists who write about science are proclaiming themselves to be experts on science communication, yet they call upon scientists to learn from them how to manipulate the media to get the science message across. But if science journalists are doing such a good job then why do we need scientists? Is it possible that the failure to make science a trustworthy enterprise is due, in part, to the failure of science journalism?

I'd like to explore this question further.


  1. There are some scientists I don't trust. Do you want names?

  2. Quote from Bloom and Skolnick: "[T]he reasons why the specialists assert these claims is not a matter of simple social construction or dogmatic faith."

    One problem is that "the specialists" are by no means united, though there are solid majority views on many issues of social interest. However, I admittedly tend to pick and choose which majority positions to support. For example, I'm solidly with the overwhelming majorities re evolution and global warming, but I'd guess I'm quite a bit less enthusiastic about the ultimate safety of nuclear power than a majority of those considered experts in the relevant scientific fields.