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Friday, July 10, 2009

Matt Nisbet Is Puzzled

The results of the Pew Science Survey tell us that American love science and they love scientists. Here's what the Pew researchers say in the summary ...
Americans like science. Overwhelming majorities say that science has had a positive effect on society and that science has made life easier for most people. Most also say that government investments in science, as well as engineering and technology, pay off in the long run.

And scientists are very highly rated compared with members of other professions: Only members of the military and teachers are more likely to be viewed as contributing a lot to society's well-being.
Matt Nisbet believes every word. He points out that the "experts" (e.g. he and his buddies) have been saying this for years. As he puts it in his most recent posting [On the Pew Science Survey, Beware the Fall from Grace Narrative].
I shared a similar observation in a post yesterday, detailing the Pew results that indicate an almost unrivaled amount of cultural respect, admiration, authority, and deference to science and scientists.
Matt can't understand why some of us are a bit skeptical. He doesn't seem to be the least bit concerned about a public who have "an almost unrivaled amount of cultural respect, admiration, authority, and deference to science and scientists" and yet reject evolution, the role of humans in global warming, and the importance of vaccinating your children. Matt never bothers to ask why a public that admires science so much would flock to homeopaths, buy Q-ray bracelets, and read the astrology column in the daily newspaper.

That's because Matt Nisbet isn't a scientist. He isn't skeptical and he never questions his own assumptions. Matt thinks that when people say they admire and respect science and scientists then that's the gospel truth. It never occurs to him to wonder what they mean by "science" and "scientists" and it never occurs to him to wonder about the obvious conflict between what people say in one question and what they say in another. How does he account for the fact that the general public does not support high quality science education for their children in spite of the fact they have a great respect for science?

One of the consequences of Matt's belief is that he proposes solutions to the science literacy problem based on the "fact" that the public has a great deal of confidence in scientists. For example, he quotes from an article he is about to publish in a science journal.
The implication is that relative to authority, deference, and respect, scientists have earned a rich bounty of perceptual capital. When controversies occur, the challenge is to understand how to use this capital to sponsor dialogue, invite differing perspectives, facilitate public participation, reach consensus when appropriate, learn from disagreement, and avoid common communication mistakes that undermine these goals.
I disagree with the premise. I think that real public respect for science is much lower than the Pew summary indicates. To me the survey results suggests a general public that doesn't understand science very well and doesn't trust scientists.

I think that scientists, and everyone else, have to concentrate on educating the general public about the differences between science and superstition. I think that scientists have to work on gaining true respect and authority and that it's a huge mistake to assume they already have it. I'm not sure they ever had it in North America.

Part of gaining more respect involves cleaning our own house and educating the media. We also need to stop listening to the so-called expects on science communication.


  1. I suspect that the public has high admiration for an idealized caricature of "scientist" -- a figure who delivers authoritative wisdom about the universe, miracle cures, and cool toys -- that exists largely in their own imagination. They are oblivious to the ambiguities of real scientific investigation. That is why creationists can get away with yammering about "scientists" proving the earth is young and similar bullshit (and equivalent examples from alt-med etc.), and have it respected by their audience as at least comparable to "mainstream" science.

  2. My observation is that most Americans don't even know what science is. They don't understand the concept that science is not a product, it's a process.
    Americans say they love science, but most really don't even know that there is a difference between astrology and astronomy. They go in drove to psychics, astrologers, and other frauds.

    Even pharmacies -- who are staffed by supposedly sophisticated people, sell all sorts of woo -- homeophathic and otherwise.

  3. Here's a case study to support the idea that the public doesn't really understand 'science':

    Michael Crichton, Novelist, Scientist and Creator of Hit-series "ER" Dead at 66

    That's an actual headline. Chrichton, scientist.

  4. eamon knight is more or less correct. This caricature of what science is and what scientists do reveals itself whenever I try to discuss my own research with a non-scientist. For instance, explaining what a transgenic animal model actually is always leads to the question, "I didn't know you could actually do that!?"

    The public is exposed to the fruits of science, the cures and technology, rarely ever the process of how we got there.

  5. err, that's 'Crichton, scientist'. Ungh.

  6. We definitely need to educate the public what science actually is, especially the epistemology of it and the fact that is it a way of understanding the world around us, while the production of cool gadgets is a byproduct of the advances of fundamental research.

    Without that, we're in trouble.

    How we do that in practice is the big question and I don't see an easy answer to it as long as the politicians are part of the "general public"

  7. True or false question #10 on The Science Knowledge Quiz is ambiguous:

    "Antibiotics will kill viruses as well as bacteria."

    Is this question asking "Will antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria [does]?"

    Or is it asking "Will antibiotics kill both viruses and bacteria?"

  8. I think that the general public can't and doesn't differentiate between scince and science based technology.

    When they say they like science they actually mean science based technology; "hey my new cell/mobile phone can knit socks in the night while I sleep, mega cool!"

    However when it comes to real abstract theoretical science their knowledge is at best rudimentary and mixed with a sort of scientists are Dr Frankenstein paranoia!

  9. err, that's 'Crichton, scientist'. Ungh.

    First Church of Chrichton, Scientist?
    Works for me ;-).

  10. Nisbet is a wonderful contradiction: he is a self-proclaimed expert on communication who advocates engagement via "framing" but he does not see that his own failure to communicate and engage with the scientific side demonstrates a lack of competence and insight in his chosen field.

    A communicator who cannot communicate, a framer who cannot frame. Poor chap.