March 9, 2017
Thinking about it logically, I suppose it’s unsurprising that many people don’t trust science or scientists. The kind of scientific information that the general public is most commonly exposed to, while controversial to some people is often not very controversial to us. Evolution? Yes, that happens. Climate change? Also happening. Gravity? You get the point. But all this perceived agreement can be suspicious. Why are all those eggheads holing up at universities supposedly doing important scientific research? What’s the point of giving them all this money if all they’re going to do is confirm their own beliefs? It’s not difficult to make the argument that the reason for all this agreement is that we’re trying to push an agenda, or that we got into our field to direct scientific advancement for political purposes. The general public doesn’t realize that most of our days are spent arguing about really important (mostly unimportant) distinctions. When did plate tectonics begin? Ummm… between yesterday and a trillion-billion years ago. What about life? Probably after the Earth…? Low-angle normal faults? How dare you use that phrase in my presence!
What I think is that the scientific method is being misunderstood. The scientific method is the basis for everything that we do and must be followed for good results. Generally, it begins with an observation and development of a question from that observation. That question is converted into a hypothesis which is then tested. Based on data hopefully you can confirm or reject the hypothesis, and use these new observations to ask new questions. All of these steps must be done impartially, otherwise personal perceptions may change the results. When it’s perceived that everyone in science has similar views, however, it’s easy to make the argument that the scientific method is not nonbiased, that in fact it is filled with partisans who have very specific views.
I think one of the major issues here is that cause and effect are being mixed up. The problem is that there is another step that occurs immediately after the scientific method. Once results are interpreted, scientific knowledge is then used, and this is not impartial. While the performance of science must be nonbiased, the use of science must not be. Science expands the breadth of universal knowledge and if we don’t use scientific advancements to shape our ideas it is useless. Our perspectives aren’t impacting the science, the science is impacting our perspectives. Which is why it’s not surprising that there is so much agreement in some of the less controversial areas of science. It’s not surprising that 97% of climate scientists believe that humans are influencing climate change. This is not some conspiracy by scientists to create a political movement or ensure job security, it is because scientists develop their ideas from fact-based evidence, often from their own research.
In the end we’re all just humans, just as flawed as the rest of the world. Besides our impartiality when it comes to the scientific method, we all have inherent biases based on our experiences. Maybe the best way to combat the disconnect between scientists and the general public is to remind people of that fact. Often we’re isolated in a community of scientists, but we all have friends from past lives, family who don’t have any idea what we do, and crotchety old relatives who think that we’re on perpetual vacations. Next time you see them, tell them about your colleague who just won’t accept that such and such can’t happen or your professor who believes in so and so. Tell them about the tedious things you do or that time you spent an entire day troubleshooting a problem that resolved itself the next day. We need to take ourselves out of the figurative (or literal) lab coats that we wear and let the general public know that we’re just like them. While it’s also a calling, doing science really is just a profession and it’s important to keep ourselves grounded by bringing ourselves back to the rest of the world. Except when it comes to the scientific method… that must stay elevated.