Thu Jul 19th, 2007 at 04:56:27 AM EST
The Famous Unbelievable Diary
from last month gave me an excuse to put down some ideas about the status of science in general at the moment. The comments made by our self-styled environmental-atheist bouncing Czech are indicative of a deeper issue with science which I've seen evidence of everywhere - including ET.
The conclusion is:
From the diaries ~ whataboutbob
I think it's possibly very difficult for most people here to understand how everyone else experiences science. Mostly we're either inside science, or have been inside science, or are just far enough outside science to be able to see inside it.
But in the rest of the world, most of the population isn't this privileged. In practice, public attitudes to science seem to be based on:
- Fear and uncertainty. Science and scientists have almost god-like powers. But science is also very closely associated with the ruling elites. There's no perception at all that scientists are on the side of ordinary people. Scientists are often labelled explicitly as bad, bad people, complicit in the doings of the evil rich - at best hench-people and at worst active persecutors of the poor and weak. This may look like a caricature, but outside of the PhD or the first degree circuit it really isn't. Science has done a very bad job of making itself look human and concerned.
- Resentment. Science is hard, and most people don't understand it. Worse, they know they don't understand it, and this makes them feel stupid - which no one enjoys. `Science education' doesn't help - and I'll get back to that later. In the meantime, aside from a small class of cranks, who believe they have The Answer, most people realise they have no clue what's going on. They may understand that huge sums are being spent, but it's not really clear why, or who benefits.
- Dislike. We have people like Richard Dawkins to thank for this - his message may be accurate, but his aggressive and hectoring Oxbridge tone has been a PR disaster for both evolution and science. See point 1 above - the subtext is that science is something that rich posh people with Oxbridge backgrounds do. Even someone like David Attenborough fits the stereotype. We've had poor working class scientists in the past - compare David Bellamy to Attenborough - but lower class exponents inevitably seem to lend themselves to caricature and comedy instead of aiming for that famous upscale authoritative media presence.
- Inconsistency. One month a study shows that something is a health risk. The next month a study shows that it isn't. Experts will know that most of these studies are simply bad science. And unfortunately for everyone, a lot of science that appears in the news is very bad indeed. But the public won't read the original papers, and won't understand enough about statistics to make sense of them even if they did. So in practice all that's left is the narrative, which is contradictory and confusing. This isn't just about factual analysis. There's a deeper social effect. Because of repetitive conditioning, science becomes associated with pronouncements that make people anxious and fearful.
- Creative sterility. Scientists don't do poetry or subjectivity, and prefer to close down options rather than open them up. When a scientist or engineer says `That won't work', it annoys arts-background types because it's like someone taking their toys away - especially if the science-type happens to be right.
- Opinion. This is possibly the most important point of all - people without a science background, and especially those with arts or social science training (and I include economists and lawyers in that) believe that truth is ultimately a matter of opinion.
Aside from specific creative techniques, the basis of all arts courses is the process of having and discussing opinions. Eventually, when you get advanced enough, you're allowed to create opinions of your own. In this world what matters is belief, consensus, shouting loud enough, being passionate enough, and thinking your own personal understanding is rich enough, just because you're enjoying it so much, that you understand what's going on.
This happens to be a good way to do art, but it's absolutely the wrong way to do science. Of course a lot of this goes on in science too. But sooner or later ideas have to be checked against reality, and this limits wild oscillations of silliness and credulity - at least over reasonable time periods. In science there is always - eventually, even if it takes a while - an ultimate court of appeal, in the form of experimental reality.
Scientists and technocrats are also trained to understand that solutions either work or they don't - there's no opinion involved. A bridge stays up in a high wind, or it falls down. A CD player's laser is in focus, or it isn't. So it's part of the scientific mindset to understand that there are limits to perfection, and that benefits have costs. You can usually have X or Y, but - unless someone makes a huge breakthrough - you can't have X and Y at the same time, because it may not be physically possible.
If you're not scientifically trained, this is dispiriting. It's like being told by a parent that you not only have to eat green vegetables but also clean your room. Aside from all of the other sins of science, people simply don't like this approach to the world. When you're told that you can have it all, it's irritating to be reminded that actually, you can't - although perhaps someone cleverer than you can.
So - those are all reasons why people hate science. If you talk to non-scientists, you'll see that I'm barely exaggerating. At last year's Big Green Gathering I watched an astrologer give a talk in which scientists were lumped in with a generic bad `they' - vindictive, ignorant of important issues like community spirt and ecology, actively persecutory, and closely tied to the ruling elites.
What's worrying is that this is true in spite of the strong consensus in the scientific community that supports ecological action. Something has gone badly wrong here, because the communalists and the scientists are living in parallel worlds travelling in similar directions, but looking at each other with contempt - scientists despising the communalists for being irrational, and communalists resenting the scientists for being evil.
Is there an answer? No - there is no simple answer with a quick fix. It's going to take at least a couple of generations to fit science back into the social context that it thinks - wrongly - it has abstracted itself from. But it's going to need changes in scientific education. Science education is almost universally appalling - and not just for the obvious reasons. The academic approach to science dates back to the Greeks in theory, and in practice to gentlemen amateurs, who typically made a living either by teaching, by consulting to governments - you can see the roots of popular unease right there - or simply by being rich and having the time to spare. Our university system is still based on this formal structure, and has a strong bias towards theory over practice, and social exclusion over social integration. To do science, you have to be special. And you have to go to a special place.
Science is elsewhere - in a unique place all by itself. Goodies like laptops and iPods and DVD players appear regularly, trickling down from Olympus, and most people understand there's some science in them, even if they're not sure exactly what that means. Experts occasionally send media postcards from the front lines saying all kinds of interesting things which are very clever, but also very strange, full of quarks and the speed of light and strings and other incomprehensible oddities. A string? As in - a piece of string? What? Scientists might as well be speaking their own special language. In fact they are. So it's all a bit confusing. And since they contradict themselves regularly - or so we're told - it's hard to know how seriously to take it all.
Of course we have science education, but it only makes things worse. Most science education is really science biography and science history, with all of the real science taken out. What's left is a meaningless patchwork of colouring-book narratives that the proverbial anyone can understand (Einstein was very clever, E=mc², he said the Cosmological Constant was the biggest blunder of his career...). The problem is there's no sense of ideological buy-in. Science is something that happens to other people. It's not about personal experience and idenfication. Science students, meanwhile, have the opposite problem. Courses throw a toolbox in front of students. Some students will be smart enough to pick up the tools for themselves. The rest won't, and will go and do something else. What's missing is a narrative to explain why the tools matter, and why a social context is important.
The problem with both of these default approaches is that they're inherently alienating. The way to make science accessible isn't to repeat the same old rather aspirational stories about Newton and Einstein and Darwin over and over in the hope that something will stick, but to reinvent parts of the social experience to include core scientific principles. As it happens, the core of science is something everyone can understand. You don't need calculus to make sense of observation, theory building, and reality testing. These ideas have obvious and everyday applications. You only need calculus for specific applications. Calculus isn't science, and isn't a test of scientific literacy - it's an advanced tool often used in certain kinds of science.
Embedding science back into everyday life means taking some - but not all - science away from scientists, and creating ways in which ordinary people can participate and feel like science is something they can belong to. Imagine someone like Dawkins turning up at a farming community centre. Instead of haranguing everyone and implying they're idiots for believing in God instead of evolution, imagine him asking people to help with an investigation into inheritance and genetics in farm animals. Imagine people seeing the results for themselves. It's a lot harder to argue with an animal that has just been born in front of you than a talking head on the TV.
With an issue like global warming, this could mean asking people to track the weather for themselves rather than relying on news stories or weather forecasts. Ask them to look through local historical records, keep an eye on average temperatures. Ask them to get involved - personally, and creatively. The best way to fight anti-scientific, anti-rational narratives isn't to shout louder. We've already tried that, and it doesn't work.
It's to convert theory to practical experience, and to get people involved.