So, there appears to be a growing fissure between what public opinion considers to be “science” and what “science” really is. I could start making some huge proclamations that this might explain modern pseudo-science (like this, this or this) or this gaping hole is a new one causing a frenzy of media hype (like this, this or this), but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.
Although I love statistics, and a recent poll gives me plenty of ammo, I seriously doubt we can start making any conclusions about scientific advancement and the inverse correlation with public intelligence. No, pseudo-science, fear of science, mad scientists, scientific misinformation, outright lies of science claims and I Just Made This Up™ have always been around, it’s just that media is propagating faster than ever before; and as information spreads quickly, misinformation spreads faster.
Public-science is a weak link
If a physics researcher can set up a blog, so can your average crazy doomsday theorist with a brand new theory about the universe being driven by a galactic hamster on a treadmill. Actually, as physics researchers are very busy, crackpots probably have more time to set up their text-heavy, science-lite websites.
Crazy websites to one side, another factor to consider is that there’s a stronger public-media relationship than a public-science relationship. This is why quality, specialist reporters are needed, to communicate science to their readers in a rational, relevant way. Unfortunately, this is probably the weakest link for science communication in this world of ultra-fast media.
As the “old media” behemoths start to suffer, trying to make profit while sinking in a tide of free online content, cutbacks are inevitable. I’ve seen this first hand at a recent conference, where the press room was occupied by bloggers, podcasters and vidcasters. Only one New York Times correspondent was present; a politics correspondent. This was an astrophysics conference. He was only there for a few hours, looking perplexed.
The disconnect widens
So the traditional media has to make cutbacks, so what? That’s business. Unfortunately, there are few science reporters, so when cutbacks happen, reliable reporting of science is lost, and reporters who probably haven’t studied any science in their lives find themselves being sent to report on the next great Hubble discovery or… the LHC (we all know how that went).
So it is little wonder we start seeing statistics like this surfacing:
On the whole, scientists believe American research leads the world. But only 17 percent of the public agrees, and the proportion who name scientific advances as among the United States’ most important achievements has fallen to 27 percent from nearly 50 percent in 1999, the survey found.
Almost a third of ordinary Americans say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists. Only about half of the public agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all.
The report said 85 percent of science association members surveyed said public ignorance of science was a major problem. And by large margins they deride as only “fair” or “poor” the coverage of science by newspapers and television.
(emphasis added by me)
So why is there a growing disconnect between the public and science? I think it’s a combination of factors (fast online media, a lack of good quality science journalism etc.), but the result is pretty worrying. When you see celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy spewing her dogma about the link between child autism and vaccines, alarm bells should be ringing. McCarthy has decided to battle against science (and the BigPharma overlords, of course), and she’s gathered quite a following; parents who have decided to turn their back on science and trust an ex-Playboy model instead.
This is just one example of the impact of science distrust. Using this slack in the public-science communication, there’s been a huge surge in conspiracy theories and individuals using science as a means to “prove” their “belief.” This is an uncomfortable situation where you have large groups of people who are willing to promote their pet theory as science fact (I’m not talking Creationism here, there are a fair few odd physics theories knocking around too). And when you have a very polished theory that sounds reasonable on the surface, but fails after a small bit of scientific rigour (despite the fact they use out of date science to point the finger and say, “I told you so!”), it can be hard for the public to understand what is “science” and what is bunkum.
Science blogging standard
So, as trusted media sources — such as major newspapers and news channels, traditionally the ‘ground zero’ of reporting — desperately try to grasp this new world of free and fast media, science journalism falls by the wayside, watering down the facts. To “go viral,” often stories will be of very low science merit, but headline grabbing. This could be the key reason why we have this current bout of public misunderstanding of science, allowing cranks some room to manoeuvre their next insane theory into position.
This is where science bloggers are flourishing. In fact, science blogging is almost like the Internet’s immune system (that’s an analogy, not scientific ‘proof’), and because bloggers can knock out articles very quickly, they can often be the first on the scene to fight off the next flawed conspiracy theory or crackpot ramblings. Of course, you don’t have to be a scientist to blog, but there is a huge, wonderful infrastructure of skeptical websites that make a very healthy existence debunking false claims and pseudo-science.
Although many skeptical bloggers view debunking nutty theories to be an enjoyable pastime, it turns out they are doing something the mainstream media cannot: they are connected with their audience, they are usually professionals of their field and they will highlight the abuse of science, exposing these theories for what they really are (crap).
So if you’re ever confused about a website’s claims, keep in mind Carl Sagan’s famous (and very relevant) quote, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If a website is telling you that the Sun is actually driven by a magical force, other than gravitational pressure and nuclear fusion, ask ‘where’s your proof?‘ — you’ll find there will be no satisfactory answer to that question.
A special thanks to ace Norwegian science reporter Geir Barstein for inspiring this post after a recent chat we had during his visit to LA…