A recent survey from the Pew Research Institute revealed troubling trends in how science is doing, and showed that the public and scientists are far apart on many basic questions, from whether humans have evolved over time (only 65% of the public agrees, compared to 98% of scientists), to whether it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods (88% of scientists think so, but only 37% of the public agrees).

baseball strike
A Batter swings at a pitch but fails to hit the ball resulting in a strike. Image via Fcb981.

There are some positive aspects to the survey. For instance, 79% of the public respondents believe science has made life easier for most people.

However, the most troubling aspects of the survey come when comparing responses in 2014 to those from 2009. As the authors write:

Compared with five years ago, both citizens and scientists are less upbeat about the scientific enterprise.

The percentage of scientists saying that “this is generally a good time for science” is down from 76% in 2009 to 52% in 2014. The percentage of the public considering US scientific achievements to be above average or the best in the world is down from 65% in 2009 to 54% in 2014. Support for public funding of science is also slipping, but not as dramatically.

One of the most interesting sections of the survey sought to measure public perceptions of the degree of scientific consensus. For instance, 37% of US adults think scientists do not agree that global warming is caused by human activity, while 29% think scientists do not agree that humans have evolved over time.

Funding is a major concern for scientists. Eighty-three percent feel it’s harder today to get federal funding, while 45% feel it’s harder to get either industry or private funding.

This all jibes with personal experience. Over the past few years, I’ve had the chance to talk with distinguished scientists in many fields, in many settings, and from many countries, and one theme is consistent — they feel that science is in more dire straits than at any other period they can recall. From funding to public receptivity to political support, all indicators have receded. Funding is down. The public’s relationship to science is more fraught. Scientists are being harassed and bullied. And politicians range from mildly supportive to downright antagonistic, both at the Federal and local levels.

Why is this happening?

Speculation takes a few forms when academics and scientists are asked about root causes:

  • Political and societal dysfunction. Since the beginning of the 21st century, we’ve seen a strong libertarian streak emerge in the US in particular. In other countries, leadership has been distracted more by recent economic upheavals (next topic). For it to work, science has to be a societal activity. The emergence of libertarian attitudes leads to a strange brew of distrust of authority and imposition of personal beliefs in an attempt to assert individual independence. Science cannot achieve authority as quickly in this situation. The pH is off. The rise of neo-libertarians into the US Congress has led to strange behaviors among our elected leaders, up to and including intrusions into the funding decisions of scientific peer-review panels, purportedly to keep scientists from spending money on what they deem to be  “frivolous” research. A societal activity aimed to describe objective reality is being dominated by self-serving, divisive, and subjective points of view.
  • Economic dysfunction. The economic dysfunction of the past seven years has had long-lasting negative effects on human society. Poverty rates have increased. Educational priorities have shifted in the wrong direction. Distrust of authority has justifiably increased in a general sense, as economic inequality has increased dramatically and justice seems to have become a retail commodity. More basic concerns — jobs, food, housing security, insurance — have supplanted higher-level concerns, like those emanating from scientific findings. On the other side of the coin, as economic inequality has increased, greed has become an accepted dimension of life, with lotteries, stock market reports, “Black Fridays,” and billionaire celebrities integrated into the fabric of life in ways that distract and cut against long-term thinking and societal progress.
  • Mass media dysfunction. The shift from a media landscape that tended to generate consensus to a media landscape that tends to emphasize diversity of opinion has had a strong effect on how people think about the world. Oddly, despite the fact that it sounds nice, it has been hard to see how this shift has been a positive development. Opinions seem to have hardened, polarization has increased, and trust in science has declined. Signal and noise now mix and swirl in a confusing blend which emphasizes discord. At the same time, formerly authoritative and sophisticated media outlets have either failed us or been so gutted that they have vanished (e.g., local newspapers) to become shadows of their former selves. And the new media is less progressive in a general sense, with searches dredging up fringe and outdated opinions and old information with much greater ease, making it harder for our society as a whole to move on. A vaccination scandal from the late-1990s still haunts us to this day, for example. Social media divides attention and celebrates distraction far more than thoughtful examination.
  • Scientific dysfunction. Scientists haven’t done themselves any favors. Their communications with the general public often backfire in dramatic or subtle ways, as they encourage uncertainty in their statements rather than providing answers. Scandals have been rampant — fabricated data, conflicts of interest, and ethical violations — and they persist in search engines and online, as noted above. The political desire for simple answers and “plain talk” doesn’t mix well with scientific habits of mind, which makes scientists look out of touch with the general public. The town-gown divide seems to have grown.

Of course, all of these are at work simultaneously, as well as other factors I haven’t enumerated. It’s difficult to know how to improve the situation, as each of these trends is large and related to the others to either a slight or strong degree.

Perhaps the most addressable and least intertwined is the last one — scientific dysfunction. Scientists need to become better communicators. What does this mean? Be more direct, less academic, and stop talking about doubt. While this may seem “unscientific,” the public has a different take on doubt and uncertainty, one that amplifies ambiguity far beyond the intended level. Doubt about climate change? It could all be wrong, a conspiracy, entirely false, etc. Only 96% of scientists agree? Those 4% could be geniuses, as often lone geniuses change science, so it could all be wrong. And so forth. The neo-liberatarian politicians who are so strident and aggressive these days latch onto these doubts and amplify them, as do mass media chatterboxes. Soon, small doubts from a vanishingly small percentage of scientists become reasons to disbelieve the entire matter. Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.

But there are more basic things to get right. Scientists, stop committing research fraud, please. Stop fabricating data. Stop plagiarizing. Stop over-interpreting your findings. This can happen tomorrow. Just stop it. It’s rare now, but it should never occur. Never.

We are trending in the wrong direction, despite much greater access to scientific information in general, which to me demonstrates that we may have taken our eye off the ball with all our internecine debates about public access and related issues. What we need to improve the position of science in the public sphere is not more science papers online. It is better science communication designed for the public, for policymakers, and for students. This is a more difficult and interesting path than simply making papers free on a server somewhere. It is about education, about trusted authority, and about increasing knowledge in an appropriate manner. But we have to work to improve the politics, communication, and economics of society as well as improve science communication. They all matter. They’re all intertwined. It’s a complex game. It’s easy to swing and miss.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


45 Thoughts on "Taking Our Eye Off the Ball — Why Is Science Suffering in the Modern Age?"

Note the parallel between public skepticism about science and scientists skepticism about publishers. I think the answer is that this is a skeptical age, brought on by deep new communication capabilities (and possibilities). If so then there may be nothing to be done except ride it out. In the meantime issues like public access and open access are the tractable ones, hence worthy of attention. It may also be useful to figure out why communication leads to skepticism of authority, but that is a scientific question.

To me, giving into entropy is not a good approach. I think scientific literacy and education, as well as political support and social cohesion, are all tractable, as you say. If they were not, how could we have arrived at science in the first place?

I also do not accept your premise that “communication leads to skepticism of authority.” Good communication enhances agreement around shared concerns, and gives legitimate authority to good leaders and the best ideas. I think cynical and undermining communication, bent on distorting good ideas and inserting illegitimate leaders, will lead to skepticism of authority.

I do not make the distinction between good and bad communication that you do, so I merely observe that skepticism has increased with increasing communication due to the Internet. Using your assumed distinction the scientific question becomes why has bad communication increased at the expense of good communication? (Here the danger is that good communication will be defined in terms of one’s political beliefs, at which point the question ceases to be scientific.)

As for entropy, I am not saying stop writing about this, merely that given the scale of the social movement I doubt there is a quick fix. One also has to attend to business, while the battles rage about us.

“Good communication enhances agreement around shared concerns”

Do you mean agreement that the shared concerns exit, or agreement on the solutions to the shared concerns? These are two different issues conflated in your statement.

Arguably good communication also includes information about doubts, ie good leaders acknowledge they don’t have all the answers. There are too many examples, in politics, in science, in business, where leaders have assumed their own infallibility, communicated their beliefs and solutions well (in PR terms) and cocked up big time – because the beliefs were flaky, the solutions not well examined – the communication was not the problem.

This leads to skepticism as much as anything.

It seems to me that many of what you say existed in the past the only difference is that now these societal forces have a voice: namely, Fox News. Additionally, a minority of right wing conservatives have more voice than the rest of the population. The GOP has gerrymandered districts and although right wing candidates have won, they do not represent the will of the people in the districts in which they serve. The speaker of the house cannot control his own caucus! The answer to the challenge to science is to get out the vote!

I agree about the new voice, but as Kent points out it is largely libertarian, not Republican. As for the medium, I think the blogosphere is the big new mainstream outlet, not Fox. It seems we are in another broadsheet era, where radical opinions proliferate.

I agree, but this is not a completely partisan issue. The news media in general is a pale shadow of what it was 30 years ago. Its audience’s attention is being “gerrymandered” every day by an endless barrage of interruptions, silly ideas (“13 celebrity kittens”), and confusing contradictions. Getting back to a stronger Fourth Estate in general would solve a lot of problems, but it’s so fractured and fragmented that it’s hard to see how that is going to come about.

It’s also worth pointing out that the opposition to genetically-modified food comes largely from the political left, and the anti-vaxxers come from all over the political spectrum. The tendency to disbelieve politically inconvenient science is, I think, a human one rather than a specifically conservative or liberal (or libertarian) one.

Completely agree. It would actually be somewhat less worrying to me if it were partisan. That would mean it was political in essence. But I think there are “better human” and “worse human” traits. It’s completely human to pocket shiny objects and fight for food, but we try to stay above that. Why we’re drifting into more retrograde traits around science is worth pondering. We can do better.

Good point, Rick. There are also the “science is broken” issues, which seem to be mostly nonpartisan. Kent mentions blowing things out of proportion and I think that goes for reproducibility, fraud, conflicts of interest, hype and peer review problems, not to mention predatory publishing and supposedly immoral subscriptions. A lot of the skepticism about science and scientific communication is coming from within the scientific community, which the public then picks up on.

A very thought provoking piece.
With respect to scientists improving their communication skills (always a good idea), I have difficulty imagining a responsible discussion of science that does not treat doubt and concepts such as chaos and probabilistic truth.
So perhaps we also need to improve the audience through better science education.

The need for science education is paramount. People who understand what a theory means in science understand that scrutiny is a critical part of the project.

Education has certainly played a role here, but this is a long term phenomenon. Right now we’re dealing with people who were educated 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. I suspect things will get worse in the immediate future as those educated under “No Child Left Behind” and “Common Core” come of age (their skills at taking standardized tests will be superb, at in depth reasoning–not so great).

And education is a solution, but it’s a slow one. Change the educational system now and in decades things may look better. What do we do in the meantime about those who are already past the educational system?

Many Senate chairs are over 80 years old, and were educated in the 1940s and 1950s.

I think the issue is much broader than just science or publishing. It is really an attack on higher education in all forms. Look at Texas, New York, or California. There is a public distrust of higher education and the elected officials including the governor have been hammering away at both the research and teaching at the university level. I think that science is just part of that shift from being proud of our great universities to one of cutting funding and shrinking research output in a focused attempt to change the universities into a less influential organization. Financial support for many of our great universities has fallen well below 50 % from the state budgets. Some of the reduction is due to the economic times but more of the reduced support is based on a lack of belief in what the university is producing.

You’re a little out of date about Texas. The new Republican, staunch right-wing Republican though he is, has already announced his support for more money going to fund research at the top Texas universities and hiring more top faculty for them.

When you have the entire Board of Regents appointed by Perry they have already dismantled much of the greatness about the UT system and fired the President. The damage has already been done during the past 10 years. The new emphasis is not on research.

We also need reform to the promotion and tenure process. The pressure to publish and publish often does not necessarily serve us well. Funding agencies want to see results/impact that go beyond just how citations.

Unfortunately, calling for reform supports the “science is broken” narrative.

“What we need to improve the position of science in the public sphere is not more science papers online.” I think university deans, provosts, and presidents (and program officers) should frame this on the walls of their offices.

I don’t buy the notion that the situation of the news coverage of science has gotten worse. The trap in believing the world has gotten worse is that you may harbor the view that it could get better. Please, ladies and gentlemen, by what measure would you make that calculation? The size of your stock portfolio? The amount still left to pay on Alex Rodriguez’s contract?

And let’s offer 2 cheers for Rick’s comment that anti-science bias is alive on both the political left as well as the right. We reserve the third cheer on unspecified principle.

I always harbor the view that the world can get better. I don’t view that as a trap. As for how measurable it is, I would say that many of the trends cited above, especially the delta from five years ago, would have headed in the other direction. That would signal improvement.

I don’t buy the notion that the situation of the news coverage of science has gotten worse.

I think there’s pretty clear evidence that it has:
CNN Cuts Entire Science, Tech Team

The Disappearing Science Reporter
“…the number of science sections in major papers has declined over 75% since 1989, from 85 to 19.”
“In 2008 CNN eliminated its dedicated environment desk, and in early 2013, The New York Times did the same”

Also, The Washington Post was caught publishing university press press releases in the health and science section unedited: https://ksj.mit.edu/tracker/2014/02/want-your-university-press-release-repri/

I do think the current state of science reporting, and a lot of other reporting, is sad, sad, sad! Newsrooms have eliminated science reporting jobs as David pointed out. The journals are pumping out crazy press releases because they can and the news outlets run with them with little to no scrutiny. That’s not the whole problem, but its certainly part of the problem.

In “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” Shawn Otto makes a pretty good case for the demise of science reporting in today’s media. He lays the blame squarely at the feet of the postmodern notion that all arguments have equal weight, even when scientific findings have long refuted many of these arguments.

Hence, in today’s news coverage by channels watched by millions, a view by one expert that gravity exists and is what keeps us on the ground has to be countered by another “expert” who proclaims that “alien glue” is what does the job. That this approach helps ratings is another bonus…

It seems to me that if this were true then reporters would have more to do, not less. Getting two experts that disagree is hard work compared to rewriting a press release. My guess is that the reason science reporting is being cut is because people are getting their science news from the Web. I know I am. Newspapers are focusing on what people will pay for, and it is not painstaking science reporting of a general nature.

Any proposed solution that ignores the dominance of Internet based communication is unlikely to be helpful. I think the basic fact here is that there have always been a lot of people who have little regard for various authorities and they now have the means to find each other and join together, to communicate and build their own movements. This is why there are so many movements in play. Rhetorical conflict may be the new equilibrium.

Getting two experts that disagree is hard work compared to rewriting a press release.

I would think that finding advocates with ulterior motives to fulfill who are willing to write your articles for you is a lot easier than either of the above.

My guess is that the reason science reporting is being cut is because people are getting their science news from the Web.

My guess is that news agencies are cutting costs across the board, and because science coverage is not popular with readers, it sees a disproportionate percentage of budget cuts, certainly as compared with more popular features like sports or horoscopes.

On your first point, journalists do not usually get other people to write their articles. That too is a lot of work, not to mention getting fired for it. (I was a science journalist for about a decade.) I am curious about your reference to ulterior motives, since most advocates believe passionately in their causes. Their motive is typically to try to get what they see as the truth out.

As for your second point, you may have missed it when I said this: “Newspapers are focusing on what people will pay for, and it is not painstaking science reporting of a general nature.” So we agree, but the point is that newspapers are cutting costs because Internet communication of news is hurting them. Also, that people prefer sports to news is relevant to this discussion. Expecting the public to love science, or even to be interested in it, may be unrealistic.

On your first point, journalists do not usually get other people to write their articles. That too is a lot of work, not to mention getting fired for it.

See Angela’s comment and link above. Regurgitating press releases is what qualifies as “science journalism” for many outlets these days.

I am curious about your reference to ulterior motives, since most advocates believe passionately in their causes. Their motive is typically to try to get what they see as the truth out.

Well, we’ve seen many advocates for free culture turn out to be businessmen whose companies are built around profiting from things like selling advertisements next to that free material, we’ve seen anti-vaccine advocates who happen to be working for law firms that are setting up class action lawsuits against doctors and vaccine manufacturers, and the list of astroturfers goes on (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astroturfing).

As for your second point, you may have missed it when I said this: “Newspapers are focusing on what people will pay for, and it is not painstaking science reporting of a general nature.” So we agree, but the point is that newspapers are cutting costs because Internet communication of news is hurting them.

We agree that the internet is harming traditional news outlets. Whether science coverage on the internet is contributing to that, or sufficient to make up for previous levels of coverage is unclear to me. The minority interested in getting science coverage may be turning to the internet because newspapers and the like have cut their coverage back so far. Not sure which is the chicken or the egg here.

Keep in mind that for a reporter to take sides in a legitimate debate is unethical. That is for the opinion section, not the news. So the decision to ignore prime facie debate, as illegitimate, is not taken lightly.

Thanks for this article Kent. What you point out is the reason why we founded the National Science Communication Institute four years ago. This is a big and important issue, and yet it’s one that funders at all levels have been slow to recognize and support. I’d like to suggest one edit to your article if I may: It shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of scientists to improve science communication. This problem exists and persists at the cultural/institutional level. Our universities and research institutions need to create an infrastructure of communications support around research, and help shepherd work to peers, tech transfer, policymakers and the public. And science itself needs to embrace this need. The readers of this website are well aware of how many layers of expertise are needed to create and manage communications. Real solutions to improving science communication need to be more than just teaching scientists to become better public speakers.

I agree. I think the main point is that the public’s relationship with science is degrading. Everyone involved needs to up their game.

This, from Nate Silver’s blog site yesterday, seems a germane piece regarding human nature, processing information and the effect of education.


The conclusion

“So where does this leave us? With a lot of evidence that erroneous beliefs aren’t easily overturned, and when they’re tinged with emotion, forget about it. Explaining the science and helping people understand it are only the first steps. If you want someone to accept information that contradicts what they already know, you have to find a story they can buy into. That requires bridging the narrative they’ve already constructed to a new one that is both true and allows them to remain the kind of person they believe themselves to be.”

That it comes from a blog not a trad media outlet also chimes in with the themes above.

There is a lot of similar research on this topic coming from the psych, sociology and political science communities. The first problem is that it does not apply to legitimate debates, but it is often used there. The second problem is that it sounds like a prescription for propaganda, or how to craft a sales pitch. Both of these problems have been widely noted.

My analysis is that people have great difficulty in accepting that other, equally reasonable people can look at the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions, which happens all the time. Grasping this calls for a rather different theory of reasoning than the common, simple one. The fact is that human reasoning is a complex process, which is not well understood.

Part of the problem has to be that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish well-conducted science from shoddy science. Highlighting data from Pew exemplifies the dangers here. Professional sociologists are very dubious about any results coming from Pew research for a combination of methodological reasons and the religious background of the Pew Charitable Trust itself. Pew has also had a track record of outright bogus results, notably in their report on the dangers associated with farm-raised salmon from about 10 yrs ago. Another factor is that the very real abilities of science to gain increasing control of the natural world does not come with an in-built ability to use that control wisely or even positively. To state the problem more generally: the sciences can tell us a great deal about how to control our world, but they can’t tell us how we should live. Our surplus in the former area only makes the deficit in the latter more dangerous. At one time it was assumed that the humanities offered practical guidance about how best to live. A lot has happened in the history of these disciplines in recent decades to undermine that notion. As a result, the unambitious fall-back position for all disciplines in higher education is that they can only be justified in terms of “getting a job” after graduation. This exclusively vocational approach to education is unlikely to create a positive environment for either the sciences, the humanities, or our society at large.

Michael Magoulias
Director, Journals
University of Chicago Press

I think there’s a logical fallacy running through this blog post that if only everyone were educated and had all the information they would agree (with me). Different people have different risk tolerances and values. Scientists are a non-random subset of people. Science also doesn’t tell us what we should do. It tells us what the likely consequences of our actions are. Should is a political question.

I don’t think the statement “Science is under attack” describes the problem in enough detail to come up with a realistic solution.

I think you need to move on from ‘mass media dysfunction’ and call out the major news organization for repeatedly lying to generate its market share. Fox News is really Faux News and the world is much the worse for it.

Each side incessantly accuses the others of lying. This is part of people having great difficulty in accepting that equally reasonable people can look at the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions. This rhetoric is poisoning the public perception of science.

I find it hard to imagine that you think Fox News equates to ‘reasonable people’ .. and feel that equating it to MSNBC betrays an ignorance of the facts.

I, on the other hand, think your response makes my point, especially the “hard to imagine” part. It is fascinating that people on every side think that those on the other sides are being unreasonable, just because their beliefs differ. I call this the Lockean fallacy, which is the theory that given a body of evidence there is only one reasonable conclusion. This ignores the fact that everything one already believes will be part of the reasoning and different people have very different beliefs, so they can reasonably draw very different conclusions. As an aside, Kuhn pointed out that this is a central feature of scientific revolutions, which he termed opponents talking past one another. (This phenomenon is one of my core research areas.)

It isn’t a question of beliefs … it is a problem with out right lying … ‘facts are facts’ and Faux News seems to have a problem dealing consistently with facts.

I think this thread has reached a point of diminishing returns. Perhaps best if you two take it to email.

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