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).
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.