Science and Society: an observation

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” ~Isaac Asimov

As mentioned earlier, I have spent the past few days at ComSciCon, and a theme that really resonated with me is the notion that society DOESN’T actually have an issue with scientists; we DO trust scientists.  However, when it comes down to “controversial” issues like global warming or evolution, it’s not a matter of trusting scientists, but a matter of VALUES.

Rick Fienberg put it nicely, “When science is controversial, it’s not because of the science, but because of the implications (religion, economics, etc).”

Let me break it down.  Science is not something one “believes” in.  One believes in things like the tooth fairy or God.  Science, on the other hand, is evidence-based and factual.  Data either support an idea or contradict it.  And an overwhelming amount of research (check out the Yale Cultural Cognition Project) shows that society AGREES with this. AGREES with scientific results.  We trust scientists, we really do.

Then WHY so much outrage, controversy, and media outrage over some issues that the scientific community AND society agree are real and serious??  Like global warming, evolution, vaccination, and stem cell research to name a few… Turns out, as a society, we don’t doubt the credibility of the research or the results, but we have a hard time changing our VALUES.  For example:

  • If one has been raised on the bible, believing the world and humanity was created 10,000 years ago by the grace of God, despite the evidence and facts supporting that the earth was actually formed 4.5 billion years ago and that we evolved from monkey-anscestors over millions of years, despite all of that evidence-based research, one may have a hard time being OKAY with it.  Not because of the facts and data, but because that overturns their belief-system and compromises their values.
  • Or, if one is employed for an oil company, one cannot deny that oil spills, the oil refining process, and resulting emissions are NOT good for the environment, but THIS is how one makes their living and supports their families.  Despite the evidence and scientific support arguing against oil production, supporting policy that jeopardizes this industry, contradicts that life-style choice, and again, one has a hard time being OKAY with that.

So, perhaps when one argues, “I don’t believe in evolution,” what they really mean is, “I understand that science supports evolution, but this goes against my lifestyle and beliefs, so I’m going to ignore it.”  We are not misinformed or totally irrational; we just don’t like our values, beliefs, or life-style choices disputed.  And now we’ve come full circle.  Science gathers knowledge faster than society gains wisdom.

Don’t worry! There are new ideas and methods to try and tackle this disconnect, but for that, you will have to wait for another blog post!!

5 thoughts on “Science and Society: an observation

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  5. I am an evolutionary biologist and health care provider, so I am inclined to give credit to those who have scientific support, however, I have to disagree that science is not something you believe in. There are facts and observations in science, but the vast majority of metrics in science are statistics based on assumptions about probabilities. Extrapolating public policy from opinions formed from scientific studies requires the belief that the science done has been adequate and considered all of the important aspects of very complicated systems, AND that the outcome of the policy is desirable, which is itself a moral belief.

    This blog post scares me because it suggests that those in society who stand up to scientists’ recommendations for public policy are unwise. While denying facts is unwise, standing up to scientists who want to make public policy based on moral values derived from beliefs about the implications of scientific studies is one of the wisest thing a citizen could do.


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