Science and Society: science in pop-culture and science denial

 mooney

Chris Mooney has written an eye-opening opinion article for new scientist. In the article, Mooney celebrates the recent popularity of science in pop-culture, highlighting the success of The Big Bang Theory and Cosmos. Thanks to the creators of these shows, science and scientists are being positively portrayed in primetime. If you read the great post from CauseScience yesterday by psgurel (Science and Society: an observation), you know that trust and popularity of science does not equate to society’s view of controversial science. Chris Mooney also makes this point in his article, and gives his opinion on how science enthusiasts are also able to be science deniers. Mooney spells out important next steps for creators of these shows to translate popularity of science to meaningful change in society’s ‘belief’ in science.

What we need to do is separate the concept of science engagement from that of science denial – to pull apart dazzling and fascinating from convincing and persuading. Why? Because then we will see that science denial is a personal and psychological phenomenon, rooted in belief and identity, which can’t be washed away by a wave of science boosterism.

Now comes the hard part: show us not just that science is cool and fascinating, but that science denial is destructive or even immoral.

Show us that science denial is unacceptable in a scientifically advanced society. Tell us stories of people overcoming it, and becoming better for it. Because right now it remains far too accepted, far too normalised and far too easy to get away with.

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!!