Why the disconnect between science and society?

Here in the UK we’ve tended to be quite complacent about the whole Creation/evolution “controversy,” and its bastard spawn the Intelligent Design movement. While good people in the US continue to be up to their neck in efforts to reinforce science teaching in places like Louisiana and New Mexico, it’s easy to be lulled into the assumption that Creationism is something that happens to other people.

I’ve blogged before about efforts to establish Creationist orthodoxy in the UK, such as through the risible Noah’s Ark Zoo near Bristol. But this week Jerry Coyne posted about a much more serious issue in British education, concerning the introduction of Creationist rhetoric into GCSE revision materials.

Now, this is just one revision guide, by one publisher, for one GCSE Biology syllabus, but its inclusion is nonetheless startling. Many of us who value a sensible science education were beginning to think that the threat of this nonsense entering our classrooms had been halted once and for all, thanks in no small part to a series of damning court judgements in the United States stopping the ID movement in its tracks. But when a revision guide, “written by GCSE examiners,” no less, can state that some “scientists have used the gaps in the fossil record to argue against evolution” (a patent falsehood, unless you think that any whackjob with a diploma-mill degree in Bigotry and Shouting counts as a “scientist”), there has to be cause for concern.

But this brings me onto a broader topic: why is there such a disconnect between what scientists do, in the confines of their peer-reviewed journals, and what the wider public think they do? In recent weeks I’ve been reading about anti-vaccine groups (that is, people who continue to believe Andrew Wakefield’s discredited, fanciful study linking autism to the MMR vaccine, and other scare-stories, in spite of all the evidence) courtesy of Respectful Insolence, as well as other science-denying movements like Creationism and the climate change deniers. And proponents of “alternative medicine” quackery will be heartened, too, to hear that despite repeated calls for them to stop, a third of NHS trusts still spend money on useless homeopathic “treatments.” In all these cases, the science-deniers imply that there is a legitimate scientific controversy between two competing viewpoints, and that the debate is by no means settled.

Of course, all of this is wrong. Scientists rejected the idea of a special creation of the Earth almost as soon as they began thinking about it; no climatological organisation anywhere in the world rejects the idea that human activities contribute to global climate change; and the fact that Wakefield’s results could never be satisfactorily replicated has to be a cause for concern – as is the fact that his study has been shown to be fraudulent.

I had a discussion with a self-proclaimed Creationist earlier in the week, who claimed that evolution had “never been proven” and that he found scientists’ refusal to acknowledge “other ideas” extremely disappointing. Bluntly, the reason scientists don’t engage with Creationists or other science-deniers is that these questions, scientifically speaking, have been settled years ago. But this gives the impression – often perpetuated by science-deniers – that scientists are locking themselves away in their ivory towers, refusing to acknowledge the existence of dissenting voices.

So, what’s the answer? It’s understandable that scientists don’t want to spend their time answering the queries of those who are resolutely stuck with their 18th-century (or Bronze Age!) worldviews. But scientists cannot continue to blithely ignore them and hope that everyone else will do the same – all that will do is attract sympathy to the science-deniers’ cause.

Actually, the solution to this problem is probably already gathering momentum. As long as scientists like Orac of Respectful Insolence, or Tim Lambert of Deltoid (an Australian climate change blog) do take some of their time to respond to the science-deniers, it cuts off their key argument – the arrogance and ignorance of scientists – at source. It also allows scientists to give thoughtful, rational responses to overblown denier rhetoric, allowing the public to view both sides of the “controversy” and make up their own minds.

Science is not decided by public opinion, but that doesn’t mean the public should be excluded from the process: by making science accessible to everyone, we stand a chance of killing off parasitic denier movements and engendering a better-educated populace to boot. How can that be a bad thing?

All that is required is a few more scientists to be a little more open about their research. The fact that they’re doing research at all already gives them a head-start over their adversaries.

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1 Comment

Filed under Science, Things That Piss Me Off

One response to “Why the disconnect between science and society?

  1. Pingback: The Black Hole | Federal research institutes should host crowdfunding initiatives | University Affairs

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