As a scientist and science writer, I’m concerned about the way science is perceived by the public. I think some big misunderstandings about how science works are creating distrust and dismissal of important scientific findings. That’s a huge problem, and I’d like to try to help fix it.
Let’s start with this: Science is a process that helps us understand and explain the world around us. That process relies on repeated observations and experiments that continuously change our understanding of how things work.
Scientists often come up with results that conflict with those of other scientists. That doesn’t indicate that something is wrong; it’s exactly how science is supposed to work. When scientists disagree about something, more scientists get involved and keep testing ideas until a consensus starts to emerge. Even at that point, ideas continue to be tested, and either gain more acceptance (because of more supporting evidence) or weaken (because conflicting results are found).
There is no endpoint in science. Instead, ideas move through various steps of acceptance, depending upon how much evidence is collected to support them. You can read much more about how the process works here.
We are lucky to have easy access to immense amounts of information today. However, it can be be very difficult to know which statements are supported by good science and which are just opinions amplified by people with an agenda and a prominent platform. Today’s world, for example, still includes people who earnestly believe the earth is flat, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Media coverage of science often increases confusion. How many times have you heard or read a media story about how a particular substance either cures or causes cancer? In most cases, the scientist being interviewed tries to explain that their work is just one step in a long process of evidence gathering and doesn’t prove anything by itself. That scientist might as well be talking to an empty void. The headline has already told the story and pundits are shaking their heads and complaining about how scientists can’t ever agree. (Please see paragraph three above.)
Unfortunately, confusion about how science works means the public often doesn’t pay attention when scientists actually do agree on things. Loud voices can easily sway public opinion on important topics because it’s hard to know who to believe. Often, we believe those who say things we want to be true.
Let me ask you three questions:
Do you believe that childhood immunizations are safe and effective?
Do you believe that rapid climate change is occurring as a result of human activity?
Do you believe that food derived from products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is safe for human consumption?
The scientific community has clearly and strongly stated that the answer to all three of these questions should be yes. Despite that, many people will answer yes to one or two of these questions, but not all three. If you’re one of those people, I have another question for you.
If you trust the scientific community and the scientific process on one or two of these topics, why not on all of them?
This post is not about vaccines, global warming or GMOs. I’m not trying to tell you what to think. Instead, I’m inviting you TO think.
If you’re a scientist, are you spending enough time thinking about how to talk to a public that is skeptical of science? Being right isn’t enough when there are louder voices shouting that you’re wrong. How do you expect the public to find the real story when your results are hidden in subscription-only journals and written in technical jargon-filled language? What can you, personally, do to help others understand what science is, why it’s important, and what it can tell us?
If you’re someone who believes the science on some topics, but not others, are you comfortable with the reasons behind that? Do you think science has been polluted by money and agendas, or do you think money and agendas are trying to discredit science? Have you spent enough time reading articles that contradict your position and evaluating the credentials of those on each side? Is it possible that long-held beliefs are preventing you from looking at evidence with clear eyes?
While individual scientists may have biases, the scientific process has no agenda other than discovery. Scientists are strongly incentivized to go against the grain – both employers and journal publishers get most excited by research that contradicts mainstream ideas. Because of that, ideas that gain overwhelming scientific consensus should be given extra credibility because they have withstood an onslaught of researchers trying to tear them down.
Can scientists be wrong? Yes, of course – scientists are wrong all the time, and they argue back and forth in pursuit of knowledge. That’s a good thing. Saying that science is untrustworthy because not all scientists agree is like saying that we shouldn’t eat fruit because some of it isn’t ripe.
We desperately need credible science in order to survive and thrive on this earth. Sustaining that credibility is the responsibility of both scientists and the public. Scientists must provide accessible and clear information about what they’re learning, but the public also needs to be a receptive and discerning audience.
There is a torrent of news and data coming at us every day. As you process that information, think like a scientist. Question everything, including your own assumptions. Form an opinion and then test it by looking for information that might disprove it. Most importantly, even when you’re confident in your viewpoint, keep your mind open to new evidence and alternate perspectives.
Finally, remember that science is a continual and cumulative process. Conflicting research results don’t indicate weakness, they drive scientists to keep looking for answers. Science shouldn’t lose your trust when scientists disagree. Instead, science should earn your trust when scientists reach consensus.
Special thanks to Anna Helzer for helpful feedback on this piece.