How Science Works and Why It Matters

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.


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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61 Responses to How Science Works and Why It Matters

  1. Mary Hammes says:

    Chris, this is fantastic and clearly you put a lot of thought into it. Thank you for all you do! I really enjoy these emails =)

    Cheers, Mary

    Mary C. Hammes Environmental Stewardship and Volunteer Manager 111 Kellogg Blvd. East, Suite 105 Saint Paul, MN 55101 Office: 651-291-9119 Fax: 651-290-3214

  2. Paul says:

    Very will written Chris, and explains well that science is a process and not a “thing” or a group of certain people! I think distrust regarding science is also being blurred by SOME (not all!!) science that receives corporate sponsorship or is conducted by corporate scientists. Below is an interesting article that recently appeared in the New York Times, which again is just one source of information, and should be viewed critically and distilled with the other information that is available.

  3. Ken S. says:

    Hi Chris,
    I am a retired high school biology teacher, and I thank you for writing this explanation of how science works. We have a long, uphill battle trying to educate the public on what science is and how it works. You have done an excellent job trying to accomplish this. Please continue to educate your readers. Thank you, Ken S.

  4. lonniej says:

    Thanks Chris for an excellent description of the scientific process and a well presented case for paying attention to where an issue or question is within that process. This is an important reminder and a terrific way to start the new year. One point I might discuss further if we were to sit down and chat is that science always takes place within a cultural and personal context. While the process may not have an agenda, it doesn’t unfold in a vacuum and there in lies many ways the message, findings, results become distorted, misunderstood and in some cases tainted.

    • cpowersbrady says:

      Not Chris, or any expert. But wanted to acknowledge the wisdom in your comment re cultural and personal context, something not often considered but vital to the conversation. Thanks for the insight.

  5. Justin Evertson says:

    Well said!

  6. Justin Evertson says:

    Well said Chris! Couldn’t agree more.

  7. Dave says:

    Chris, As you stated, “This post is not about vaccines, global warming or GMOs” and apparently “you believe that food derived from products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is safe for human consumption”. So I’m curious, what do you think about GMO labeling of food?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Dave, I don’t necessarily have a position on it. I’m not sure I buy the argument that it just facilitates the public to make their own decisions. I worry that labeling would further encourage the idea that GMO food is somehow less safe. However, I really don’t know enough about the issue to take a stand one way or the other.

      • Dave says:

        It’s pretty straight forward. Either you want to be informed about what goes into the food you and your family eat, or for some reason you don’t.

        • Peter Dunwiddie says:

          Actually, it isn’t all that straightforward. Having some particular piece of information, even accurate information, is rarely sufficient to make an intelligent decision by itself. Context matters – a lot – and most people, even experts, often are very hard pressed to place information in a complete and accurate context so that it can be carefully and accurately evaluated. For example, I suspect many people would stop eating products containing wheat flour if they were required to be (accurately!) labelled as “containing less than 1% rat feces and insect parts.” Would such labeling – particularly if it causes millions of people to stop eating one of the world’s primary staple crops – be a public good that contributes to improved public health? Should we require that all potatoes be labelled as “containing significant quantities of solanine, chaconine, and other glycoalkaloids that are toxins known to cause neurological problems, paralysis, and may be fatal?”

          • Dave says:

            IMO more people should grow more of their own food in their own gardens. They’d know what went into it. In terms of information, effort and quality. No labels required. And that is very straight forward.

  8. Ernest Ochsner says:

    I find this post both timely and important.
    Picking and choosing what we believe based on assumptions not evidence seems to be the norm and fear rules the roost as a result. Lonniej makes a good point on culture having a sway on how the questions are asked and the why. Who’s asking can really influence an outcome until it’s put through the peer reviews. So let’s get on on with the questions.

  9. Barb Gorges says:

    While GMO foods may be safe to eat, I don’t agree that they should be developed so that more and stronger chemical pesticides can be applied to food crops. Pesticides are a health problem for us, farmers and other living organisms as they move through the ecosystem. Pesticides also sterilize the soil so that farmers become dependent on chemical fertilizers. I look for organically grown food so I don’t have to worry about supporting an industry that grows chemically dependent crops.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Barb, as I said, I’m not trying to convince you to change your position on anything. I would suggest you look into the issue enough to evaluate the studies that point out potential limitations of organic farming, especially if it became large scale enough to feed most of the world’s people. There are some interesting discussions to be had there, including the idea that if organic farming is less efficient (produces less produce per acre) we’d need more land for farming, thus decreasing our natural area footprint even more. Again, I am not advocating any positions, just encouraging everyone to be smart and thorough in their consideration of issues. It’s all complicated and we all need to be informed and involved. Thanks for the comment.

      • Karen H. says:

        I would like to point out that the amount of food wasted on a daily basis in the US alone could sustain a third world country and that most of the food grown in the modern industrial system of farming does not reach those with the greatest need. The nutritional value of the food produced today is decreasing exponentially and is creating a malnourished population and is considered by some researchers to be one of the contributing causes of obesity.

        Feeding the world is a noble ideal, but is very unrealistic. It is used to continue an unsustainable system of food production.

        Also there is a crop in the country that uses more water and chemicals than are used on all farmland in the US combined. That crop is suburban bluegrass lawns. I challenges your idea that organic gardening is less productive and would reduce our native footprint. In a perfect world much of those wasted acres could (and should) be used to grow much of our food…and possibly bring people closer to an understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

        • Dave says:

          The amount of lawn that Americans mow is ridiculous. And it’s not just in suburban areas. In rural areas I see people mowing the public road ditch in front of their farmsteads and country homes, sometimes for as much as a half mile on either side of their driveway, in addition to their huge lawn around their building site. What a huge waste of time, fuel, money and potential wildlife and pollinator habitat. And, as Karen notes, that space could also be productively used by growing organic garden produce.

        • emcinturf says:

          I don’t want to sidetrack the comments on Chris’s excellent essay too far into into the area of GMO foods. But I do have one question. You say, “The nutritional value of the food produced today is decreasing exponentially,,,,” That’s a pretty sweeping generalization. What are your sources for that information? And by “produced” do you mean crops grown, or all food produced, including processed foods?

    • Karen H. says:

      Thank you for making the point of the dangers of GMO’S . It is insane to create a food product that makes it “safe” to apply stronger and larger amounts poison on. The amount of pesticide and herbicide applied to them is what makes them unsafe to consume. It is a matter of looking at the bigger picture and giving real consideration to the over all broad consequences of the practice. The fact that this kind of farming is unsustainable is another factor.

      • Chris Helzer says:

        Be careful not to automatically link GMOs with pesticides. While roundup ready crops were modified to resist herbicides, many GMOs are created to enhance nutrition or other traits that don’t have anything to do with pesticide use. It’s a big topic, and one that requires a lot of thought and consideration. I’m not minimizing your concerns about pesticides, just pointing out some broader context to consider.

        • Karen H. says:

          I’ve read lots those articles and found that some of them are attempting to increase the nutrition of food. The problem I have is the best way to increase nutrition is to grow the crops in healthy soils that are being poisoned and washed away by modern farming practices. It is the way plants and animals evolved in the first place. I respect the sciences that are working to understand the world. I have issues with those that believe that they can improve on nature with out considering the over all, far reaching consequences.

          • Peter Dunwiddie says:

            An interesting perspective, Karen. Do you then take issue with the scientists that “improved on nature” by developing antibiotics that saved millions of lives because they did not consider the far-reaching consequences, such as global overpopulation and human-induced climate change?

  10. Tom says:

    Well stated! Thank you. It is difficult to get excited about some new idea or discovery only to later find that it didn’t pan out, which leads to “Can you all please just make up your mind?”. Having an informed opinion about science, politics, art, and life in general is almost a full time job. One can only keep trying.

  11. Katherine Heithoff says:

    I absolutely support continuing scientific exploration, and I support the findings of the scientific community most of the time. But I’m the mother of a child who died of a high “unexplained ” fever after getting his first DPT shot. I don’t think any mother would blame me for refusing to have my two younger children given the same shot. Adverse reactions to the shot are rare, but given my history, I shouldn’t have to fight Doctors to do what I feel sure is the right thing. I review the reports of scientific research released with an eye to who financed the study, and who stands to gain from the results. Cynical, yes. Realistic – I’m afraid so.

    • Katherine, you have my most profound sympathy . I have lost a child too, so I have some idea of your grief–though no one can truly understand, not even another bereaved parent. But I would urge you not to go down the rabbit hole of looking for a person or organization to blame, as if these organizations somehow stood to benefit from anyone’s death. These vaccines were developed to save lives, which they have–literally millions of lives–and as horrible as it is, adverse drug reactions occur with any treatment. They are not anyone’s fault. Your reaction is not cynical, but it will make your emotional life immeasurably more difficult. This is something I do know.

      If you think drug companies make way too much money–and a lot of us would agree with you there–it is an issue that can and should be addressed, but not in such a way as to keep us from benefiting from discoveries that do save lives. If we do that, the drug companies live on, and we only hurt ourselves.

      And I would beg you with all my heart to have your other children vaccinated, in spite of your very understandable fears. You don’t want to contribute to the general loss of immunity in our population, or put yours or other children at risk from contracting one of these frightful diseases. The likelihood of another reaction is incredibly low. We won’t ever live in a world where nothing bad ever happens, and we must do our best to protect not only our own children, but all of them..

  12. James McGee says:

    I’ve always appreciated The Nature Conservancy’s statement of having science based conservation. I must admit to cringing every time someone from The Nature Conservancy says that bison help aerate the soil. I have searched and found no scientific paper/s supporting this statement. Everything I know about soil makes me think bison would have the opposite effect. Yet I keep hearing this statement perpetuated over and over again.

    • James McGee says:

      I wanted to add that I completely believe that periodic intense grazing has increased diversity in the prairies you manage. In fact, I plan on simulating intense grazing with a scythe in local restorations to reduce grass dominance and hopefully achieve similar results. However, I also believe the scientists who have documented damage to prairies which did not have a recent history of grazing and then were subjected to it. I wonder if ungrazed plots in your prairies might comparatively increase in diversity over time if seed of grazing intolerant species were sown into both grazed and ungrazed locations.

  13. Paul says:


    Forgive my bad spelling in my first response!!
    I think a lot of us are drilling down to specific examples and questions, but I again want to thank you for writing about the broader topic of the process and the method, and using some good links to explain how it “works”.

    The questions and controversy that science brings to light are indeed a part of the process.

    • Karen H. says:

      I totally agree and I promise to get off my soap box :)

      • Paul says:

        Karen H.
        Discussion is always good, and I enjoy seeing the different responses on Chris’s blog, as well as his responses. Thanks for your perspectives – would like to continue that discussion sometime!!

  14. Patrick says:

    If money weren’t an issue, I think most would be willing to accept the results of scientific studies. However, since some groups stand to lose (or make) considerable sums of money on the implications, they deny their own intellect (or perhaps simply live with their hypocrisy) for the sake of greed.

    If one reads Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’, one can find numerous examples where caution should be used in relying on a narrow scientific scope for policy making, particularly if scientific advances result in significant social costs. For example, section 134 specifically discusses GMO cereals, noting that while yields might be improved, the social costs might not be worth these gains.

    Another aspect for discussion is the requirement by parties resistant to change to demand scientific agreement or certainty before action can be taken. Thus, by supporting contrarian views, those that stand to lose from the implications of a scientific consensus can block policy changes that would attempt to address the problem. The Pope, citing the Rio Declaration in 1992, clearly articulates the damage this does and argues that scientific consensus, not scientific certainty, is sufficient to justify actions.

    “186. The Rio Declaration of 1992 states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures”[132] which prevent environmental degradation. This precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it.”

    So, I agree with your stance on the scientific process, and that the consensus of many studies on the issues you raised offer sufficient moral justification for policy changes that begin to address them.

  15. Patrick says:

    One other issue I find particularly irritating, especially in an Ag state like Nebraska, is the mantra that yield is more important than sustainability because US industrial agriculture is “feeding the world”. That is disingenuous. We are producing so much grain, we have a vast excess. In fact, much of it is now being diverted into industrial feedstocks, like ethanol and biodiesel, instead of animal or human feedstocks. I would argue that we don’t production problem or a yield problem, we have a distribution problem, I believe this fact provides enough evidence that we have the capacity to feed the world by producing real food for direct human consumption.

  16. Dave says:

    There’s a lot of false information, propaganda, myths and baloney (pun intended) inside modern American agriculture. Generating false information goes against scientific principles. For example, a common phrase often touted is that the American farmer feeds the world. Or similarly, how are we going to feed the world if we can’t increase production by using more pesticides and fertilizers? Most farmers across the middle of the US are growing corn and soybeans. Most of that grain is used for livestock feed, the rest for fuel, and very little goes for direct human consumption. Most of the livestock eating that feed are in confinement operations that supply the domestic meat market. It does not feed the world. The grain used for fuel is to reduce the emissions that cause smog in the cities. It does not feed the world. The world feeds the world, not the American farmer. The American farmer is used as a pawn by corporate industrial agri-business to further its profits.

    The average pre-settlement depth of Iowa topsoil was 14 inches. It is now 6 inches. This is not sustainable agriculture.

    Instead of growing corn and soybeans and shipping it off to fatten livestock in confinement operations, more acres should be growing a mix of grasses and forbs used for pasture and range to feed livestock. Take the ag. subsidies that are now used to encourage commodity cropping and use that money to provide incentives to farmers to plant more hay land, pasture and range. More perennial crops on the landscape would improve surface and ground water quality, reduce erosion, build topsoil, reduce flooding, reduce fossil fuel consumption and increase wildlife and pollinator habitat.

  17. Dave says:

    As Patrick points out, we are actually producing an excess of grains in the US. That’s what is causing the terribly low prices farmers are suffering from. So converting more acres to organic farming, even though it “produces less produce per acre” (as Chris points out) is not a problem. In fact it would help create better prices for both commodity grains and organic consumers.

    People forget that not long ago, all farmers were organic farmers and everyone ate a 100% organic diet. It wasn’t until after WW2 that pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and heavy machinery were widely adopted in American farming. Many advances have been made since then that can be used to improve organic farming production if they are applied.

  18. Dave says:

    If there was a “like” button on here, as in Facebook, I’d be pushing it after reading the comments from Karen, Katherine and Patrick. Because they obviously know the reality of what’s going on in the current state of American agriculture. I’m glad to see there are some astute Americans out there. :-)

  19. cpowersbrady says:

    Is belief in science on some topics but not others hypocritical, or political, or is the science not always worthy of belief? Personally, I tend to believe the science on GMOs and climate change, but am skeptical of much of the medical/health science because I have often found that to be wrong. It seems I believe in science that affects me remotely, but not science that affects me immediately, based on personal experience of Science (I.e. doctors) that gave me bad information, or maybe science that I can easily renounce due to isolated examples.
    So I am beginning to appreciate the perspective of a friend/business owner who thinks climate change is BS. Thanks, Chris, for another thought-provoking post.

  20. Crystal says:

    Thank you for the great post about the scientific process, however I cringe when so many science writers end their argument with “well if you don’t believe the scientific concensus on XYZ then you are a denialist.” First, there have been MANY scientific concensus issues that have turned out to be false: cigarettes, eggs, butter, DDT…. I think we should approach issues with a little less hubris. Second, there are questions science can answer and their questions ethics can answer.

  21. Karen H. says:

    Crystal brings up an excellent point and another perspective that should be considered. Science has brought us many wondrous advances but it has also brought us some really bad things as well, such as DDT, nuclear and chemical weapons.

    The moral issue of animal testing are a huge problem for me. One of the first things done to lab animals is to cut or remove their vocal cords so scientists don’t have to hear their screams.

    Some of the things I have read that are done to animals in research projects on wildlife disgust and repulse me to the point that I don’t want to know what the results of the research is. Upon questioning grad students about this I hear that they are forced to do these thing in order to get a degree and funding for their projects.

    These issues are morally reprehensible and one of the many issues that colors the publics view of science.

    It seems to me that the ethics of scientific research methodology is never questioned. Most of science asks “can we do it” and very rarely “should we do it”.

    This is the result of a universal belief in the myth of human supremacy.

  22. Karen H. says:

    Crystal brings up a good point . Science has brought us some wondrous advances, but also some really horrible ones as well. Nuclear and chemical weapons come to mind.

    The morally reprehensible issues around animal testing are a huge issue for me. The first thing that happens to lab animals is the cutting or removal of vocal cords so the scientists don’t have to hear their screams of agony.
    The things done to wildlife in many research projects disgust and repulse me to the point of calling into question the morals of the scientific community as a whole. When I have questioned grad students about this they tell me that it is necessary for them to do this receive grant money for their projects and to get their degrees.
    It seems that the ethical question of “should we do this” is rarely considered. Only “can we do this”!

    This colors the publics perception of science and is the result of the universal belief in human supremacy.

  23. Dave says:

    Information, knowledge, wisdom.

    Information is data, descriptions, identifications, statistics. We now have free and easy access to vast amounts of information.

    Knowledge is putting information to use. While there are things we have little knowledge of, we have a great deal of knowledge about how many things work and what can be done.

    Wisdom is the ability to discern what should be done and is the rarest and most valuable.

  24. Doug Garrison says:

    Chris, Congrats on putting your post out there for comments. Keep up the good work!

    “If there is something in nature you don’t understand, odds are it makes sense in a deeper way that is beyond your understanding. So there is a logic to natural things that is much superior to our own. Just as there is a dichotomy in law: ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as opposed to ‘guilty until proven innocent’, let me express my rule as follows: what Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.”
    ― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

  25. Jessica Miller says:

    I love your work! I am going south to talk about insects for 2 weeks. I am a scientist who believes she can talk to everyone about the science because I have worked at it and I am naturally a good chatter. I try not to lecture too much so we can have conversations. I am often very excited when i am wrong. Keep Up your great work, you are a very skilled communicator and I admire that.

    On Wed, Jan 4, 2017 at 11:42 AM, The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: “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, an” >

  26. George Shurr says:

    Chris~ You nailed it again, as demonstrated by the comments. Your work there in Nebraska and your communication here on THE PRAIRIE ECOLOGIST are the main reason that I joined the Nature Conservancy. Thanks for continuing both in the new year.

  27. Nicely said! I’m not a Scientist, but I like to think of myself as a “citizen scientist”. I shudder to think how many people are shunning STEM research because they don’t understand it or because the results go against their core beliefs and they aren’t willing to open their minds to it.

  28. Patrick says:

    One last comment and I’ll be off this topic. I appeciated the honesty of commenters over whether it is easier to believe science when you can “see it” or it directly impacts you versus when the impacts are distant and personally insignificant.
    This raises two issues: first, people tend to overvalue individual experiences compared to statistical probabilities. Saying something is safe because you didn’t suffer any ill effects, but populations studies show it may have adverse effects is one example. For climate change, the effects are most pronounced (and real) in areas where most people don’t live: high elevations and in polar regions…making it easier to dismiss.

    As I mentioned above, one has to have a certain ability for self-reflection to ask whether or not you feelings about the results of a scientific study have more to do with the science itself, or with the implications of the results. So for the business man calling climate change BS, this has to be viewed through the prism of the livelihood of the person. Presumably this person is concerned about costs of any policy changes that squeeze margins and create uncertainty, so there is some conflict of interest fo that person that can affect their judgement. Far easier to deny the truth than have to change in response to it.

    This brings up a second point, and that is there are many example where science did indicate dangers to pollution and toxins, but some conflicting opinions were present that tried to thwart change…think acid rain, DDT, mercury pollution, CFCs. Low and behold, when pollution controls or alternatives were introduced, the problems diminished. This clearly demonstrated retrospective cause and effect. We are in that position now. And it is time to act.

  29. Chris says:

    Wow! It appears there will be no end to this discussion on science — or what was supposed to be a discussion on science. In my opinion, there is no such thing as “pure science.” First of all, one has to determine which science is involved in the study. Hard science, e.g., chemistry, biology, physiology, or social science, e.g., sociology, psychology — or a mix of any/all? Plus, as mentioned, no matter how honest and cautious a scientist may be, since he/she is human, there surely exists the possibility of influence from one’s cultural or personal background. It’s also pretty obvious that science involves politics — and, absolutely, ethics. Who or what is going to, or even should, make ethical determinations?
    When it comes to controversial science involving “experiments” that may or may not have negative effects on the earth or her inhabitants, I think that before making irreversible decisions it would be wise to err on the side of caution before jumping in head first.

    (And since I can’t resist making a comment on GMO’s, it’s my understanding that there is no single governmental body that oversees their safety; the Dept. of Agriculture, the EPA, and the Food and Drug Administration each oversee certain specifics — which one is most important???)

  30. Editor says:

    It’s the way science is portrayed in the media that I find concerning. As you point out, the majority of the public aren’t aware of how the process of scientific advancement works. Science is THE most important factor in the continued progression of an ever better society. A recent study showed increasing numbers of people that no longer trust scientists, now we’re seeing this spread to politicans and decision makers. It’s time that science started really communicating and fast.

  31. 314note says:

    Hi Chris!
    I am really inspired by this article! Because I am a mechanical engineering student who is going to be an astronomer in the future as a scientist as well! As a young student who is ambitious to be socially influential in the future, I used to think that this ambition is quite conflict to my idea of being a scientist. But after reading your article, I realised that indeed a successful scientist should be a type similar to politician, who is passionate to tell people how science works and impacts our society/country and change the society with the scientific knowledge he or she knows (like what this article tries to do). Thank you for this work!

  32. Pat says:

    I fully realize the vast differences between the Serengeti Plain and the Nebraska Sandhills, but the paper mentioned in this blog addresses some of the same questions about the relationships between plants, animals and fire that Chris deals with. I thought someone might find it interesting. The paper is based on classifications done on the citizen science site Snapshot Serengeti which is one of many citizen science projects run by Zooniverse.

  33. jfehmi says:

    Perhaps you should look at _The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit_ where it is pointed out that it takes way more time and effort to tell the truth than lie and even more time and effort to push back against published glib falsehoods.

  34. Peggy Tilgner says:

    I would like your permission to use this blog post as part of a summer gifted curriculum I’m working on for ESU#11. We will be looking at media claims and collecting facts to support or refute those claims. Thank you.

    Peggy Tilgner, EdD Science Education Consultant 402-389-1501(c) 402-446-7474 (h)

  35. hellojoie says:

    Yes! I believe that science is incredibly misrepresented to the public. Even more upsetting is when science is politicized for private interests.

  36. Andrew Lynch says:

    This is great, Chris! I recently posted about how the public needs more open access to information about new advances in science. I definitely think increasing scientific literacy would go a long way in terms of trust of the scientific community.

  37. Pingback: How Science Works and Why It Matters — The Prairie Ecologist | Nerd Stop

  38. Pingback: The Connection Crisis | Thily Fin

  39. SciShot says:

    If I wasn’t inspired to dive head first into the world of science communication before, I certainly am now. What an elegant and well written piece on the importance of public engagement in science. As a student and a researcher my favorite thing about science has always been sharing my passion and findings with anyone who will listen. On that note, I’ve recently launched a blog trying to make science more accessible to normal, every day people. I want to share the wonder I see when I try to explain what I do for a living to my family and friends. Their amazement at some of the research we’re undertaking is really heartening and I want to share that wonder with the world. Your post has reaffirmed the importance of that wish so thank you!


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