The Science Gap

While we’re on the topic of science and the public, I came across another opinion poll worth mentioning: a survey released this month by Pew, Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media, which analyzes how the public views scientific achievement and what professional scientists think of how their work is covered in the media (HT: Obsidian Wings). There’s lots to chew over in this report, but I want to focus on this section, which shows how many ideas that are accepted by an overwhelming majority of scientists do not enjoy similar levels of support from the public:

There are a couple of things we can take away from this, but here’s the first one: The media is not doing its job. Just as we lambaste the food industry when people come down with mass E. coli infection from tainted meat or contaminated greens, so too do media outlets deserve criticism when the public whom they serve believes demonstrably false things about the nature of our country or our world. This, like outbreaks of food poisoning, is a sign that there’s been a failure of quality control somewhere along the line.

The media is supposed to inform the public and communicate the truth about important issues. Instead, in their pursuit of the illusion of balance, many media outlets have taken the stance that their job is to be stenographers to the powerful – writing down opposing views in he-said-she-said fashion, without making any effort to adjudicate between them or to point out which viewpoint finds support in the facts. This intellectual laziness too often masquerades as “fairness”. In fact, it’s a victory for ideologues who oppose the scientific consensus – creationists, climate-change deniers, and others – and who can win a debate merely by creating an artificial controversy and preventing the truth from becoming widely known.

But scientists aren’t entirely blameless either. Although they’re right to complain about sloppy or sensationalistic news coverage, scientists themselves should be doing more to convey their views to the public. Our goal should be a culture where public communication – writing books, giving talks and interviews, blogging, and furthering science-themed media outlets – is viewed as an important part of a scientist’s career, not as a frivolous adjunct or a distraction from the really important work. Pushing back against pseudoscience, and creating an educated, scientifically literate public, is by far the best solution to the problem that scientists mention the most: the chronic lack of funding and support for basic research.

To close the science gap, we need a competent media and an active, engaged scientific community. Where either of these is lacking, fundamentalism and other forms of antiscience sprout like weeds. As a society, we’ve made tremendous progress in coming to understand the world we live in; that’s the legacy of the Enlightenment. Now we need to see that those discoveries are communicated to the public as a whole, and are not just the domain of professional scientists.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Virginia

    Time has change. Web 2.0, media accessibility created the misinformed public as oppose to the illiterate in the past.
    I agree that the scientific community should take a very proactive step to go to the public — fostering creating an educated, scientifically literate public, is by far the best solution to the problem that scientists mention the most: the chronic lack of funding and support for basic research.

    Discovery institute has a US$5 million budget for its media campaign, the scientific community should collectively pool such a resource to counter the ideologue.

  • bbk

    I agree, but it’s easier said than done. How do we get a scientist on Paris Hilton’s My New BFF?

  • http://danielkinsman.wordpress.com The 327th Male

    This is why it is important for those in science careers to do some public outreach work. There are man professional organizations set up to help you do so.

    If you are a scientist, go visit a school! Give a talk! Engage the public!

  • Scott

    For such a significant gap to exist between general scientific consensus and what the rest of us believe there has to be a problem somewhere along the line.

    1. The problem could be caused by misinformation. YEC etc, feeding the world a bunch of garbage. These are hard enemies to fight, religious propaganda is the number one problem and if people are willing to suspend their rational minds to ignore logic, it is hard to argue with them.

    2. Science by it’s very nature, builds on the foundations of those who came before. It is hard to follow current scientific papers unless you already know the knowledge they originally built on. In order to understand the latest theories in physics you kind of need a degree in physics or have to be willing to put in the effort to follow.

    3. Science moves so fast (which is really a good thing that many people don’t seem to understand) Scientists change their theories as proof is found or not found. Their scientific theories evolve at an alarming rate which could lead some lay people to either not commit to any currently accepted idea on the universe or even more alarmingly believe that science can teach them nothing of value since even scientists change their minds all the time.

    These are real issues and ones that can easiest be addressed in the youngest generation. Teaching children in a non-partisan environment where they can be exposed to scientific truths is the only way to move forward. The people who are ‘stuck’ in their ways will die off soon enough and hopefully we can limit their indoctrination of the young by exposing them to real science.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Our goal should be a culture where public communication – writing books, giving talks and interviews, blogging, and furthering science-themed media outlets – is viewed as an important part of a scientist’s career, not as a frivolous adjunct or a distraction from the really important work.

    The danger with this is what Terry Pratchett in “The Science of Discworld” calls “lies to children”. The general public is not inclined to take time to understand the real subtlety and genuine controversy within science, consequently pop science can be presented in very simplistic black and white way which in turn makes it easy for the more science savvy wingnuts to present any controversy as a flaw in the science. A recent example is the “Darwin was wrong” headline in New Scientist. Richard Dawkins complained that this gave fuel to creationist arguments, but part of the problem is that Dawkins himself popularises a very dogmatic and narrow definition of the Neo-Darwinist explanation for evolution. There is genuine disagreement about mechanisms of selection, levels of selection, the role of epigenetics and lateral gene transfer but it is difficult to transmit this degree of subtlety to the public. A related problem is that as the scientific theories develop, new concepts may be championed by a handful of scientists which the public sees as the inspired underdog battling the entrenched establishment. This is an appealing story but they cannot see the difference between this and the lone climate change denier, intelligent design proponent or MMR campaigner.

  • Andrew

    While I agree theres a LOT of scientific misinformation around, and that the media isnt doing their part to prevent this(and indeed are often the cause of the problem). But I think poll is problomatic on a couple of levels:

    First to poll ‘scientists’ in general is a bit too broad, why should the opinion of a nuclear-physist on evolution have any more bearing than an average Joe on the street? Now they’d asked biologists questions pertant to biology and climatoligists questions pertant to climatology, that would be differet, but from what I gather, thats not how the poll was undertaken.

    The other issue I see, is why scientists opinion on matters of policy should be taken at face value. Especially something like mandatory vaccinations, for which there are a number of factors involved: medical, economical, and for some people at least, moral, which need to be considered.

    Still it is a good show of the publics ignorance of things like Evolution and climate change.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    “First to poll ‘scientists’ in general is a bit too broad, why should the opinion of a nuclear-physist on evolution have any more bearing than an average Joe on the street? Now they’d asked biologists questions pertant to biology and climatoligists questions pertant to climatology, that would be differet, but from what I gather, thats not how the poll was undertaken.”

    If you asked only biologists or others involved in evolutionary research about evolution, I’m sure the results would have been even more skewed.

    “The other issue I see, is why scientists opinion on matters of policy should be taken at face value. Especially something like mandatory vaccinations, for which there are a number of factors involved: medical, economical, and for some people at least, moral, which need to be considered.”

    In case you hadn’t noticed, many people seem to be under the delusion that vaccines cause autism, so the question really shows the gap between scientific knowledge and lay knowledge.

  • vel

    My take on it is that people are simply lazy. It’s so much easier to think that “Goddidit” than take the time to understand something. No matter how much scientists try, there will be the bulk of hypocritical humanity who will suckle at the teat of science when it is comfortable for them but as soon as it disproves a myth, they will decry it.

  • Andrew

    If you asked only biologists or others involved in evolutionary research about evolution, I’m sure the results would have been even more skewed.

    I actually agree, but I still think that poor a method of polling.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, many people seem to be under the delusion that vaccines cause autism, so the question really shows the gap between scientific knowledge and lay knowledge.

    I’v heard that one, but is it really that common? I was under the impression that it was one of those kooky things that only a few REALLY gullible people actually believed.

    In any case the question wasnt whether vaccines cause autism, but whether they should be mandatory, which are two seperate issues. I dont believe vaccines cause autism, but I dont think they should be mandatory.

  • Alex Weaver

    How the hell did they manage to find a sample of scientists in which 13% had doubts about evolution?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    I actually agree, but I still think that poor a method of polling.

    Seems to me like it would underscore the result, so if anything they are under-reporting the gap.

    I’v heard that one, but is it really that common?

    Yes.

    In any case the question wasnt whether vaccines cause autism, but whether they should be mandatory, which are two seperate issues. I dont believe vaccines cause autism, but I dont think they should be mandatory.

    A) Why shouldn’t they be mandatory?
    B) If we can assume that the cross-section of people that share your concerns are equally represented in scientists as lay people, the gap in the percentages would indicate those that object due to faulty scientific knowledge.

  • prase

    Scientists are taught the art of thinking, and must be informed at least about their branch of science, but usually they are better educated than general public even in affairs out of their specialisation. That false beliefs are less common among scientists is hardly surprising; the opposite would be really weird.

    Also, I believe that if somebody compared spread of false beliefs among journalists and general public, they would find no difference. And that is the problem. How could media educate people when they are not educated themselves?

  • Andrew

    Why shouldn’t they be mandatory?

    Several reasons:

    -first if everybody recieved vaccines, the result is inevidibly either mass shortages, or vaccine prices go through the roof. Indeed we’ve already seen shortages resulting from when the government put price caps on vaccines in an effort to make them more afordable to the poor.

    -one of the major causes of the rising cost of healthcare is, ironicly OVER-use of hospitals and health care, we should be encouraging people to use LESS healthcare, to keep for serious injuries/illness, not mandating they use more.

    -some people either have moral objections to vaccination, or(like me) simply dont WANT to get them: Why should we be forced to?

    B) If we can assume that the cross-section of people that share your concerns are equally represented in scientists as lay people, the gap in the percentages would indicate those that object due to faulty scientific knowledge.

    Well yes, although I’m not certain thats a reasonable assumption to make.

  • prase

    How the hell did they manage to find a sample of scientists in which 13% had doubts about evolution?

    Were social sciences involved?

  • prase

    -first if everybody recieved vaccines, the result is inevidibly either mass shortages, or vaccine prices go through the roof. Indeed we’ve already seen shortages resulting from when the government put price caps on vaccines in an effort to make them more afordable to the poor.

    What is the roof? I live in a country where almost everybody (99% or so) is vaccinated, and formerly it was mandatory here, and it wasn’t problem even for a poor communist economy. After the fall of communism the vaccination policy is more liberal (but I think still the most essential vaccination of children is mandatory), and this is really not the part of the healthcare budget which causes biggest pain.

    -one of the major causes of the rising cost of healthcare is, ironicly OVER-use of hospitals and health care, we should be encouraging people to use LESS healthcare, to keep for serious injuries/illness, not mandating they use more.

    In some cases, yes, in other cases, not so much. Vaccination is much cheaper than treatment and it saves money.

    -some people either have moral objections to vaccination, or(like me) simply dont WANT to get them: Why should we be forced to?

    Because the profit which the society gets could be considered more important than your inconvenience or possible moral objections (is “moral objection” an elegant way to say “prejudice”?). Pretty the same reason is behind any legal regulation.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    -some people either have moral objections to vaccination, or(like me) simply dont WANT to get them: Why should we be forced to?

    I have a moral objection to people not getting certain vaccinations. Measles for example needs a vaccination threshold of about 85% of population to ensure herd immuity. If enough people buy into the MMR / autism fallacy this threshold is not reached. In the UK, deaths from measles are rising for exactly this reason.

  • Scotlyn

    Steve –

    The danger with this is what Terry Pratchett in “The Science of Discworld” calls “lies to children”.

    Please don’t forget to credit Pratchett’s co-authors for the Discworld Science books, the wonderful writer-scientists, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, who have peddled many volumes of their wonderful and informative “lies-to-readers.” (which for those who have not partaken, is their bald way of saying, “stories that make the science go down better.”) They are two living, working scientists who are doing exactly what is ordered in this post, and exceptionally well, too!

  • Alex Weaver

    some people either have moral objections to vaccination, or(like me) simply dont WANT to get them: Why should we be forced to?

    Because the need of people who can’t get the vaccine for medical reasons or for whom it isn’t fully effective to be protected from these diseases through “herd immunity” is more important than anyone’s wanting to never be told what to do?

  • Paul S.

    I’m not surprised at the numbers shown in the poll at all. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Education Attainment Survey that shows less than 30% of Americans have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher(link).

    I’m not suggesting that someone who hasn’t earned a bachelor’s degree is incapable of understanding basic science. But when 70% of a population’s highest educational level is a high school diploma (or equivalent), no one should be surprised when only 32% of non-scientists polled believe in evolution.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    -first if everybody recieved vaccines, the result is inevidibly either mass shortages, or vaccine prices go through the roof. Indeed we’ve already seen shortages resulting from when the government put price caps on vaccines in an effort to make them more afordable to the poor.

    Andrew, are you aware that in most industrialized countries, nearly everyone already is vaccinated? Neither price shortages or soaring prices seem to have resulted from this.

    some people either have moral objections to vaccination, or(like me) simply dont WANT to get them: Why should we be forced to?

    Why should we be forced to wear seatbelts? I think in both cases the argument is analogous: the infringement on liberty is minimal, and the potential benefits are vast. This is arguably even more true in the case of vaccination; car accidents are not contagious, while as other commenters have mentioned, establishing herd immunity protects those members of the population – the very young, the very old, and the immunocompromised – who for medical reasons cannot be vaccinated.

    All that said, there is a different area where I disagree with the scientists in the poll: I’m not at all convinced that more nuclear power is a good idea. The radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants is a colossal hazard (although reprocessing can decrease that somewhat), and most nuclear projects require massive government investment to break even. I think renewables like solar and wind have far more potential and far less danger.

  • Jim Baerg

    “The radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants is a colossal hazard.”

    Has *anyone* ever been harmed by the spent fuel stored an nuclear plants? Meanwhile the toxic chemicals used in semiconductor (including photovoltaics) processing have harmed people.

    I suggest that you read up on the subject. Try eg: “Power to Save the World” by Gwyneth Cravens.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Has *anyone* ever been harmed by the spent fuel stored an nuclear plants?

    Yes. For instance, a 15-country, 12-year study conducted in Canada found that nuclear power-plant workers are twice as likely to die of cancer as members of the general public.

    Even beyond that, it strains credulity to conclude that spent nuclear fuel can be handled safely. High-level waste is so radioactive that fifteen minutes of direct exposure would deliver a lethal dose of radiation to a human, and this waste will have to be stored for tens of thousands of years before it’s no longer dangerous. The U.S. government doesn’t even have a place to put it right now (most is stored on-site in nuclear reactors, in pools of water so it doesn’t catch fire), and given that Yucca Mountain appears to be dead, no storage facility could plausibly come online for decades.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    The U.S. government doesn’t even have a place to put it right now (most is stored on-site in nuclear reactors, in pools of water so it doesn’t catch fire), and given that Yucca Mountain appears to be dead, no storage facility could plausibly come online for decades.

    Deja vu all over again. I remember these discussions when TMI hit our little town, wow, 30 years ago. Anyone remember “The China Syndrome”? They’ve been talking about how we don’t have anywhere to store nuclear waste since then. Doesn’t sound like they’re too interested in finding a solution, and now there’s a big push to build more plants. Reactor #1 at TMI is still not open, and never will be.

  • Alex Weaver

    For instance, a 15-country, 12-year study conducted in Canada found that nuclear power-plant workers are twice as likely to die of cancer as members of the general public.

    Clarify?

  • Entomologista

    How the hell did they manage to find a sample of scientists in which 13% had doubts about evolution?

    Because a lot of people think science is either physics or philately. So there are a certain number of physicists out there who think they’re fully capable of doing my job and also happen to be creationists. This phenomenon is even more common among engineers, so much so that it is called the Salem Hypothesis.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    I had an engineer at a major international company tell me “there isn’t a shred of evidence for evolution.” Then he talked about how they’ve found human and dinosaur tracks in the same fossil strata.

    He’s a smart guy, and a good engineer. But he doesn’t want to know the truth about evolution. No amount of media education is going to change what he wants.

    He was pretty stunned when I told him scientists only use evolution because its a useful theory, and if creationists want to replace evolution, all they have to do is come up with a more useful theory. But I know it didn’t take; a few hours later he had recovered and was back to normal. Because that’s what he wants.

  • 2-D Man
    For instance, a 15-country, 12-year study conducted in Canada found that nuclear power-plant workers are twice as likely to die of cancer as members of the general public.

    Clarify?

    I can only assume that it means Canadians, or people in Canada, collected data from 15 separate countries.

  • 2-D Man

    He’s a smart guy, and a good engineer. But he doesn’t want to know the truth about evolution. No amount of media education is going to change what he wants.

    I’m an engineering student (my program is similar to a dual major of physics and engineering – just without the arts electives in the physics degree), and I can tell you that one thing I’ve learned about engineering is that it is pretty much the exact opposite of science.

    Scientists are taught to distrust their intuition, whereas engineers are taught to cultivate it under the light of scientific knowledge. While some skills might overlap, the underlying principles are vastly different.

    If I were to speculate, as engineers tend to do, I’d say that in an area where an engineer has little knowledge, the intuition still takes over, as s/he’s been trained to allow to happen, but it’s underdeveloped, and as a result, wildly inaccurate.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Please don’t forget to credit Pratchett’s co-authors for the Discworld Science books

    Noted: In fact “lies to children” was coined by Cohen and Stewart, not Pratchett. I ommitted their names from the comment for brevity and simplicity, which kind of illustrates the point that it is easy to over-simplify to the point of innacuracy.
    Don’t get me wrong, I am all for popular science (for one thing I’d be short of bedside reading if there wasn’t any)I am not sure however that it is a panacea for scientific ignorance. Personally I believe that aspects of the philosophy of science should be taught at high school, perhaps even before the hard science itself so that people grow up understanding how science is supposed to work. Concepts such as falsification, logical positivism, cultural relativism etc are key to understanding why science provides the level of certainty it does, while allowing for for the necessary uncertainties that some popular writers currently like to ignore.

  • Scotlyn

    I personally would like to see something even more basic taught in school – a practical “How to think” class would revolve around discussions and practical applications of the following questions: How do you find things out? What value do you assign to things you’ve found out, and their sources? What is evidence? What do you do with evidence? How do you interrogate the evidence, and what does that tell you? If there are conflicting answers how do you decide? How much can your own eyes and ears tell you, and can you trust them?

  • Wednesday

    How the hell did they manage to find a sample of scientists in which 13% had doubts about evolution?

    Were social sciences involved?

    And possibly mathematicians and engineers. We should know better, but some of my fellow math grad students do not have very good backgrounds in science. “I heard somewhere that some guy said that some animal got classified by scientists in the wrong part of the taxonomic tree. So this must mean that evolution by selection is completely false.” “What do you mean, there are XY women and XXY men? That makes no sense – you evolutionists sure do have some silly ideas.”

    Although even those with strong backgrounds in science sometimes shut down logical thinking when it comes to evolution. Caltech’s pretty much only student Christian organization has a long history of being liberal, but I have it on good authority that lately there’s been a push by some undergraduates to insist that members should be Creationists. At Caltech.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Bottom line:

    The vast majority of Americans have no interest in science. They’d much mourn Michael Jackson or catch videos on Youtube. Programmed to revere leaders, they’ve succumbed to religious propaganda. I wonder if the tide can be stemmed.

    Alex W.:

    How the hell did they manage to find a sample of scientists in which 13% had doubts about evolution?

    Perhaps ICR got polled?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    [...much rather mourn....]

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com Spanish Inquisitor

    This phenomenon is even more common among engineers, so much so that it is called the Salem Hypothesis.

    This was interesting. I wasn’t aware of it.

    The Wikipedia article didn’t say, but I wonder if the engineering field actually attracts people predisposed to Creationism? Once in the program, then, there may be something about all the math and science (mainly math) that doesn’t dispel their predisposition.

    I know when I was in college (lo, these many years) people I knew who became engineers did so because there were actually jobs out there for them, something the higher academic sciences didn’t have much opportunity for, or at least not as much. AMP (now Tyco) in my area used to hire a lot of people with engineering degrees.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    I think the engineering/Creationism thing might have something to do with people who design things that work, and people who see design in nature. Granted, my sample base is both entirely self-selected and anecdotal, since the couple that I’ve run across talk about how well designed things like Man are. That’ll change once they go for their first prostate exam.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    “I make things that work.” > “Things in nature work.” = “Something made things in nature.”

  • Samuel Skinner

    “Even beyond that, it strains credulity to conclude that spent nuclear fuel can be handled safely. High-level waste is so radioactive that fifteen minutes of direct exposure would deliver a lethal dose of radiation to a human, and this waste will have to be stored for tens of thousands of years before it’s no longer dangerous. The U.S. government doesn’t even have a place to put it right now (most is stored on-site in nuclear reactors, in pools of water so it doesn’t catch fire), and given that Yucca Mountain appears to be dead, no storage facility could plausibly come online for decades.”

    It is a little deceptive to put it like that. You can reprocess the waste to make more fuel, but more important the alternative to nuclear is coal- and guess what? The impurities in coal happen to be radioactive. And unlike nuke plants, you are dumping that shit into the atmosphere.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    If the choice were between nuclear and coal, I’d choose nuclear without hesitation, but I don’t think those two exhaust the options. Why don’t you think solar, wind and tide power are viable alternatives?

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Well, to clarify, my Creationist engineer is an older fellow.

    All the young (under 30) engineers are atheist or agnostic by default. They do a lot of testing of their software/hardware, and they’re just not convinced by any idea that is billed as “unverifiable” right up front.

  • 5acos(phi/2)

    Largely speculation, but as someone with some education background in engineering and only recently discovered how “real” scientists define science, I could guess how engineers could be most prone to unscientific “theories” among science-related academics — their priorities are different.

    Ideally, scientists’ main goal is the pursuit of truth. Their big questions are along the lines of “How does it all work?” and “How did it happen?”, and they are tasked with getting every strand of the whole tangle of scientific theories accurate.

    Engineers, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with “How can I get it to work?”. They only use any available “proven” scientific knowledge for granted to produce the desired results. The difference between accurate and faulty theories can indeed impact an engineer’s work, and the ability to tell that difference is very useful if not crucial, but that ability is still but a means to an end. If a certain body of scientific knowledge doesn’t concern how their toys work, engineers don’t have to care where the truth lies.

    A similar thing can be said about doctors, who are also in the business of applying scientific knowledge. But unlike engineers, students in medicine are constantly exposed to biology, thus it’s very likely that they’ll be “pressured” into accepting evolution despite their religious beliefs.

    The other similarities are still there. Engineers can be very stupid or misinformed about biology, while doctors can be very ignorant about physics and math.

    …and neither side are very good at dealing with people.

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Ebonmuse “Why don’t you think solar, wind and tide power are viable alternatives?”
    As complementary power, yes, but they’re too unreliable for baseline (the power that you need all the time). Solar is less effective in winter and doesn’t work at all at night, wind power varies with both weather and seasons, alternate fuels tend to grow best in the same places that your food does, tidal doesn’t work in Kansas, etc. You need something else to pick up the slack, hydro-electric is pretty much played out (most of the big rivers already got ‘em) and hydro-thermal only works if you’re willing to put up with Bjork.
    Nuclear, while its waste is very bad, has compact waste vs coal’s “everywhere” waste. Good luck with nukes, though. The US has forgotten how to build them.
    Of course, we could always just use less, and use it more efficiently (de-suburbanization, better public transit, etc), which would mean less baseline and less coal/gas/nuke/whatever. Naw. That’s ridiculous. UnAmerican, frankly.

  • Leum

    While I agree the Salem Hypothesis may be intuitively likely, I’d like some more evidence for the Salem Hypothesis before I concur with it. Wiki links to only two scholarly sources.

    Gambetta and Hertog (PDF) note that engineers are among the least likely of those with comparable education to be opposed to religion and most likely to be moderately or deeply religious (p. 51), but religiosity is not evidence of creationism and their data come from 1984, so I would be reluctant to accept it as remaining valid.

    Patterson claims a prominence of engineers in leadership positions in creationist ministries:

    Are engineers really all that prominent in the leadership of the creationist organizations? The current ICR letterhead stationery lists fourteen “prestigious” technical advisors of whom four are engineers or engineering educators. …

    In their 1977 booklet of testimonials entitled 21 Scientists Who Believe in Creation, the ICR listed the credential and backgrounds of their (then) leading “scientists.” Of these 21 creationist leaders, six (more than one fourth) either were, or had been, engineers or engineering educators, all with Ph.D. degrees.

    So engineers certainly are very prominent in the leadership of the ICR ministries. (emphasis in original)

    However, the prominence of engineers in leadership positions need not correlate to an equal prominence within the creationist ranks, nor are engineers a majority within the leadership (though they may constitute a plurality, I’d need more evidence to know).

    That said, I think the hypothesis makes intuitive sense. First because engineers–unlike biologists, cosmologists, astronomers, and geoscientists–are not exposed to the reality of a 4.6 billion-year-old-Earth and a 14 billion-year-old-universe as a constant, necessary, feature at all stages of their education. But this doesn’t account for the dearth of mathematicians, chemists, and physicists. Patterson’s explanation for this makes some sense

    Engineering societies seem to be uninterested in policing themselves, as regards either ethical irresponsibility or scientific incompetence. Thus engineers can publicly endorse ludicrous forms of pseudoscience without being publicly chastised by their professional societies. My experience is that examining boards simply brand the embarrassing utterances as being outside their purview, even though the engineer involved may be flaunting his engineering status while proclaiming the most absurd distortions of engineering science. Were biologists, geologists, or paleontologists to endorse publicly a pseudoscience such as creationism, their chance of achieving or retaining prestigious academic positions would be greatly undermined, as would their chances for high office in professional societies. (emphasis added)

    but does not demonstrate that other scientists truly are less prominently represented in creationist organizations.

  • mike
    some people either have moral objections to vaccination, or(like me) simply dont WANT to get them: Why should we be forced to?

    Why should we be forced to wear seatbelts? I think in both cases the argument is analogous: the infringement on liberty is minimal, and the potential benefits are vast.

    Actually, why should we be forced to wear seatbelts? I don’t think this is a very good analogy — If I am unable to wear a seat-belt, am I safer in a crash if the other driver is wearing one? With vaccines, there are legitimate medical reasons that exclude some people from vaccination. For these people, their only defense is the herd immunity.

    I consider seatbelts more like certain medical treatments. You should be free to refuse them (JWs & blood transfusions), but minors should be compelled to use them. I guess I’m a seatbelt libertarian.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I consider seatbelts more like certain medical treatments. You should be free to refuse them (JWs & blood transfusions), but minors should be compelled to use them. I guess I’m a seatbelt libertarian.

    Agreed, so long as the beltless can provide proof of medical insurance. Otherwise, it’ll be a government payout sooner or later.

  • Joffan

    Interesting – I always wondered whether nuclear power would come up on this site and what the response would be. It’s especially relevant because of the reference to media sensationalism and laziness. The media love to print doom-and-gloom stories aboutanything with “nuclear” or “radiation” in the title leading to the impression that there is something magically deadly about anything with these words in. Exposure to spent fuel, for example, is deadly when it is fresh out the reactor, but becomes much less so rapidly; but you will often find only the most sensational description of its lethality, even when really discussing (say) the transport of twenty-year-old fuel in virtually unbreakable casks.

    I found a publicly available article on the 15-country study here (pdf). One rather unprofessional aspect is the willingness to draw conclusions based on non-significant trends, so I will return the favor by noting that the non-significant trend for US nuclear power-plant workers is towards less cancers, not more. The Canadian contribution is what takes the overall result into actual significance overall, which suggests to me that something different is happening either in the processes or the definitions in that country.

    The typical result of studies on workers exposed to low-dose radiation is that there is no effect. A study of Navy shipyard workers (pdf) who were allocated to work on nuclear or non-nuclear boats even showed a low-dose benefit, with strong statistical significance.

  • Scotlyn

    Ebonmuse

    “Why don’t you think solar, wind and tide power are viable alternatives?”

    Modusoperandi

    As complementary power, yes, but they’re too unreliable for baseline (the power that you need all the time). Solar is less effective in winter and doesn’t work at all at night, wind power varies with both weather and seasons, alternate fuels tend to grow best in the same places that your food does, tidal doesn’t work in Kansas, etc. You need something else to pick up the slack, hydro-electric is pretty much played out (most of the big rivers already got ‘em) and hydro-thermal only works if you’re willing to put up with Bjork.
    Nuclear, while its waste is very bad, has compact waste vs coal’s “everywhere” waste. Good luck with nukes, though. The US has forgotten how to build them.

    Are there any engineers out there to explain how an intelligent designer would solve this problem?

  • Joffan

    Incidentally, the “twice as likely to die of cancer” line is another example of media laziness, or perhaps innumeracy. Even taking the conclusions that Mark Lemstra uses, the majority of NPP workers would face a less than 1% increase in the chance of getting cancer over their normal chances (which apply to all of us) of about 42%, once you multiply out the “excess relative risk” by the rather low dose. And that’s if there’s any effect at all: once smoking is corrected for, the effects are no longer statistically significant.

  • Samuel Skinner

    “I’m not suggesting that someone who hasn’t earned a bachelor’s degree is incapable of understanding basic science. But when 70% of a population’s highest educational level is a high school diploma (or equivalent), no one should be surprised when only 32% of non-scientists polled believe in evolution.”

    I think that is more a testament to shitty high school education.

    “The US has forgotten how to build them.”

    This looks like a job for France!

    “Of course, we could always just use less, and use it more efficiently (de-suburbanization, better public transit, etc), which would mean less baseline and less coal/gas/nuke/whatever. Naw. That’s ridiculous. UnAmerican, frankly.”

    We actually are reducing energy usage per person. Note that the solutions you propose don’t affect electricity usage- they are gasoline only.

    “Are there any engineers out there to explain how an intelligent designer would solve this problem?”

    Just tell me what you are willing to give up and I can tell you what you can get. NIMBY? Clean Air? Cheapness?

    “And that’s if there’s any effect at all: once smoking is corrected for, the effects are no longer statistically significant.”

    What the… smokers are more likely to work at a nuclear plant?

  • Joffan

    What the… smokers are more likely to work at a nuclear plant?

    Heh, Samuel, I dunno, it’s this paragraph on the third page (p78):

    Indirect analyses of the possible confounding effect of smoking yielded excess relative risks that ranged between 0.59 per Sv ( −0.29 to 1.70) for all cancers excluding leukaemia and lung and pleural cancer, and 0.91 per Sv ( −0.11 to 2.21) for smoking related cancers

    Because the confidence intervals include zero, the effect is not statistically significant. Maybe it’s those darned Canucks, smoking like crazy to keep the cold out. The study period reaches back into the fifties so anything is possible.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Actually, why should we be forced to wear seatbelts? I don’t think this is a very good analogy — If I am unable to wear a seat-belt, am I safer in a crash if the other driver is wearing one?

    Actually you are. In a crash the seatbelt will keep them in one place rather than throwing them around the vehicle where they will increase the likelyhood that you are hurt. In particular a backseat passenger with out a seatbelt can be thrown into the back of your head, killing both of you.

  • 2-D Man

    “The US has forgotten how to build [nuclear reactors].”
    This looks like a job for France!

    France uses Canadian nuclear reactors.

    Solar is less effective in winter and doesn’t work at all at night…. You need something else to pick up the slack.

    Exactly, pick up the slack! The idea isn’t to completely replace coal. The idea is to reduce consumption of it, make it a secondary power source. While solar cells suck, one of the biggest uses of electricity is heating water (and homes). If we improve capture of solar energy and convert it into heating, there really aren’t inefficiencies anymore; it’s a 1:1 reduction in our electricity* consumption, which primarily comes from burning coal. Combine this with a concentrated effort to reduce energy use, and the effects from coal will be drastically cut back.

    *Natural gas is used for this purpose too, but giving up natural gas for solar is still a good trade.

  • Joffan

    Really France uses French nuclear reactors, but the origins of their main design (light-water reactors) is American. Canadian reactors use heavy water (D20) and natural uranium.

    Solar is an attractive match for the typical daytime load increase of about 50% above the overnight constant load. My hunch is that most of that increased daytime load is currently handled by gas and hydro, since those are easier to turn up and down, rather than coal. I know France (back to that!) uses their nuclear power to load-follow.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Samuel Skinner “Note that the solutions you propose don’t affect electricity usage- they are gasoline only.”
    Ooo. Well, la tee dah, Mister Samuel “I don’t live in my car” Skinner. I bet you don’t have a mullet, either. *Pbbt!* Elitist.

  • Samuel Skinner

    “The idea isn’t to completely replace coal.”

    I’d hope to. Sure we have 200 years o deposits left, but I prefer something that isn’ so polluting and has the potential for underground fires.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    On engineers and evolution: I have just come back from a business trip, travelling with a colleague who is an engineer and a muslim. We got into a late night theological discussion (intense but friendly) which covered a lot of ground, from POE to Morality etc. When we got around to special creation however his position was revealing. He had a high school grounding in three sciences and an undergraduate engineering degree. He accepted that the science behind radio isotope dating, cosmological observation etc indicated a universe 14 Billion years old and an earth 4.5 billion. He accepted that genetic and morpholgical evidence pointed to the long slow evolution of species by natural selection. However he also stated with utmost confiction that despite the evidence he believed the world to be no more than a few thousand years old, created by god and that all humans are literally descended from two specially created individuals called Adam and Eve.

  • Arki

    I am an atheist, but not a scientist. I personally have reservations about some forms of animal testing, as well as apprehension over the idea of more nuclear plants. Some of the positions on your list are falsifiable – are humans causing global warming, does evolution by natural selection occur – but some are truly matters of opinion. What I’m getting at is these are two separate issues: getting the average person to accept the truth about the world, and getting the average person to agree with the scientific community on moral decisions. I think you’ll have greater success if you focus on the former, especially since there are many people like me who will help you. On the latter, however, you will find a lot more opposition.