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.

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