Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication
Science and Trust series - Part 1
( Based on my discussions with people who are anti-science and have confused views about science )
Are people of science fighting a battle again now like the rationalists did in the middle ages? How prepared are we to successfully thwart these attacks? Should we be offensive (actively tackle them so that we can move without any obstacles) or defensive ( allow people to say anything they want, even do destructive criticisms, and meekly support our stand?) Which one will be effective? But one thing is for sure. We cannot allow people - definitely not the ones who are not from the field and who don't know much about it - walk all over us. We cannot allow this blackening of science so much that public starts distrusting the subject completely and create chaos in the world halting the progress of science and that of the mankind.
These thoughts have crossed my mind several times in the last few weeks because I have been reading articles regularly in recent times that deal with peoples' lack of trust in science (ref 1,2,3,4,5)! Lack of trust in science of all the fields! And what is more surprising is these articles are being published in the American and Canadian media - which are highly scientifically advanced countries. If you read them in some Middle Eastern media outlets like the one in ref 6, you feel, 'Oh, this is normal. These countries are not scientifically developed much. So people think with their medieval mindsets'. But the US of all places is generating these surprising reports. Too many of people in the US are rejecting basic scientific knowledge to an alarming degree. Why are they becoming victims of false propaganda machinery? Should we keep quiet when scientists are being attacked mercilessly for standing up to deniers (30). Definitely not! And I am taking this risk knowing fully well that even I might become their next target ( I have already faced some heat and dust) :) . In some instances, I have actually entered the deniers' dens all alone, yes alone, and engaged them using tactics.
It is a sad failure of the education system if the general public are suspicious of science. We need citizens who understand the limitations of science, as well as its achievements. We want them to negotiate the pitfalls of the field successfully and understand science the way it should be understood and get advantages from it. We all benefit from the technological advances that result from the applications of science. Why should anyone reject the theoretical basis for those applications? It is a huge challenge for scientists as well as science communicators to interpret science in a clear and readily understandable manner, without disturbing scientific accuracy and integrity of the field.
Let me tell you we don't get to see such things in this part of the world. People trust science more than anything else here. This is because our culture tells them to respect knowledge and people who possess it. " Bharat", India's another official name, itself denotes this:
And why should I be worried? I am very far away from these countries and in the place where I live in people respect science and trust that it helps them not only in understanding things around but also in making their lives more comfortable and longer lasting and we don't have many problems.
But wait a minute. Science is a universal subject, not a local one. If a country like the US sneezes in an internet based world, won't the rest of the world catch the cold? I am worried because in the global village where false news spreads like wild fire, people here too might fall prey to this anti-science propaganda through the media. And I have been proved right.
Recently we came to know that some anti GM food and anti-nuclear NGOs in the West started funding the NGOs here to start agitations against the agricultural revolution through GM crops and peaceful use of nuclear power. Activists here are falling prey to some of the these anti-science missions. As a person of science and most importantly because I am a science communicator, I must not only try to build a fire wall now around other parts of the world that trust science but also stop the US from sneezing. Can I do this? Well, let me try!
While discussing this topic with people who are doubtful of science, I became a peeping tom and tried to watch their minds and see what lies there and how to understand the problem to tackle it. The first two parts of this series are a result of my many meetings, discussions and debates with them and also with educationists, science communicators and scientists.
If the public don't know much about science and the difference between various things, it is the job of science writers and communicators to make them efficient enough to understand this. So one is tend to think that this situation has resulted from the failure of people like science communicators to do that which is responsible. Just because you get a few degrees in science you don't become a person of science. You should also be able to negotiate the pitfalls in science in the right way. A science writer himself or herself should trust in scientific way of doing things. If he or she too comes under the influence of culture, religion, politics and emotions, the person can never do justice to his or her job. Science communicators are unable to overcome the conditioning of both their minds as well as those around them. Unless this situation is changed, we cannot expect much trust in science. These were the first things that were discussed here when we heard about the problem. However, I found several other issues too which are contributing to this mess.
Sometime back I wrote on who can challenge science (7). Anybody can challenge it but using only scientific methods. When asked to do this people are cooking up data, making strange claims and propagating pseudo-science. Even people of science are falling prey to these pseudo-scientific methods.
Now let us see the reasons I ran into during my encounters with cynics that could make people waver while dealing with science:
1. Media: Media's interpretation of scientific concepts is very dismal (34). It prefers sensationalism - if you look for the synonyms of the word, interestingly, you will get the terms " tabloid journalism" and "yellow journalism" as the prominent ones - instead of educating masses. A false impartiality of the media by giving equal importance to both scientists/specialists and believers of irrational things/non-experts and trying to balance ignorance with knowledge, superstitions with rationality, misconceptions with facts is creating a messy state of affairs (9), instead of creating clarity by putting across the right ideas in the right way and helping people in understanding the way things should be understood. Main reason: A great number of journalists themselves are very confused on how to go about science. Their love for controversy is amazingly creating bleak performances while reporting science stories. This pollution is seeping into some of the science magazines that are being handled by Journalists. Media also favors stories focused on shocking and accidental discoveries, but rarely takes the time to give insight into the years of work and teams of scientists involved in the research (8, 33).
I have observed several times that the media publishes stories that have been rubbished and rejected by scientists as the ones done by journalists to hype and attract more eyeballs. Some of the 'studies' are not even published in peer-reviewed high-quality journals but in dubious ones.
Hyped up research-result-press-releases from universities (39) that elevate expectations of the public but subsequently dash their hopes are a cause of concern too.
2. Scientists : This is really an interesting aspect because people who deal with the subject themselves are contributing to the misunderstanding of their own field. How?
Scientists don’t always speak with one voice. Indeed, robust argument over the interpretation of data is a critical part of practicing science. Any new model must undergo questioning. This can be confusing to public and government that want clear, definitive answers. That provisional quality of science is another thing a lot of people have trouble with.
Due to pressure with regard to publishing papers that indicate noticeable achievement in science, they are committing mistakes (10, 48). Since 2005, the frauds in science paper publishing (49) have increased. A more modest increase in retractions because of error was observed earlier, and the latest phenomenon is increasing retractions because of plagiarism and duplicate publication. The recent increase in retractions for fraud cannot be attributed solely to an increase in the number of research publications: retractions for fraud or suspected fraud as a percentage of total articles have increased nearly 10-fold since 1975. Can we expect a more genuine cause than this that increases mistrust in public about scientific methods?
Also scientists' language filled with jargon and data is highly confusing and impenetrable to public to make some sense of their work. Not all scientists are good communicators and therefore, cannot freely speak in a language that is understandable to everyone. And there is a complaint that not many scientists are coming forward to communicate their work and remove the middlemen that are spreading misconceptions. This is breeding skepticism.
Scientists expressing their opinions instead of giving facts while speaking to the media and public and overlooking the fact that opinions might differ from person to person and could confuse people and make them distrust the scientific community is one of the maladies of bad science communication.
According to some educationists, the distrust about science arises because the scientists themselves accept that they know very less. Some scientists even say that they know more and more of less and less because of their super-specializations. This modesty of scientists, according to these people, is one of the reasons why people are not taking scientists seriously ( 11). Some even say that the blind idealism of a few scientists about the application of scientific discoveries and oblivious of the potential for evil as well as good in what they develop or discover can make them appear irresponsible.
And there are a few scientists who are after popularity and spread cheap misinformation and pseudo-science ( 46, 47). This makes people who don't have a clear view about it - side with these people and question real science.
3. Confusing research reports: We hear/read about several studies that say different and opposite things confusing people like this one on fats . We know that rarely if ever does one new study overturn an entire body of previous research, the public is confused and more often than not simply ignores research-based advice.
People don't trust science because science evolves as ignorance is replaced by knowledge. And not every one can keep up with the information super highway. And not everyone is sufficiently trained to understand the science they read and to know why we get so many confusing reports. Also not everyone is trained to be able to analyze information critically.
4. Religious fundamentalists and leaders because of their political affiliations that oppose science are propagating misconceptions about it. I myself have watched several videos and read articles mocking scientists, their methods and science in general. When science is becoming powerful more and more, some vested interests feared it might dethrone them one day. So they started to malign science. People who can't think properly on their own started believing these vested interests.
Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion and people are driven by emotions most of the time.
5. Paid research (50,51)/news from political parties and commercial establishments. Some people do indulge in malpractices to support their views and interests. Ineffective peer - review processes that are not able to control these improper practices is a big concern. Reluctance to publish negative results by scientists especially in clinical research (56) makes people think that people of science are not honest. And these aspects have tremendous impact on trust in science.
6. Cultural conditioning of minds.
7. Mob and peer pressure - The urge to get identified with one's groups' thoughts and ideas.
"Fitting in with their friends matters a lot more to people than getting science right!" What matters more is having a belief that fits in with their group - it can really ruin their life to hold a position that is at odds with their peers on a controversial issue. So it makes sense that people will pay more attention to "getting it right" relative to their group (12).
Only a handful of people will have the courage and ability to think critically and differently from their loved ones and friends. And only a few amongst them will have the courage to accept the truth, stand by it and swim against the current !
8. One person's fun is another world's disaster:
Some journalists are publishing sensational and cooked up stories on occasions like All Fool's Day (for instance like this one: Science’s Big Scandal. Even legitimate publishers are faking peer review (13). And people are thinking that they are true, sharing them and spreading lies. Some vested interests are clinging on to them and presenting them as proof of dark side of science.
That is why some science journals are saying they are against these April Fool stories ( Against April Fools’ in Science Journalism: SA (14).
This article says -' Perhaps it’s past time for reputable science publications to abandon the practice—or at least to quietly discourage it. What seems like harmless fun among journalists and their more-savvy readers may have negative unintended consequences outside those knowledgeable inner circles. And that articles designed to betray a reader’s trust could possibly do anything but exacerbate the serious problems the world of science is facing. Ever-growing fractions of the public now get their news online, from a churning maelstrom of informal sources and content aggregators of varying quality. Dubious stories proliferate and multiply like viruses, spreading through e-mail newsletters, clickbait listicles, and casual Twitter updates and Facebook posts. The internet now ensures that all false, silly stories old and new can live forever, or at least never exactly die. Resurrection is usually just one Google search away.
The author of this article asked journalists to stay away from science on April 1st because of these reasons. It would be better if media complies with this request and refuses to play games with research news.
9. Frustrated science communicators: Part of the issue is that science and the language it uses are becoming more complicated all the time. To read a paper of modern research requires several years of specialized university education. Even with a Ph.D. and several years of experience, a biologist and a physicist generally can’t read and understand each other’s work.
That means the public hasn’t a hope of reading and grasping original research papers on controversial issues. They must trust science communicators to assimilate the facts and to tell the truth. If the latter ones fail, these type of situations arise. Science communicators these days are themselves very confused.
Believing all the exaggerated versions about scientists' misconduct and the rubbish spread by vested interests, some science communicators are getting frustrated and are asking the Q why they should perpetuate the situation by continuing to allow themselves to be used as mouthpieces for science gone awry.
They also say, it is not their job to convince people of anything in science.
They are also unable to cope with the ever increasing data base in science, confused reports, the language of science, insufficiently trained minds that cannot translate things put before them properly and are blaming scientists for all the mess.
10. Methods followed to do research: When some science communicators told me that the idea of dissecting things and studying a science problem in parts before understanding the whole processes, isolating and choosing causes and effects in research before connecting them by scientists are confusing both them and people they are conveying the messages to, I thought, this could lead to unnecessary problems when not explained suitably. Some critics think you cannot choose things like that which could give wrong results (Ex: weather, earthquakes).
11. Confirmation bias, according to psychologists, is a strong tendency to automatically favor information that supports peoples' prior expectations. When they consider issues that they feel strongly about (e.g., GM crops and foods, global warming, nuclear disasters), confirmation bias reaches a new height: it transitions into “motivated reasoning.” Motivated reasoning is the additional tendency to defensively reject information that contradicts deeply held worldviews and opinions (31). This leads to the willful dismissal of science which tries to show the facts in their true colours. Research indicates that as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely. They nest in our brains, chirping at us as we try to make sense of the world.
12. I also got several complaints that some politicians, government authorities and activists are 'forcing' people to accept science! This is what, according to some people, making them go against science.
13. Single study inferences: Personal experiences and a single person’s testimony or a single group's study conclusions often reported in the media with hype and overturned by later research.
14. Celebrities and religious leaders propagating 'half-baked' ideas and opinions and pseudo-science as real science.
15. Untrustworthy science journals publishing unreliable research papers after taking money from researchers (42).
16. The quantity of new data exceeds the field's ability to process it appropriately in some cases (example biomedical science). This phenomenon—which is termed ‘overflow’ in social science—has important implications for the integrity of these fields (54).
18. The false perception that Science doesn't deal with spirituality, aesthetics and ethics. Religious zealots told me science behaves like a machine by not taking these things into account and therefore is not human in character. Ignoring the importance of emotions by it, according to them, is making science non-trust-worthy.
This is because, in any given situation, emotions take the front seat in the mind of a common man. Reasoning comes later if at all he tries to think critically. Not everybody can overcome emotions by taking the help of unbiased reasoning.
19. Brian's strange processing techniques: Most of us do that by relying on personal experience and anecdotes, on stories rather than statistics. We might get a prostate-specific antigen test, even though it’s no longer generally recommended, because it caught a close friend’s cancer – and we pay less attention to statistical evidence, painstakingly compiled through multiple studies, showing that the test rarely saves lives but triggers many unnecessary surgeries. Or we hear about a cluster of cancer cases in a town with a hazardous-waste dump, and we assume that pollution caused the cancers. Of course, just because two things happened together doesn’t mean one caused the other, and just because events are clustered doesn’t mean they’re not random. Yet we have trouble digesting randomness; our brains crave pattern and meaning.
20. Inability to deal properly with perceived 'difficult things'.
The reasons that are making people question the integrity of science are really bothering the scientific community too. In the second part of this series, therefore, I will discuss how to deal with these issues.
"When controversy distorts science or robs society of very important benefits, then science should take action.”
1. Why don't people trust science? http://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/why-dont-people-trust-science
3. Why science is so hard to believe? http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-science-is-so-hard-to-be...
Very interesting observations, Krishna.