Galileo Galilei, one of the best minds of the modern world. His observations strongly supported the idea that Copernicus first proposed, that the Earth orbited the sun. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church did not agree, on the grounds that is contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible, and that Ptolemy, classical thinker, had said that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church had held for centuries.
Though Galileo was correct, and his evidence was very compelling, the Roman Catholic Church ignored it in favour of their scripture and an idea from a long-dead Greco-Roman guy. Galileo was tried before the Inquisition, who said the notion that the Earth moved and the Sun was at the center was “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” After two trials, Galileo was found guilty of heresey and condemned to house arrest and the 17th century equivalent of a gag order, while books with heliocentric ideas were banned. This is a prominent example of the way that reason and fact are easily ignored in favor for long-held beliefs, even in the face of insurmountable evidence. The repercussions of this decision can still be felt today. In 2012, out of 2,200 people in the United States surveyed, 26% could not correctly answer, “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” MAKE A BETTER TRANSITION HEREThe scientific understanding of the general public is severely lacking, due to a deep political tribalism enforcing confirmation biases, an increase in highly-partisan misinformation and inaccurate scientific reporting, as well as a perceived gap between the scientific community and laypeople of this country, all of which have contributed to the misunderstanding of crucial discoveries such as stem cell research, vaccination, and consequences of climate change. The consequences of ignorance could be disastrous, usurping the bedrock of enlightened and modern society for tribal allegiances. A step backwards, towards the possible detriment of all forms of science.
Though the possibilities illustrated here may seem apocalyptic, it is crucial to take steps now in order to prevent the worst from happening. Over the past hundred years, scientific literacy amongst the general public has taken vast strides, with the average person being able to access more and more information, and the education system instilling a solid understanding of basic science. In 1988, just 10 percent of U.S. adults had sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas to be able to read the Tuesday Science section of The New York Times, but by 2008, 28 percent of adults scored high enough to understand scientific ideas at that level (U.S.). But, the researcher that established those figures, Jon Miller of the University of Michigan, also established that Americans’ understanding of life sciences are lackluster.
In 2008, only 37% of Americans accepted biological evolution, and that acceptance has been declining over the past 20 years. Only 20% knew what a stem cell was, which raises an issue, given how divisive a topic it can be. The controversy in stem cells arises from a matter of opinion. It used to be that stem cells could only be obtained from embryos, because stem cells are critical for the development of structures inside of a fetus, because they are capable of forming many kinds of daughter cells.
Because some groups believe that the use of stem cells from embryos conflicts with their beliefs, they have pushed for laws against such research. In 1996, the United States passed the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, severely limiting research opportunities. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment, named after republican congressmen Jay Dickey and Roger Wicker, prohibits the use of federal funds for the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes, or research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero. In 2000, guidelines stating embryos could only be obtained from fertility clinics, when they would have no other use. In 2001, President George Bush put a stop to all federal funding for research regarding embryonic stem cells. The creation of induced pluripotent skin cells, by Dr.
Shinya Yamanaka, decreased the need for embryonic stem cells as induced pluripotent stem cells are created from normal, practically disposable skin cells. Regardless, President Obama rolled back Bush’s executive order, and near the end of his term on December 13th, 2016, signed the 21st Century Cures Act into law, including provisions “intended to assure timely regulatory review of regenerative therapies”, such as stem cell treatment. The stem cell debate stems not amongst party lines so much as it does moral values.
While conservative lawmakers tend to take the conservative route and vote for policies aligning with the “pro-life” side of the debate – anti embryo research – like representatives Dickey and Wicker, liberal lawmakers are more likely to be “pro-choice”, or “favoring the legalization of abortion” according to Merriam Webster, and therefore more likely to have fewer reservations about scenarios in which embryos are used in a manner which negates the possibility of life. Of course, these generalizations will not ring true for everyone, especially not in this instance in a more philosophical dilemma. But, there are some occasions where, while scientists and their research overwhelmingly agrees, a very vocal group irrationally disagrees. This is the case with a myriad of issues. For example, climate change. The science is clear when it comes to climate change. Sea ice is melting at an alarming rate (Polyak; Kwok). Sea levels are rising (Church).
Glaciers are retreating, extreme weather is occurring more frequently, and the ocean is becoming more acidic as CO2 dissolves into the ocean. The thing is, humans are causing it. Because of the boom in manufacturing that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution, the output of CO2 and other greenhouse gases has dramatically increased. And yet, for some reason, many people refuse to accept this reality, or are not educated enough on the topic. On December 28th of 2017, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, tweeted, “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming,” in reference to chilly East Coast temperatures, from the comfort of his Mar-A-Lago Estate.
What Mr. Trump does not seem to realize is that climate scientists no longer accept “global warming” as a factually correct phrase anymore, at least not in this context. The understanding is now that greenhouse gases can cause many changes to climate, including extreme weather (like a particularly cold winter). He has made similar statements since at least 2015, when he tweeted things such as, “It’s record cold all over the country and world – where the expletive is global warming, we need some fast!” and “Record low temperatures and massive amounts of snow. Where the expletive is GLOBAL WARMING?” In the nearly 3 years since these tweets have been penned, Donald Trump, a man in a position of extreme power, has apparently not been made aware of a distinction that climate scientists have made since the late 1970’s.
Mr. Trump obviously had not cared to pay attention, or has not been exposed to this very important nuance, and that speaks volumes on a critical issue: the lack of crucial knowledge of basic science.Donald Trump also once tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
” This claim is incontrovertibly false. Climate change is not a belief, it is a fact. However, that truth has apparently escaped the majority of Republicans. According to Pew Research, 82% of conservative Republicans disagree with the statement that, “Climate scientists understand very well whether climate change is occurring,” and only 15% believe that “Climate scientists can be trusted to give full and accurate info on causes of climate change.” 55% Liberal Democrats say climate research reflects the best available evidence most of the time, and 70% trust climate scientist to give accurate information (Pew politics of climate). Obviously, there is connection between party and an irrational skepticism in the scientific community in this instance. This isn’t just leaders, like Mr. Trump.
These are the everyday people, the real power in the United States The United States has grown quite a lot in terms of science education, especially with a greater emphasis on STEM in recent years to compete with other nations. However, with new scientific and technological advances comes new platforms to spread misinformation.If the phrase “climate change” is searched using Google or another platform, the results are very likely to contain an advertisement from some sort of climate change denier advocacy group. Or, it may not. This is because Google uses algorithms to tailor advertisements to the user.
So, if a user was writing a paper on climate science, ads for say, an environmental lobbying group may show up instead of one calling climate change a hoax. But, if a user had a history of climate change doubt, then advertisements will further support that belief. It all serves as sort of an “echo chamber”. As social media platforms try and boost their profit margins and create better user-interfaces, they try and streamline content into what the user will like, and what the user will click on, which generates more ad revenue for a free service. But, this results in a flood of content that only supports one side of the argument, becoming more and more partisan and more and more dangerous, as a growing number of Americans cite the internet as their primary source of scientific and technological news ( NSF).
It is well established that a so-called “confirmation bias” exists. People seek out information that supports their beliefs, and are overly skeptical of information that does not support their beliefs. Researchers have shown that the more active a particularly polarized user is in a certain topic, the more friends they are likely to have that exhibit the same behaviour, which exacerbate an already dangerous feedback loop. This demonstrates that their social interactions are “homophily driven” which means that users with similar polarization tend to congregate together. So, two groups of polarized users (science and conspiracy) share not only similar information consumption patterns but also a similar social network structure (). On the internet, unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims are given equal audience and reverberate for just as long as scientifically accurate information (Collective attention in the age of (mis)information). What’s more, the sharing pattern and circulation through these communities is nearly identical amongst the realms of scientific information and conspiracy theories (echo chambers on facebook).
This isn’t just among United States users, either. This is a global phenomena, with researchers that studied 1.2 million Italian Facebook users finding very similar results. Confirmation bias gets stronger for emotionally charged issues, like in the stem cell reproductive debate (Plous, Scott (1993). The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. p. 233.
) And, in an environment where political standing is deeply tied to one’s’ identity, it really can have a large effect on the way people interpret information presented to them. An example of this would be if someone saw a Facebook share from a friend with an article from a hyper-partisan media website which made inaccurate claims about the legitimacy of climate change. If this hypothetical person was already very skeptical of climate change and held the belief that it is not happening, they are likely to ignore credibility because the information provided supports the belief that they think is correct. If this same person were to turn on the news and see Bill Nye talking about climate change with an opposing viewpoint, they would likely be overly critical of the information he presents because it conflicts with their existing viewpoint. However, it is possible that not all blame can be placed on the public.
Sure, people making their own decisions and ignoring facts is what can cause false beliefs, but an issue that is prevalent is a lack of communication between the scientific community and the general public. Take the anti-vaccination “movement”. Its origins can be traced to a bogus study by a charlatan with a now-revoked degree, Andrew Wakefield, which claimed there was a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and autism. As real scientists repeatedly denounced these fraudulent claims, they gained traction with concerned parents. Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy playmate, and MTV star, began putting blame on the MMR vaccine for the cause of her son’s autism (). Her star status gave her a platform and connection to her fans, while she was interviewed by Larry King, Time, and Oprah, giving her legitimacy, if not to her claim. From there, it was spread on “mommy blogs”, to the minds of worried parents.
It has been found that people with a higher science knowledge believe there are fewer risks in vaccines than those with low science knowledge (Pew). However, it has also been found that presenting facts that display vaccine safety to skeptical parents can have the opposite of the intended result, and make them more skeptical, because their reaction is to feel insulted and patronized (Nyhan). And, groups that would traditionally have higher rates of scientific literacy, such as wealthy white Americans, often are one of the largest demographics involved in this counter-movement. This all seems like a bunch of conflicting ideas at play, so it seems difficult to figure out a solution. The answer lies in science communicators.Science communicators are people, not necessarily scientists themselves, that try to explain scientific concepts to people, trying to relate them to ordinary people’s lives.
Think of Bill Nye. Not the Bill Nye that argues with Tucker Carlson on Fox news. The Bill Nye of the Emmy Award winning television series, Bill Nye the Science Guy. There is a difference.When two people are arguing, a third party watching will pick a side, based on their beliefs and preconceptions. As they argue, the third person’s confirmation bias will kick in, and they will only listen to points that support their preconceptions, and the points contrary will only strengthen their beliefs further. It makes for entertaining television, but because fact is placed on even ground with fiction, not good education. However, if scientific facts are presented in a fun, interactive, relevant way, as they were in Bill Nye the Science Guy, people will listen.
The only hurdle was that Bill Nye the Science Guy was a children’s television program, and that would be scoffed at by adults, who are much more firm in their beliefs.But, people still enjoy learning when it’s done correctly. For example, Cosmos, with Carl Sagan. He had a gift for sparking wonder with his words, and the success of a science show aimed towards adults shows, as it was popular enough to spawn a reboot. Targeted, non-confrontational science education is what our society needs. The issue here arises when media producers try and make science too entertaining.A lot of science can be, admittedly, a little dull.
It is necessary in an institution built around repetition. However, there can be beauty in the data that results, but that notion seems to escape some of the people we rely on to report accurate scientific information to us.Scientific procedure relies heavily on precise and accurate reporting of information. However, the entertainment industry often relies on shock value and hyperbole. So, when the two fields collide, the results usually fail to maintain the integrity of the original facts. Also, in a highly competitive environment, scientists feel pressure to write reports and papers with eye-catching findings, in the hopes of getting more attention from potential funding. “My success as a scientists depends on me publishing my findings. I need to publish as frequently as possible,” says Brian Nosek, PhD, of the Center for Open Science (NSF).
And, an integral part of reliable science is the results of one study’s ability to be replicated. However, there isn’t much funding for double-checking someone else’s work, and it is often neglected. This can lead to inaccurate results, or less-than-credible claims. The problem only worsens when unskilled people from different fields, who may be unfamiliar with the concepts of credibility, reliability, or validity, go to report on findings. When “bad” science is reported in the same way that “good” science is, it can delegitimize the good, and bring unwanted credibility to the bad, and give the public false or conflicting notions. It can reduce public trust in science, or hype it up beyond what is capable. It is a similar story to the anti-vaxxing movement – a fraudulent study making extraordinary claims that gained popularity among people who were not able to distinguish the legitimacy of the study There are a number of ways to alleviate this issue.
A start would be by educating the public, along with their basic scientific knowledge throughout their general school career, on how to determine the difference between credible and incredible science, or a general sense of how to be able to tell fact from fiction. After that, dissenters will be more likely to adopt the correct idea via a form of peer pressure. This is what some scientists and physicians are attempting to do in order to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated (Nyhan). But, that wouldn’t stop the stress scientists face when trying to do well in an overly-competitive environment. The pressure to publish is an ever-present motivation in scientists’ work, and can sometimes dangerously alter data interpretation in one direction, be it subconsciously or consciously. Since scientists need to be published in order to gain recognition and therefore the attention of people or groups that will fund their research, a way to assuage some of this pressure would be to increase government funding for scientific projects. That way, scientists doing important research would not have to worry if they’ll be able to continue on, and can focus on providing accurate, valid, and credible research. During the 2017 fiscal year, the government allotted $582.
7 billion dollars towards the Department of Defence (US DoD). Some of that money goes towards weapons and equipment research, but in total, the funding that the government provides has dropped from around 70% of the total scientific funding in the United States to 44%, the lowest it’s been since before World War II.