I was at a small dinner party last night, and a big part of the conversation revolved around an article in this month’s National Geographic about how many Americans doubt science.
For instance, scientists now accept the earth’s atmosphere is getting warmer because people are pumping carbon dioxide into the air, and this will cause dramatic changes in the climate.
But only 40 per cent of Americans believe this is true, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.
Or, another example: Scientists see no connection between childhood vaccinations and autism. The only reason people ever believed there might have been a connection in the first place is because of one single study that was later totally disproved. But a growing percentage of Americans now bypass childhood vaccinations, and the result is a return of diseases like measles that we thought were stamped out.
So why do so many people doubt science?
One reason, according to the article, is that science is taught poorly. We learn it as a set of inarguable facts. The earth revolves around the sun. Gravity made the apple fall from the tree and hit Newton on the head.
But in fact, science is messy. It starts with a hypothesis — a theory about the way something works. One scientist finds evidence that seems to prove or disprove that idea. Others pile on, testing it, modifying it, and sometimes disproving it.
People see news of these debates and think “aha, those scientists don’t really know what they’re talking about.” So they feel free to choose whichever scientific facts they want to believe in, and cluster into social groups based on those beliefs.
When a person says they don’t vaccinate their kids, or don’t believe in global warming, they’re not declaring that they don’t believe in science. They’re declaring their membership in a particular social group of like-minded people. Those social group bonds reinforce themselves and are hard to break.
But this shows an incomplete understanding of how science works. Yes, there’s always debate. But at some point, scientific theories become widely enough accepted that other scientists consider the problem resolved, and they begin to look for more interesting problems to solve. This is how scientific progress happens.
In other words, some scientific facts really are facts. That messy scientific method — the process of testing ideas by collecting evidence — is how we know they’re facts.
Anyway, the host at this party last night had a copy of the magazine and we passed it around. It was a mixed group of professionals: A lawyer, a tech employee an educator, a journalist.
There was also a scientist there — a researcher in the field of genetics.
At one point he said that so few people were going into science, there were no longer enough qualified graduates fill the positions to do necessary research. He likened it to a “reset,” where we basically have to start over and educate a new generation of scientists.
“A lot of other countries, Japan, China, see an opportunity surpass us,” he said.
Sure, this was just one dinner party conversation. But there’s a growing chorus of people in the tech industry who see a similar problem: The US is not doing a good enough job educating people about science and technology. It’s causing problems in society, and it’s hurting our competitiveness in business.
A lot of them are big public figures putting money into reforming education: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Benioff.
But I’ve also heard a lot of these kinds of conversations from people who aren’t famous, but are starting to get fed up and wondering what they can do about it. Perhaps this could become the next big social movement out of Silicon Valley.
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