The Tragic Comedy of the Public and the Scientist

 

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Featured Image courtesy of ArtsyBee on Pixabay

In an unexpected twist of fate that would leave the stereotypical jocks of yesteryear falling over their tiny gym shorts, being a nerd has become wildly popular. The geeks have inherited the Earth, one might say, leaving the planet to be overrun by comic-book heroes, anime cos-players, and those strange, paradoxical creatures referred to as “celebrity scientists”. I know this hardly qualifies as news to you – I mean, you are reading this on a science-centric blog called “Astrosisters”, after all – but I think it warrants contemplation.

The fact that you’ve elected to peruse this article – that you’ve taken time out of your busy scrolling to check out this blog – implies that you have at least a vague interest in astronomy. Have you ever wondered why that is? Have you ever stopped to think, “Why do I give a damn about how the universe came to be, or where life comes from, or how anything actually works?” If your answer involves a shrug, or that airy “science is cool, bro”, then I’m going to have to ask you to ponder a little more deeply.

It’s a question I’ve only asked myself in earnest quite recently. By the time you’re in the second year of your university career, you’ve pretty much rote-learned some sort of classy reply to the ever-present question of why you’ve dedicated your entire life to a particular field of study. And yet, despite the number of times that your parents’ friends ask you why you chose your particular route of suffering, you don’t truly engage with the question until you’re in the middle of your third breakdown of the semester – hopped up on some unholy concoction of caffeine, Red Bull, and whatever anxiety pills you happened to scavenge from your medicine cabinet – crying to yourself, “What am I doing with my life?” over and over again until your keening eventually upsets the cat.

…Too much? Hey, I’ll admit I’m being a tad overdramatic, but you get the gist. Also, second year is brutal. Trust every person that tells you this, regardless of your field, and make sure you’re as prepared for it as you are for the Zombie Apocalypse (and don’t even try to deny that you have a disturbingly complex strategy for dealing with the onslaught of the undead hoards scrambling over one another to consume your delicate flesh).

Oh, and I hear that it just gets progressively worse from second year onwards, so… do with that what you will.

Anyway, back to that burning question of ours, from which I have so spectacularly deviated: Why do we care about science? Well, let’s start with why society cares about science – what prompted that shift in the Western mentality that urged us to take an interest in what goes on behind the closed doors of laboratories? Was it simply paranoia? Was this great era of scientific integration brought about by the fist-waving, right-wing masses braying about mad scientists breeching the laws of nature in increasingly heretical scientific pursuits?

One could argue that there is some truth to that. How could the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the desolation of Chernobyl, and the impending damnation promised by Mutually Assured Destruction bring about anything other than the (admittedly justifiable) fear of those who dared don the white coat? Could all the horrors of the twentieth century wrought by “progress” foster anything other than the distrust of science amongst the general public?

Now, there were plenty of observational data in the 20th century that suggested the masses had grown a little uncomfortable with the manner in which scientific research was utilised. Mass murder tends to have that effect on people. And while you would think that the hundreds of international protests against the might of nuclear power and the horrors wrought by the chemical weapons used in Vietnam – or, you know, the sudden popularity of the “evil scientist” trope in Western film and literature – would have been recognised as clear evidence of a fairly antagonistic perspective of science among the laymen, the issue that the scientific community chose to fixate upon was the ignorance of the public.

Image courtesy of Dominic D on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

“They were threatened by my intelligence and too stupid to know that’s why they hated me” — Dr Sheldon Lee Cooper (The Big Bang Theory)

In 1985, the Royal Society of London published a report that claimed the conversational gap between the public and the expert was the result of a lack of scientific literacy on the part of the layman. The “Bodmer Report”, as it came to be known, suggested that the implementation of certain measures to educate the public would result in better communication between these two parties. Data collected by the National Science Foundation of the United States and subsequent research seemed to agree with the Royal Society’s conclusions.

For years, this “knowledge deficit” was considered the great hindrance to the propagation of scientific exploration. The ignorance of the masses, once a minor annoyance, became the great enemy of progress. So, educating the uninformed became a major priority.

And yet, it was not enough, as one Professor Brian Wynne of the Lancaster University’s Sociology department discovered. During the 1990s, a team of nuclear scientists investigated the effect of nuclear fallout on sheep in the Cambrian region as a consequence of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Their experiment was a failure, due to the poor communication channels between the scientists and the shepherds. However, Wynne had been observing their experiment for his own purposes, and came to the staggering conclusion that it was the scientists who were at fault, rather than the laymen.

Cue fainting spells all around.

You see, it was found that the researchers were disinterested in the knowledge that the shepherds themselves possessed as a result of their experience with the environment, the behaviour of the sheep, and other local conditions that affected the study. After all, what could a bunch of poorly educated sheep boys teach a team of highly qualified nuclear physicists? It turns out, quite a bit. As a result of the dismissive attitudes of the investigators, the shepherds grew distrustful and incompliant, resulting in the failure of the study.

I bet it was the sheep that suffered most in the end.

Thus, the establishment of trust between the scientific community and the public finally became a priority, thanks to a few proud English shepherds who weren’t prepared to accept any nonsense from some lofty prats.

But the mistrust of scientists stems far deeper than simple arrogance, and beyond even the horror at the awesome march of “progress”.

Gordon Gauchat, an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has investigated the rationale behind the distrust of science at length. Through the analyses of data collected by the National Science Foundation between the years 1974 and 2012, Gauchat was able to surmise that our resistance towards new ideas acts as our major hindrance towards the acceptance – and, by association, trust – of scientific thought. This is most evident in religious fundamentalists, such as “biblical literalists” and “creationists”, who recognise their religious texts as factual accounts of history.

This is hardly surprising, I know. But bear with me.

Chris Mooney of “The Washington Post” made an interesting observation on this result of Gauchat’s work: the religious fundamentalist who considers evolution to be in direct opposition to the Word of God is unlikely to support those who have accepted evolution as fact. So, he implies that such an individual would be against endorsing those whose beliefs are considered heretical by their particular doctrines. This may seem to be a gross oversimplification of the matter, but with a documented rise in scientific doubt amongst conservatives – and, you know, President Trump – there does seem to be some justification for it.

So, it all boils down to two fundamental issues: the strength with which we hold onto our preconceived beliefs, and the way in which the experts try to change them.

With this in mind, the manner in which scientific information is disseminated has been drastically altered. Science has been repackaged for public consumption; gone are the practical, corrugated casings, and in their place are glossy wrapping paper and a shiny bow. Journalists and bloggers alike have sifted through the dry scientific journals, usually inaccessible to the average Joe, to publish only the most tantalising of stories. Pop-up “Science for Kids” books have been mass produced to target the curious young, while “Seminars at Bars” target the ostensibly mature. YouTube reigns supreme as the distributor of impressive videos showcasing fun, DIY experiments, as well as the live-in tutor we never knew we needed.

Of course, there are those who are opposed to such trappings – those who swear that this marketing of scientific thought gives way to the gross romanticisation of science and the subsequent loss of appreciation for the scientific method. They find that people have become more fond of “scientism” – the idea that science is the universal solution to all problems, and that science alone can describe the world, without the need for any other influence – than of science itself.

But I, personally, don’t think this is so terrible a thing. Like it or not, we need a population interested in the sciences, and if a few fireworks are necessary to make that happen, then so be it. This is one of the few cases in which the ends do justify the means.

But why? Why do we so desperately need a scientifically literate society?

Well, look around you. Every electronic device is the by-product of centuries of meticulous study, and most of us barely understand how any of it works. And I really do mean most of us. Never have I felt quite so ashamed at my inadequacy as I did in my Physics II lecture theatre, but a month or two ago, when our lecturer asked us to describe how a fridge keeps our food cold, and he was met with blank faces. We were halfway through our degree and we couldn’t explain how an object, that we spend an unsettling amount of time staring into, operates. Pathetic.

But it’s more than just the extent of the technological integration into our daily lives. There are more pressing concerns, such as the heinous effects of climate change and the resilience of horrific and incurable disease. Dwindling resources are urging us to find alternate means of survival, and we just keep coming up short.

There’s an insistent and unyielding call for innovators, and for curious minds eager to research, and learn, and solve the problems that have been dubbed unsolvable. These are the ends that are justified by the means – the presence of celebrity scientists and their inexplicable appearance in unsolicited film sequels, and the use of alcohol and interactive apps to win public appeal are the sparkly trinkets designed to pique our interest in issues that pertain to the continuation of life as we know it.

Thus, the public needs to care about science because these urgent concerns affect the way in which we vote for future leaders, the amount of food that can be grown to feed the insatiable global population, and whether this planet can still harbour mankind in the foreseeable future.

Regardless of how you feel about the sudden “trendiness” of the sciences, you can’t deny that the shiny wrapping paper in which they are now delivered works. We’re all flocking towards careers in S. T. E. M., and I can’t help but wonder how much of that is a result of our obsession with space epics like Star Wars and Star Trek, and our love of shows like Grey’s Anatomy and The Big Bang Theory, or the hours we spent as kids watching Bill Nye the Science Guy, Dexter’s Laboratory, and Time Squad. Think of all the articles you’ve read on sites like I F*cking Love Science and the videos you’ve watched on channels like DNews; think of characters like Tony Stark and Gwen Stacy, Ross Geller and John Watson, Professor Utonium and that weird anthropomorphic squirrel from SpongeBob SquarePants.  Our appreciation for all of these influences becomes intertwined with our relationship with the sciences, and a kind of emotional transference takes place.

Image courtesy of sixteen6stars on DeviantArt

“Ah, what a fine day for Science!” Dexter (Dexter’s Laboratory)

So, why do we care about science? Were we simply drawn in by its glittery surface? Was the great call to educate the scientifically illiterate the real reason we care about any of this?

It’s possible.

It could be that you and I do, in fact, owe our scientific curiosity to a bunch of fist-waving, right-wing masses braying about mad scientists breeching the laws of nature.

But what of it?

Whether our interest in the sciences was the result of the ravings of the climate change deniers of yesteryear, or the cartoons we rushed home to see as kids, we’re here. We’re invested. And regardless of how the path that led you to this very article began, what truly matters is where it takes you – or rather, where you make it take you. The only limits on that path are those that we enforce upon ourselves, and each of us has a moral obligation to test those limits; we are to bend them, break them, and leave them in the dust as we strive to reach that singularity known as our potential.

So take advantage of where you find yourself right now: tear down those limits, abandon them to the wastelands in which they belong, and become the person that makes some kid out there care about science.

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