Trust the Man in the White Lab Coat, He is Your Friend: or, Restoring Public Faith in Science

Science in the 20th century produced miracles. Physicists discovered the fundamental building blocks of the universe, chemists invented almost every modern object with plastics, biologists cracked the genetic code, and engineers literally flew to the moon. But at some point, the relationship between science and society went off the rails. Maybe it was a variety of food scares in the European Union, or perhaps the mandatory climate change denial for American conservatives. But whatever the cause, scientists lost the public trust. Those of us who account ourselves policy realists believe that accurate science is vital to proper policy formation. How then, can the public trust in science be restored?

In “See-Through-Science”, James Wilson and Rebecca Willis of Demos argue that public engagement with science has to move upstream. Rather than scientific knowledge flowing from the technical elite to an accepting public, scientists and ordinary people should be talking about the values, visions, and vested interests of emerging fields of research as early as possible. The goal is to create better, more socially robust, science that doesn’t clash with public values at a later date, such as occurred with embryonic stem cell research. The idea is to re-engage people with the scientific ideas that will drive the future.

“Taking European Knowledge Society Serious” is a similar effort by a star-studded EU academic panel to diagnose how European science can be both socially responsive and a driver of innovation in the 21st century. Their recommendations are far reaching, but center around the idea that ‘risk assessment’ has to incorporate broader values, and that political elites should be careful that they don’t predetermine the framings of scientific controversy.

Personally, I’m doubtful of the ability of citizens’ juries, value mapping, or the other kinds of participatory efforts to positively alter the course of science, or the relationship between science and society. The day to day activities of science are fairly dull for those who are not already invested in them. Public participation would pick from the same select pool as criminal juries; the retired, the unemployed, and the flakey, and the effects of participation would not extend beyond their immediate social network. Science is driven by foremost, the immutable facts of nature, and their discovery and use. Secondly, it is driven by priority of novel results and the internal advancement of scientists within the community, and finally, it is driven by money, and the decisions by which grant panels, venture capitalists, and corporate executive allocate money. According to liberal political and economic theory, democracy and the free market already serve as adequate proxies for ‘public participation’ in deciding the direction of research.

But the weaknesses in these European STS policy pieces go deeper than an inability to alter the course of research. Rather, they don’t even attempt to figure out why the public distrusts science. This is a core issue, because without diagnosing the disease, there can be no purposeful attempt at a cure. And finding a cure is important, because the opposite of science is not apathy, but rather a particularly subversive and dangerous form of magical thinking.

People distrust science because science is inherently fallible. Every reversion of a theory, every recall of a new drug or product, every breakdown in a complex socio-technical system demonstrates that science is weaker than the magic thinking associated with religion, dark green ecocentrism, climate change denial, and neo-classical economics. The incomplete, esoteric, and contradictory nature of these beliefs systems is in fact their strength, since any failure in their magic can be explained away. Science, without these ambiguities, must suffer until a paradigm shift.

A second aspect is the persistent disintegration of trust in our society. During the Cold War, political leaders (in alliance with scientists) were able to use the threat on immanent nuclear annihilation to create obedience. It is no surprise that the decline in the credibility of science happened at the same time as defense intellectuals were rendered irrelevant by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. People began to look for new theories that matched their own personal beliefs, that weren’t as hard to understand and didn’t change as rapidly as science. A few canny politicos realized that by destroying civic trust and the belief in an empirical, historical past, they could craft the past anew each election cycle, avoiding all responsibility for their mistakes. And so far, we’ve been rich enough and robust enough not to suffer any existential disasters from thinking magically, despite the purposeless wars in the Iraq and Afghanistan, the flooding of New Orleans, the financial collapse, the BP oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, etc etc.

The problem with directly attacking false beliefs and magical thinking is this tends to alienate the audience you are trying to court, and may even entrench their status as an oppressed minority. However, changing minds is very, very hard, and the first priority must be stopping the spread of the infection. We can’t censor, but we can ridicule, and demand to see the credentials of these peddlers of false beliefs. The ideals of equality and neutrality espoused by the mainstream media are fictions which have stopped being strictly useful. Bullshit must be publically exposed as such. Perhaps we need a new journalism award, the Golden Shovel, for the best demolition of bullshit and lies.

At the same time, we need to recast public education towards a realistic understanding of the limits of science, technology, and state power. People have impossible expectations for science, they demand that it solve ill-formed problems, such as those dealing with the regulation of potentially toxic chemicals, in the absence of useful models. Or they want their drugs safe, effective, and now. Or they believe the Federal government has the power to plug a hole thousands of feet beneath the sea. At the same times as people learn about the limits of science, they should also be taught about the line between falsifiable science, and unfalsifiable magical thinking. Of course, this will not be easy, especially at a high school level. I am barely coming to grips with these issues, and I’ve spent several years studying them. But more important than any factual knowledge, is the ability to reason, to think critically, and to distinguish valid arguments from invalid one. Until every member of the public can articulate their values, and the supporting evidence for them, efforts to input public values into science will be useless at best.

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