by Carl Strang
Those of us who drive in urban areas come upon traffic signals every day. If a signal is red, we stop. If it is green we charge right through the intersection. If it is yellow, our response is somewhat conditional, so we’ll focus on the simple case.
Suppose a scientist is asked about the possibility that the light turns green both ways at once. Obviously this could lead to someone being injured or killed. Could it happen? The scientist allows the possibility that it could, but emphasizes that this is highly unlikely.
Now suppose this story is approached by the press. A reporter has been trained to avoid biased reporting. The standard approach has become to find someone to represent both sides of the story. After some searching, the reporter finds George, who believes the lights usually are green both ways (George once was hit by someone who ran a red light. There were no witnesses to contradict that person’s convincing claim that his light was green, too). After interviewing George and the scientist, the reporter writes a balanced story that gives equal weight to both points of view.
Soon the social media picks this up. Before long there are groups saying that the scientists clearly are trying to get us all killed! Tell the truth!! Clearly you are being paid under the table by the traffic signal manufacturers!!! A movement builds to have traffic signals outlawed and replaced by stop signs. There’s a big debate. The press of course must cover the story. Suddenly it is very easy to find people representing both points of view, so the reporters are happy that they are being ethical and writing unbiased accounts.
George has become a hero, the figurehead of a political movement that soon aligns with all the others that express mistrust of science. Somehow the fact never comes out that George’s conviction arose from superstition, which we can define as a supposed pattern of connection between unconnected events based on coincidental happenstance.
Does this story sound preposterous? It happens every day. Scientists are trained to be cautious about absolute statements and to speak in terms of probabilities. The members of the press are trained to represent both sides of any story equally, no matter how much this may distort the truth of the matter. The social media spread all kinds of nonsense, and lots of people swallow uncritically any “evidence” someone puts out on the Internet. There is a particular tendency to mistrust scientists because of all the movies (fiction) that show misuse of scientific findings or characters who are unscrupulous scientists. Watch enough such movies, and many people are ready to believe that this is the way most real scientists are in the real world. There’s also the contribution by politicians, the vast majority of whom know how to get elected but know nothing of science, but then use their power to express and legislate half-baked opinions forwarded by their funders rather than making an effort to consult with scientists and understand the truth of the matter (which, like the opinion about the reliability of traffic signals, usually must be expressed as a probability rather than an absolute).
To be sure, there is debate in science. There are unscrupulous people with scientific training. There are scientists who overstate their case. But in general there is a consensus about issues, and when there isn’t this will be emphasized by the preponderance of scientists qualified to address the issue. Nevertheless, this can lead to confusion about science and scientists, because kids in school are taught to believe that science is a body of facts rather than an ongoing process of discovery and refinement of ideas (a consequence of today’s educational climate that emphasizes reading and math, and points to tests that measure a pupil’s factual knowledge). There is a confusing mismatch between the resulting belief that scientists will state the facts, and the scientists’ expression of the process, which can make them seem to be holding back.
The result? Dismissal of evolution, dismissal of climate change, a simplistic view of autism and its causation, a simplistic understanding of genetic modification, faith that the human population can grow indefinitely without negative consequences, confusion of astrology with astronomy, and a nation that has plummeted in the world rankings of scientific and technical understanding.
A few days ago I published my 1000th post in this blog. One of its main purposes is to model scientific processes, and perhaps if you have read this editorial you understand why I think it is necessary to do so.