Science in the Public’s Eye

Chris Elcombe*

Dundee, May 13, 2015 (Alochonaa): “Sometimes parents know better than doctors” was a response I got, along with anecdotes of, “Kids are always ill now-a-days” and, “This/these kid(s) weren’t vaccinated and they’re fine”, when I asked an anti-vaccination campaigner to justify their position. I was reminded of a similar conversation with a climate change denier who claimed, “Climate change can’t be happening, it’s freezing cold”. It got me thinking about how much science has contributed to modern society and how little respect is generally given back in return.

In the modern day world it is hard to look around without seeing many things that sciences have delivered over the centuries, which have greatly increased the quality of life. Things like agriculture, alchemy, anatomy, astronomy and mathematics then led to botany, chemistry, geography, engineering and medicine, which led to genomics, near-instantaneous communication, meteorology, personalised medicine, nano-electronics, space travel and renewable energy. Yet despite the long list of advantages to civilisation science has provided, it has a terrible public opinion.

I am not naïve to cases where the application of knowledge gained by science has gone wrong, but ‘the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment’ (i.e. science) is not given the reverence it should be. Surprisingly, despite all the benefits it has produced, science is still treated with much suspicion by a large section of the population. This suspicion has roots as far back as science itself; for putting forward evidence that disagreed with public (and papal) opinion, Galileo was ordered:

“… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the centre of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.” — The Inquisition’s injunction against Galileo, 1616.

Nearly 400 years later and two recent studies showed that 26% of surveyed Americans, and 25% of surveyed Spanish, think the Sun orbits the Earth (an improvement from previous studies). There are many studies from around the world which show that public awareness of general scientific knowledge is severely lacking. Similarly large proportions of people do not know: humans and dinosaurs did not live together (64 million years separate the dinosaurs’ extinction and the evolution of homo-sapiens; humans), the earth and the universe are far older than 8000 years old (4.5 billion and 13.8 billion years old respectively), not all sources of radiation are man-made, anti-biotics do not work on viruses (colds, flus, etc.).

As someone educated and employed in science I often get asked, by those without scientific training, about current issues: GMOs, vaccines, climate change, Mars Rovers, asteroids, the LHC, etc. – along with any other science story that happens to find favour by the press on that day. Whether or not the topic is in my chosen field, I will always try to explain what I know, or find some information to pass on. However, in my opinion there are some who are more swayed by bloggers and newspaper commentators than they are of published and peer-reviewed research. This can in part be explained by the nature of scientific writing – structure, form and language. Although this does not nearly come close to explaining the situation; when explained the content, context, quality and quantity of research, it is still largely dismissed if it does not line up with preconceived ideas held by individuals, the public or other institutions.

In the papers

Between certain groups and media outlets, with ulterior motives, misinformation is continually propagated. Pseudoscience is given a platform to discredit research published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals. There is woeful, misinterpreted, use of terms such as; causation, correlation, hazard, risk, significance and, most of all, theory – which all have specific meanings within science. Duelled with the severe lack of fundamental knowledge within the public, this gives traction to these ulterior motives. On this battle ground evidence and anecdote are considered equals; scientific research and large population studies are dismissed by citing individual cases, badly produced statistics or misleading conclusions.

To add to this there is the problem of false journals like The International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, published by Research India Publications, and The Journal of Trauma & Treatment, published by OMICS.

The first example is to illustrate their purpose; to prey on young scientists under pressure to publish work who cannot pass peer-reviewing. All it takes to publish a paper in these journals is some money. In 2005 two scientists, David Mazières and Eddie Kohler, wrote a paper titled “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List” as a protest submission to the organisers of a conference who were prone to spamming. It consisted nearly entirely of those words repeated many times. In 2014 it was submitted to Int. J. Ad. Comp. Tech. by Peter Vamplew, rated as “excellent” by the journal’s peer-review process and accepted for publication.

The second example is how this can be used to lend legitimacy to false information. In 2013 J. Trauma & Treatment published a paper titled, “Dinosaurs: Extinct or Traumatized?” which describes dinosaurs and humans as existing at the same time. Without justification for discounting the massive amounts of evidence in support of current timescales, the author quotes from the Bible and the Quran to state that all creatures were created at the same time, and that humans have been here from the Earth’s initial creation. This is then fraudulently used by institutes like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, USA to make false claims of scientific legitimacy.

Contradictions between evidence and belief are also found deep in political establishments worldwide – even in the West, who tries to claim independence between religion and state, and boasts evidence led decision making. In 2014, while everyone (who was interested) was keeping up on the activities at the ESA with Rosetta’s Philae comet lander, the EU Commission scrapped the position of Chief Scientific Adviser over pressure regarding GM crop technologies. Also in 2014 Political scientist James Doyle was fired from the US Department of Energy for writing an independent scholarly article questioning the dogma of nuclear deterrence. In 2009 Professor David Nutt was fired as head of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for stating that policy did not match evidence.

Modern day public opinion on scientific matters is formed as much by the media, celebrities, religion and businesses as it is by evidence – probably more. Science has had a long history of receiving resistance to the insights it brings, and how it is used, from those unable to substantiate their claims. Nearly every major scientific breakthrough in history has been first resisted from an ideological stand point; from gravity to relativity, from elements to evolution. The repeating pattern is that when evidence shows a difference between observations and preconceived notions, decades and centuries pass yet the out-dated notions remain prevalent in public opinion, as well as the suspicion.

In this respect, today is really no different than that of Galileo’s. This is why I implore those of you who care as I do to follow in his 1633 footsteps; when ordered, under the threat of death, to say the Earth remains stationary, speak, “and yet it moves” (or maybe something a bit more subject specific).


*  Chris is Alochonaa’s Science and EU Affairs Editor.

**Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com

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