If you’ve dipped even one toe into the science blogosphere lately, you’ve seen discussion of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s new book, Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future. I have very little interest in the arguments currently raging but not because I don’t care. The book makes interesting arguments, some of which I agree with, and some of which I don’t. More important, however, is that the authors have a track record of being listened to (cf The Republican War on Science). In a crisis that involves communication (i.e. of scientific knowledge), it would be foolish to ignore people who have proved themselves in that realm.
M & K make a convincing argument that scientific information is not being communicated effectively to “real people”. I will stipulate that scientific knowledge is at least as important now as it has ever been, and that there is a gap in understanding between scientists and the lay public. For their thesis to have any utility, this must be true. Whether this gap is unique to our culture and our time is less clear to me, but the basic problem remains.
I agree that there is a, “need for scientists to communicate their knowledge in ways that non-scientists can relate to and understand.” I also agree to an extent that, “scientists [often] fail to connect with top decision makers” (which intersects with, but is different from, the lay public). Where they lose me, but only a little, is with the assertion that we must, “break down the walls that have for too long separated the “experts” from everybody else.” For better or for worse, we need experts, and some barriers are insurmountable. Not everyone (including me) can understand how to design a microprocessor. I must in some way trust those that do. Those that investigate and design our world must be trustworthy in the eyes of the rest of us, and to the extent that this is the “wall” they are writing about, I’m with them.
In medicine, this idea of “expert-ness” is critical. It is a constant frustration for some lay folks and others that medicine requires special knowledge, and quacks capitalize on this by sounding “expert-y”. But doctors–and scientists–have special knowledge, special skills, and special creativity not possessed by all the rest of us, and to pretend that it isn’t so is dangerous. Still, we could put some portholes in that wall, dig some tunnels, create effective communication. But I’ll always have to trust the astronomers if they tell me object “x” is made of neutrons or whatnot, because I’ll never have the skills to see for myself.
Chapter 1 lays the groundwork for Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s thesis by giving an example of the lay/science divide: the “demotion” of Pluto. If you’ll remember, a couple of years ago, Pluto was reclassified as a non-planet by astronomers. I don’t disagree with their assertion that this example illustrates a divide, but I have a problem with some assertions:
…in defining the word planet, they were arguably engaged not so much in science as in semantic exercise…
Classification is part of what scientists do. It is not a futile exercise, but a vital part of organizing knowledge and deepening our understanding. In another example from my field, we must organize diseases to understand them. It very much matters whether I call “fibromyalgia” a disease or a syndrome, because one implies a specific pathology and one is simply a tool for grouping patients together. It’s not just that it helps me communicate with other doctors, classification also has intrinsic meaning.
I think it’s true that lay people have a misunderstanding about what science does. Much of it is rather dull (sorry). Naming things may not seem exciting, but it’s real. More important in science, though, is the willingness to change, to be shown to be wrong. In medicine, quacks are never wrong. No matter how much evidence you show them, they will hold to their beliefs. Scientists must not do this. Regarding the reclassification of Pluto, M and K note that:
people were aghast…they recoil at having to unlearn a childhood science lesson…
But that’s science—a willingness to change as data accumulates. Where Mooney and Kirshenbaum get it right is in recognizing that scientists don’t always explain this well. Many non-scientists don’t understand that being shown to be wrong is an intrinsic part of science, that scientific meetings are not always quiet, collegial affairs. The difficult part is trying to explain to people that while we may not mind being proven wrong, we will require evidence, not assertion. It is easy to fall prey to idea that because scientists are willing to be proven wrong, that all scientific knowledge is subjective—it is not.
There is, though, a candle in the darkness of the Pluto incident. It shows that many lay people truly do value scientific knowledge, even if they don’t always understand its subtleties. If people are interested, they are reachable. We’ll see what M and K have to say about reaching people as the book continues.