Have you read the news about pork lately? On February 27th we heard that fatty pork ranked as one of the most nutritious foods in the world. (It’s rich in oleic acid and less saturated than beef or lamb.) Fast forward to March 1st, and all of a sudden bacon is still killing us, according to The Guardian. (It’s the nitrites.) If you’re too busy living your life to read every science-flavored news release that floats by, it’s easy to see how Americans could become skeptical of the folks in white lab coats. This distrust has deep roots: who can forget that smoking used to be “good” for us, and more recently, that sugar was “better for us” than fat? Such mixed messages sow confusion, but could they herald the death of science?
According to a 2017 Pew Research survey, two-thirds of Americans say science has had a mostly beneficial effect on society, and trust in the scientific community has remained reasonably stable (around 40%) since the 1970s. In recent years, though, it seems that public opinion about scientific findings have become ever more polarized by tribal politics. What’s going on?
Science is a way of observing the world around us, as this charming infographic shows. Hypotheses that stand up to rigorous testing and peer review gain credibility, revealing something about the way the world works. At least, that’s the ideal. In reality, results can be affected by factors unrelated to pure science, such as what results are desired by the entity funding the research or the political goals of the regime in power. Good scientists, like uncorrupted politicians, are above the fray, but we’re all human.
When we learn about falsified data, fake research papers making it into publication, and scientists on the take (like this story from 2006), the death of science as a pillar of our culture looms large.
There’s already a sense among respondents to a recent survey (sponsored by 3M) that Americans don’t really know or understand scientific issues very well, even as they find scientists themselves to be interesting and smart. Even more compelling among the international respondents was the idea that science doesn’t really touch our everyday lives. If people fail to perceive the effects of scientific research that underpin modern life, and don’t trust the people doing the research, it’s easy to see why science itself is losing favor among a small but vocal minority of the population. It’s only a small step, then, to giving equal credence to “research” that claims that ghosts are responsible for homosexuality, for example. If one doesn’t understand the scientific method, than any wacky conclusion is as good as any other, and non-expert contributions to matters of scientific policy become comically useless.
If the trend towards anti-science continues (and in the United States, there is little reason to believe that it won’t), it would fulfill some predictions about the death of science in a declining society. In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, astronomer and spokesscientist Carl Sagan imagined a future America dominated by ignorance and soundbites, “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.” In 2014, author John Michael Greer opined that the fruits of scientific research are subject to diminishing returns, with new breakthroughs eventually requiring more resources than society had to give.
All is, however, not lost. Efforts to fight against the death of science have come from vastly different quarters.
Arthur Caplan, Founding Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University, proposes greater communication as a way of increasing trust in science. Getting scientists out of the lab cloister and into the public square (in the manner of Neil DeGrasse Tyson) would personalize science and make it more relatable to the everyday citizen.
Then there was ConCiencias, a scientific conference held in Chiapas in December 2017. Black-masked Zapatista delegates spent four days with scientists from all over the world, working together to find ways to decolonize science and make it serve the needs of people again, instead of merely those of corporations and the capital that runs them. Indigenous people, aware of the ways that science has been abused to exploit and marginalize them while harming the environment, encouraged the gathered scientists to look for truth, to identify and fix the manipulative systems that are causing so much damage.
Science stands at a crossroads, and so do we. To one side lies “truthiness,” quackery, and the death of science as we slide into irreversible decline. To the other lies science in service of life, regeneration of the landbase, robust localized economies and real answers for the long-term converging problems of our time rather than short-term profitability through extraction and ruin. Let us, and our scientific community, choose wisely.