How scientists lose the average layman

I had occasion to read a rather lengthy essay this week by the Washington Post’s science reporter, Joel Achenbach, which left me feeling not only annoyed but somewhat insulted. Titled, “Why science is so hard to believe” the article didn’t spend much time talking about specific theories under debate, but rather chose to focus on all of you out there in the hoi polloi and why you have such a difficult time sitting down quietly and listening to your betters.

I invite you to go through it yourself because there’s a lot of material to cover. But I would point out just one example of the overriding theme which is present throughout and it relates to plenty of contentious issues debated in political circles today. In this section, the author cites a study which he provides as compelling evidence that the stupid people (and that would be most of us) aren’t really evil or disingenuous when we don’t accept every conclusion spoon fed to us by the scientific community… we just don’t know any better. And the cause is rooted in our lizard brain genes.

Even when we intellectually accept these precepts of science, we subconsciously cling to our intuitions — what researchers call our naive beliefs. A study by Andrew Shtulman of Occidental College showed that even students with an advanced science education had a hitch in their mental gait when asked to affirm or deny that humans are descended from sea animals and that the Earth goes around the sun. Both truths are counterintuitive. The students, even those who correctly marked “true,” were slower to answer those questions than questions about whether humans are descended from tree-dwelling creatures (also true but easier to grasp) and whether the moon goes around the Earth (also true but intuitive).

Shtulman’s research indicates that as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely. They nest in our brains, chirping at us as we try to make sense of the world.

Naive. Chirping. We can have a hitch in our mental gait. Well… I know I certainly feel better now.

It was no doubt unintentional, but Achenbach chose to commit one of what I consider to be the cardinal sins of science when preaching to the unwashed masses. He conflates things which are examples of almost universally accepted, solid science with others which seem to fall into the realm of experimental theory where the jury is still out for good reason.

We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge — from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change — faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative.

I’ll return to those examples in a moment, but I would first backtrack and mention how I came across this article in the first place. (As I am not a regular reader of Mr. Achenbach) I follow one of my favorite scientists on Twitter, Amy Mainzer, and she had linked to the article with some favorable comments. To be clear up front, I’m a big fan of Ms. Mainzer and have greatly enjoyed her contributions to a variety of shows on the Science Channel and other networks where she endeavors to explain the mysteries of the universe to the uninitiated. She’s an astronomer, specializing in astrophysical instrumentation, working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She works on a variety of projects studying minor planets and contributes to the important work of making sure that some giant rock out there doesn’t smash into the Earth unawares.

I’m also fully aware – as I’m sure many of you are already dying to tell me – that my taking her on in a debate of any sort over anything related to science is the equivalent of bringing a leftover strand of angel hair pasta to a fight against someone with a flamethrower. But still, I engaged in a few tweets with her over some of the issues I had with the article and she was kind enough to chat with me. We ran into a bit of an issue, however, when it came to the subject of scientific theory. I mentioned the inference in the article suggesting that religion might be the root cause for skepticism of some popular theories, which she took exception to. And this is where we parted ways.

Right there is what I see as a root cause of the problem, and it ties back into the section I highlighted above where fluorine is equated with climate studies. It’s not that a lot of laymen don’t believe in science. It’s that there are different levels of established scientific fact and theory. And when the scientific community starts adopting their own favorite theories as established fact – even when work is still being done to either support or disprove them and the subject matter is hideously complex for current technology to master – well, Houston, we have a problem.

If you mix iron and carbon in the correct proportions under specific conditions you get steel. There’s a lot of chemistry and physics going on in there, and it took centuries for us to completely understand what was taking place. A variety of theories were examined and discarded, including that the improved metal made excellent weapons because it captured the spirits of the deceased warriors whose bones were mixed into the forge. But by this point, we’ve got the science down pretty well and the experiment can be repeated over and over again without error. That’s the scientific method in action and it works. The process of mixing iron and carbon has risen beyond the level of theory to essentially become fact. (Assuming some wiseguy doesn’t come along next year with a new model of the atom and toss the whole thing into a tophat.)

But there are other areas of science where we are studying things far too large (or in the case of the Large Hadron Collider, too small) for us to be so hasty in our conclusions. The planet’s climate is complex and vast to the point where even the largest computer can’t model it 100% correctly. When we talk about GMOs, as mentioned later in the article, we’re discussing genetic combinations which most scientists freely admit we don’t understand 100%. (We’re beginning to, but there are still centuries of secrets to be unlocked in there.) And don’t even get me started on dark matter. The same scientists who scoff derisively at some invisible man in the sky who created the universe apparently have no problem with some invisible, vast body of stuff which nobody can see or directly detect in any fashion but which makes their current theory of gravitational attraction work out for them. (And no, that map of all the dark matter is not a map of where they actually detected dark matter. It’s just where a lot of matter would have to be to explain why the stars don’t do what the scientists predicted they would.)

The point of all this is simply to say that scientific conclusions change over the ages. Complicated things take time. But when you come out and start lecturing us – or worse, start telling us how the government should orient policy – based on your own favorite theory of the day while not yet proving it to a satisfactory degree (even to we simpletons) then you can expect some of us to push back and demand you show your work. And it’s not because the pastor told us to think that way on Sunday.