Science is more than theory and lecture. Science is fun. Science is hands-on. Science is…
NIU’s Daniel Gebo, a world renowned primatologist who just last fall was named “Illinois Professor of the Year,” discusses the disconnect between scientists and the general public on many top issues of the day.
Scientists, and really all educators, should be asking themselves an important question: Why do scientists and the general public see things so differently on many of the most important issues of our time?
The latest Pew Research Center surveys document a severe gap in knowledge between the public’s perception of “science issues” and what scientists actually think about the world at large.
Scientists know global warming is caused by humanity. They know genetically modified foods are safe (we have been eating them for 10,000 years). They know overpopulation is one of the planet’s greatest problems. And they know evolution is a true fact.
The Pew surveys, however, show that public perception and science do not appear to be on the same page on these issues.
Scientists must shoulder a large part of the blame. The Carl Sagans, Bill Nyes and Neil deGrasse Tysons of this world—scientists who have been able to thrill and enthrall the public while instilling lessons about the world around us—are few and far between. Generally speaking, scientists have done an awful job in explaining science and how science fits into our everyday lives.
Why is this the case? Like science itself, the answer is complex. Scientific issues usually are complicated, and members of the general public often lack background in science, which can be minimal in the average high school student repertoire.
It’s also my observation that the public generally does not fully appreciate how science actually works.
Science functions differently from opinion. Scientists first want to collect information that informs them about an issue, generate ideas and then test these ideas to death. Testing and additional inquiry often require years (sometimes centuries) until an idea becomes a norm in any field of science.
That does not always sit well in today’s age of instant information. The public is not going to wait until a scientific debate is settled. Our sound-byte world wants simple and fast, and news cycles change too quickly for any real depth of understanding. The moment passes.
Science is just not like that. It’s not an event but rather a process.
Scientists make and amend errors. We add new observations to old ones. We are always searching for better ideas to explain worldly phenomena. Discoveries often make the front page, but it is the ideas about these newsworthy items that make them scientific. For example, a front page new fossil discovery is simply a discovery to the public with perhaps a couple cool facts, while its complex anatomy and intricate evolutionary analysis is of real interest to scientists.
New ideas, large or small, often require more knowledge than the general public has at its fingertips. Scientists can help with clear take-home explanations. We need to approach our public communications with the same degree of effort and thoughtfulness that we apply to our ideas and experiments.
One important difference between scientists and the public is that when it comes to ideas, scientists do not care about values or beliefs. The earth circles the sun or it does not. Organisms change or they do not. Gravitational forces work or they do not.
People often think that they actually get a choice.
I often am asked by people if I believe in the theory of evolution – a topic that still has one of the largest informational gaps between science and the public in the latest Pew surveys. I tell them that organisms change all of the time whether we “believe” or not. Organisms simply do not care what we think, they just want to survive. These 19th century ideas have been tested over and over again to explain biological change (the meaning of the word evolution).
In fact, science likes Darwin because his idea of “descent with modification” survived the tests. Many other “scientific ideas” from the 19th century failed after testing. This is a good example why science wins out in the end since scientists dump bad ideas as they search for better explanations. Oddly, though, people are more likely to believe in black holes, an astral scientific observation far from our daily experiences, than to embrace the biological diversity that surrounds us.
One last point: New scientific ideas are meant to be challenged, and that can lead to confusion among members of the public. A scientist says X and then another reports Y. This back and forth scenario may even be like a game of ping-pong over a number of years. What should the public believe?
It’s good to keep in mind the process of scientific inquiry. Ideas are proposed and tested in science. Over time, scientists “get bored” testing a successful idea over and over again, and we move on to other more interesting problems to explore. At this point, the successful idea becomes fundamental within a scientific explanation and most, but perhaps not all, scientists accept this idea as a solid fact. This is evident in the Pew Research Center survey which shows 2 percent of the scientists polled do not accept “humans have evolved over time,” in contrast to the 98 percent who do.
In the end, scientists need to be better communicators, not simply of science, but of the power and process of scientific inquiry.