I know I can’t possibly be alone in my experience with science. For a long time, it was one of those necessary evils–a class I was forced to take every year for 12 years. I didn’t learn to appreciate the sciences until I was well into my first degree, and because of that appreciation, I chose to pursue a degree in the sciences. Throughout the entirety of my “I hate science and math and anything like that” phase though, I never once denied that science held very key answers to a lot of big questions. Maybe it had to do with my upbringing, and maybe it had to do with an innate respect for the world and its processes, but I just couldn’t fathom the denial of science as it is.
We have become information consumers. Buying, selling, trading as much information as we possibly can. We are customers of science and technology and STEM exists solely to serve us. Our society has become obsessed with the “customer is always right” standard and as consumers, we cannot be held accountable for our errors. In fact, an article by National Geographic addresses this. The author states that “Even when we intellectually accept these precepts of science, we subconsciously cling to our intuitions—what researchers call our naive beliefs”. We have all decided we are entitled to our own opinions. Does it matter if they’re wrong? Of course not! We cry freedom of speech and move on. We know, however, that our reactions to new information is not just a reflection of academics or appreciation. Chris Mooney (writing for Mother Jones) writes that “Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts…”. Our understanding of the world is, first and foremost, an emotional reaction to our reality. Through those emotions, we make rationalizations and create a framework for ourselves. National Geographic points out that this isn’t just a problem for the “less STEM-inclined” among us. The article states that, “Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline. Like the rest of us, they’re vulnerable to what they call confirmation bias—the tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe”. Perhaps, because of this, we may mistrust scientists, or we may feel that information is misleading and extreme. The difference, of course, is that ANY published research must pass through a stringent review process that decides the validity of the data and methods used. So, while science still contains elements of humanity, these elements are being cross-checked for bias.
We wholly understand that blame cannot be placed on any one thing. In class, we discussed how scientific literacy is on a decline. While I resented (at the time) the constant push of science education early on, it was necessary to create a well-rounded person to send off into the world. There is an almost definite link between science denial, and science literacy. If we cannot understand science, why should we accept it? This issue is on the forefront of many scientific minds. As scientists, we have to ask ourselves HOW do we explain our work to people without alienating them entirely? People like Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan have worked tirelessly to bring science “down” to a level everyone can consume, but the scientific community is still one big clique. The issue of science denialism is two-fold in that the alienation of “regular joes” creates a standard where those “regular joes” can decide whether or not science is true or important.
All this said, it can be difficult to sway people from their own opinions, and frankly, sometimes impossible. I’m a huge believer in the efforts of educators to help kids understand STEM. Just as I hated it, there will be kids that resent it, and maybe they won’t grow to BE scientists. This is okay. We must foster an understanding of science regardless in order to create a global community that can appreciate our Earth.
I leave you with this wonderful video from Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about how we can create that environment for kids: