Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A distinct lack of respect

I find your lack of faith disturbing... ~ Darth Vader

Huffington Post took a survey (doesn't everyone?) to see how Americans felt about scientists and science journalists. Seems the answer is “not very good at all.”

Why am I not surprised?

First of all, the general public's attitude (worldwide, not just in the US) toward science has had a tendency to go up and down, depending on what was being discovered. No doubt when medical schools were using grave robbers to get human specimens for dissection, people took a dim view of this medical science stuff. Similarly, early electricity experiments, especially those involving making dead things move, had to freak many out, especially given the sensational way they were reported.

Interestingly, though, people love technology. So, when electricity started producing lighting, steam started powering machines, and so on, the average person thought this “science” stuff was pretty cool. Except when it put him out of work, but that's another story.

So people's faith in scientists kind of goes up and down depending on how much benefit they're seeing from their efforts. But a couple of other things in the HuffPo article are disturbing because they reflect justified attitudes.

For instance, there's the issue of how “pure” scientific research is. A large majority of people thought scientific findings are “often” influenced by politics or corporations. Corporate finagling with research has long been a problem, particularly in the drug industry. When people say “political”, I'm sure they thought of global warming research, but the real impact of politics is on what sorts of research will be done. If a researcher wants a grant, he/she is going to gear a proposal to whatever the powers-that-be (them what controls the money) think is hot or essential. Otherwise, the researcher is going to get squat. So, yes, politics (not limited to elected types) affects research.

Science journalists are far less trusted then the scientists. This is easy to understand if one watches any of the mainstream science reporting. I recently fried the PBS program NOVA for its hideous program on Comet ISON, which features, among other things, photographs of a bunch of comets that weren't ISON while implying that at least some of them were (including a lovely pic of Hale-Bopp). It's ironic that the commercial Science Channel did a much better job with the subject.

So, if people can't depend on NOVA, what does that say about NBC, CBS, or FOX? Worse, when the History Channels bury us under “ancient aliens” and a so-called “forensic” archaeologist (or historian, whatever he calls himself) finding the Holy Grail in the Midwest US or Welsh-speaking Native Americans, it's easy to see how people could wonder about scientists. The trouble is these sorts of nonsensical programs make people wonder about the legitimate scientists, not the phonies claiming to have found female god worship to have been rampant in the Founding Fathers.

But the scientists aren't blameless themselves. Consider these recently reported “researches”:

  • Scientists are searching for time travelers on social media. Space.com should have left this one for the Onion. However, if they must look on Facebook for time travelers, I suggest they search for “John Titor.”

  • A deformed rubber sheet is not like spacetime. Gasp! You mean the old analogy of how a big ball warps space is not actually mathematically accurate? The real shock here is that any scientist would have believed that the equations for a rubber sheet would work for four-dimensional spacetime.

  • Then there's the business of faking and/or losing data. A recent example of fakery involves AIDS research, but there have been bundles of them in the last few years. As to losing (or just plain chucking out) old data, I covered that in some detail in my last post.

  • Along the same lines of data finagling, there's this piece of information on the second-hand smoke fiasco. When these studies came out years ago, they were criticized for some fast-and-loose combining of data from different populations to get the lowest possible “significant” correlation. These criticisms came from a lot of non-tobacco funded sources, so it is nice to see that some real data has been gathered. The fact that it took so many years, though, does not increase the view of scientists in the eyes of many.

Certainly, the American distrust of scientists and science reporting reflects poorly on science education and science programming in this country. People have a vague idea how science works and what it's purpose is. All that being said, scientists and science reporters obviously aren't doing a very good job of changing anyone's mind. In other words, if scientists don't like the average American's attitude, it's up to the science community (which includes those who report on science) to do something about it.

Stopping the search for time travelers on Facebook might be a good place to start.

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