Encouraging a Science-Friendly Mentality

December 16th, 2009

Now that the film 2012 has been released, NASA has had to issue reassurance that no mysterious planet will strike Earth in 2012 and that the ancient Mayan calendar on which the 2012 story is based is not an acceptable source for catastrophe predictions.

The incident would be amusing except for the fact that in this scientifically advanced nation, a major government agency actually had to devote website space to address fears generated by the 2012 film. It is worrisome to realize that a substantial number of Americans are persuaded that a fictional apocalypse is imminent, but the same percentage of the population is dismissive of scientific warnings of a genuine catastrophe in the form of climate change.

According to a recent Pew study on international attitudes about climate change, only about 44 percent of Americans are worried about this issue. The other 56 percent may be more interested in the rather silly "climategate scandal." The scandal will disappear in a couple of weeks, but the facts and urgency of climate change will remain. And we will have to give it our attention.

The contrast between public reaction to 2012 and climate change, now under consideration in Copenhagen, suggests that even in a scientifically advanced nation such as the USA, reason is still a hard sell. On the eve of 2010 many Americans continue to believe in astrology, homeopathy, channeling, space aliens and a host of other things that do not seem to be based on evidence. Yet in 2010 we're still fighting about evolution, vaccination, fluoride, homosexuality, and junk food, even though the facts that should settle these disputes are available to anyone.

But the availability of facts perhaps misses the point. The real issue might be that the information itself is so complex. If experts sometimes have difficulty understanding their data the non-specialist can be excused for being bewildered or wary. True, but we can't excuse too much for too long. Widespread confusion and ignorance can provide a toehold for pseudo-science and its glib certainty. Perhaps that's why there is so much pseudo-science here in the USA, where more than a third of the population holds to creationist beliefs.

Under these conditions it may not be easy to promote a more rational frame of public mind and a genuine public science. In contrast to the unwavering certainties offered by pseudo-science, real science is always a work in progress, subject to revisions as new information develops. It takes time to figure out connections and relationships in scientific data, so periods of uncertainty are common. There are many false starts and there are mistakes. It was a long time before scientists realized the deadly effects of radiation, a long time before the connection was made between tobacco and lung cancer, between DDT and wildlife disasters, between thalidomide and birth defects. But eventually the answers emerged.

In the course of their training, scientists develop a specific mentality: they learn to deal with uncertainties, the need to test hypotheses over long periods, the need to revise ideas. It seems reasonable to suggest that a similar disposition is necessary for modern citizens who live in a world culture so dependent on science. Modern participatory democracies require citizens to evaluate a lot of information about a lot of complex issues: stem cell research, space exploration, genetic modification of food, overpopulation, widespread extinctions, climate change. Dealing with these issues requires a more analytical mental approach to the natural forces and processes that define our world. There are very few quick answers.

NASA can explain in a few sentences exactly why a remote planet will not be striking Earth in 2012. That straightforward explanation may not convince the believers. If that's the case, it may be even more difficult to convince people of the real dangers of climate change, potential pandemics, resources depletion and numerous other genuine threats to civilization. Young people in school may be learning to think more like scientists, but clearly there is still a great need to work on the adult population.

Yvonne Stapp, December 16th, 2009

Copyright © 2012 Science for the Public - All Rights Reserved