Challenges To Science

Challenges to our scientific future spring from non-illuminated places within the human mind: fear of knowledge, scientific illiteracy, complacency, incomprehension. Also reality will intrude on our scientific future via competition for resources, overselling science, misuse of science, and scientific fraud.

Scientific illiteracy is our rule, not our exception. Those exposed to and educated in science are but a small percentage of population, even in developed countries. By one account, less than a third of our current US population possesses scientific literacy, up from only 10% three decades ago.

The foundations of science literacy are the scientific/mathematical methods, how we reason via inference and deduction. We must do a better job of exposing high school students to these methods and to the rudiments of probability, statistics, and the uncertainty underlying all. They need to better understand polling and other data sampling, and what constitutes valid inference from data. Without such conceptual skills, scientific literacy is a pipe dream.

Cultural forces, mainly dogmas that characterize science as contrary to belief, work against scientific knowledge because it is dangerous to their dogma. Even humanists may fear science because of imagined negative effects of scientific results on humanity. Thus, large swaths of humanity are predisposed to fear too much knowledge and creativity. People need to be taught why too little knowledge is more dangerous than too much knowledge. Scientific literacy is an essential component of stewardship of our resources, our lifeline into the future.

Not only is increased scientific literacy a requirement, there’s also money in it. Scientific training is a prerequisite for many of the future’s higher-paying jobs. For several decades, the preponderance of available funding to universities has favored science and technology over humanities. Colleges further require non-science-directed freshmen to take a general science survey course.

These current trends are the afterglow of the earlier national push to STEM courses originating in the Sputnik era, when technology and science were elevated to a national priority. Universities, particularly those specializing in science and technology, are reaching out to broaden science appeal by increasing affirmative action and admitting a higher percentage of women, long under-represented in science. But the 30% literacy figure is a stark reminder of how far we need to go in destigmatizing science and making it more accessible and popular.

Science-oriented people often make the mistake of viewing scientific progress as inevitable; science is too important and exciting to ever fall from the mainstream of human endeavor. We need to step out of our conceits occasionally and sample reality. With only a small fraction of the populace attaining scientific literacy, the politics of science remain sketchy. Science has real threats, and failure to recognize and address them could lead to nasty future surprises, such as science courses disappearing from school curricula, and too few science students to justify advanced university courses.

The politics of science have at least two avenues for improvement. First, science must be continually popularized. Second, big science projects, the livelihood of our FFRDCs, must be paced and supported internationally. Spreading out big projects over time and cost centers should increase feasibility of approvals. But that will mean giving up our comfort zones and fiefdoms and pursuing international collaborations.

We see popularization at work over the last decade or two. For example, we see popularization behind the change in the PBS science series NOVA, which transformed to a much more touchy-feely format from the older hard science approach. NASA has greatly expanded its outreach efforts. And, to further make space programs salable,  it has put man at the center of its future, as in manned (sorry, women) space exploration. This latter emphasis is unfortunate though, because if a human goes along for the ride, the cost increases by several multiples, unjustifiable on a value-returned basis.

Popular science writers like Carl Sagan are invaluable to increasing scientific literacy and science’s popular appeal. Even great scientists such as Hawking and Feynman are able to write explanations of advanced science that are accessible to lay persons. We need much more of these efforts.

Sometimes technology and science need to be challenged. Particularly significant to humanity are authors that can tell the story when technology goes awry. In a prior generation, Rachel Carson wrote the seminal book on chemical degradation of the environment. These kind of efforts can get lawmakers to add regulations and change laws. We need much more of these efforts.

Unfortunately, not all the pro-science voices are as astute as Rachel Carson’s. The voices of reason often overstate their concerns and cry ‘wolf!’, fear mongering about dire consequences to come, but without doing their homework and due diligence. Then when their prognostications do not bear fruit, the world laughs and dismisses them as snake oil salesmen, setting back the cause of science, perhaps by generations.

When activists incorporate in their message the science behind their cause, they often omit the probabilities and “inconvenient uncertainties” of the science, from fear that the message will lose too much impact in the process. Scientists themselves should be doing the important messaging to the body politic.

Examples abound. Would-be scholars predict calamities that will befall us when our resources are exhausted in our lifetimes, or when we push our climate too far and watch it lurch over some apocryphal tipping point. To be effective advocates, we need above all to keep it real, to identify the processes at work and what to look for as evidence of a trend. Don’t spout, don’t predict, just educate people to be watchful for inevitable signs of the damage we inflict via our over-consumption. Tell only what we know, provide guideposts to measure progress or lack thereof, and then advocate.

Quackery and other frauds are always at the periphery. Lysenkoism is one of the great hoaxes; it stifled Soviet biology for decades. More recently, cold fusion was outed before it could do much damage, except to some egos. If the world’s science literacy achieves critical mass, quacks will have tough sledding. Ignorance is a prerequisite for their success.

Beyond quackery, the human ego can sometimes derail scientific results. A scientist needs to ask herself “does it mean more to me to come to the correct result or to justify my initial conceits.” When one brings too strong a preconception to work, the brain can subtly twist evidence to match the result one thinks one needs. To be a scientist, one must be dispassionate and go where the data leads, rather than pushing the data through a filter designed to produce a pre-ordained result.

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