A tale of two cultures

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Science  26 Jan 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6374, pp. 371
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat0588

It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. We are witnessing major advances in almost every field of science, leading to a better understanding of the world and improvements in the quality of people's lives. Yet, scattered distrust of science, neglect of science by public officials, and frequent denial of scientific thinking in many quarters seem to call into question that rosy view of scientific progress. The inconsistency indicates widespread misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. It is up to scientists to fix this.


“…scientists must rebuild public understanding and appreciation of science…”

Examples of exciting advances abound. Take biomedicine, economics, and astrophysics, to choose only three: Immunology is realizing long-dreamed therapies; human behavioral science is increasing the validity of economics; and detection of gravitational waves and concurrent electromagnetic radiation from colliding neutron stars resolves long-standing questions, including how the heavy elements formed. Nevertheless, if science seems remote to nonscientists, and if scientists themselves appear remote and untrustworthy, can the public be counted on to support science into the future? Is there awareness of what would be lost to society if science does not have the public's full endorsement? For example, it is troubling to scientists that in the United States, the president has failed to appoint a science adviser. But even more troubling is that the public has reacted with a yawn.

Several surveys on the perceptions of science point to consistent strong support for science, yet also show very inconsistent underlying views on various scientific subjects, depending on peoples' identification with political party, race and ethnicity, sex, and other group identities [a topic to be covered at next month's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the publisher of Science]. This is seen with climate science, vaccinations, genetically modified foods, and other issues. To pick and choose when to believe that the scientific method yields good outcomes suggests that people do not really trust the scientific method. A principle of science is that all findings are provisional. Some seem to think this means science is so uncertain that any opinion or political assertion is as valid as evidence.

Somehow, scientists must rebuild public understanding and appreciation of science and evidence-based thinking. Clearly, it will not be accomplished simply by decrying the lack of trust or failure to appoint science advisers. It must be achieved by demonstrating trustworthiness and the extraordinary effectiveness of science in confronting questions and problems. Scientists must show that evidence-based thinking leads to more reliable policies to create jobs, maintain a healthy environment, or improve teaching. Rather than denouncing the absence of scientists in policy-making positions, the scientific community must raise public understanding to the level where no public official of any party would ever want to be without a science adviser. Scientists must build the recognition that despite occasional errors, and even blunders, scientific thinking has a strong record of success over centuries. Scientists must demonstrate that science and evidence-based thinking are relevant to everyone, and that science is not an arcane practice under the control of a remote, self-interested priesthood.

Science practiced by those who neither make their work accessible to all people, nor make clear their work is for the benefit of all, becomes an impoverished enterprise and risks being unsustainable. It comes down to good science communication—not simply choosing the right words to explain one's research, but actually earning the public's trust that the whole enterprise is intended for societal good. If scientists fail to rebuild the public's understanding and appreciation, this could indeed become the worst of times.

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