The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

The World Is Not Flat

Posted by | October 18, 2013

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 10/20/13:

So, what do you believe?

Quick quiz: which of the following have the backing of “scientific consensus”? Violent video games make kids more violent. Sugar makes them more hyper. Carbs make us fat. Vaccines are linked to autism.

Answer: none of the above. Science says so; look them up.

The bigger question: do we trust science?

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” I think Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that (though it may have been someone else). Health care, economic policy, climate disruption… big hairy problems currently confront us. One would think that meticulous razor of reason, otherwise known as science, could help.

But it’s not that easy. Somewhere along the line, to at least some portion of the public, that razor dulled. Odd, because scientists in popular culture are still cast as confident, rational heroes. Poll after poll has held them up as keepers of the flame of Truth.

But over the past generation, their poll numbers have slipped. They’re not as trusted as they used to be, despite the fact that we are living in the greatest period of innovation and discovery in human history.

Why? Science education continues to be of great concern. Despite decades of warnings, we have been on a downhill slide from our post-Sputnik peak. (Or have we?) Look at the school budgets we’re about to vote on in towns across Southern Maine – athletic fields will likely win more support than chemistry labs. How much does American society still undervalue science?

Scientists share some of the blame too. Called into the public spotlight with increasing frequency, they give their honest opinions. Unfortunately, scientific honesty naturally includes nuance, hedging, and even calculated uncertainty. Scrupulous as it is, this is a bad communication strategy. In an information-overloaded world, we inhabit a kingdom of soundbites. Science is rarely bite-size.

E.g. “In 2009, 5% of patients accounted for 50% of healthcare expenditures.” Is that normal or abnormal? Without context, data is merely numbers, open to interpretation and spin. Fact-checking can get us to the full story, but who has time for that nowadays, when ever more conversations are rendered into tweets and TXTs? Our very utterances have been disem-voweled. When it comes to understanding, time is not on our side.

And the problem is deeper yet, down in our own psychologies. If I espouse free market principles, I’m more likely to doubt global warming. If my own children get sick, I’ll cherry pick clinical data to cling to the most unlikely cures. Based on my personal leanings, I will see in the noise what signals I want. As often as not, I won’t even see my own bias.

So why should we believe scientists, trust in science? Because science works. The theorized laws of gravity and electromagnetism are reliable enough that we base most of the world’s technology on them. And I also trust science because it evolves, it checks itself, it corrects its errors over time. I trust scientists when they declare, with 95% certainty, that smoking is bad for me, that the Universe is roughly 13.82 billion years old, and that the world is not flat.

(Ghosts, though, might be a different story. Ghosthunters claim to have found some at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm and will present their “scientific research” on October 29. Happy Halloween.)

 

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday Journal Tribune column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, faith and skepticism. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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