This editorial has been a long time coming. It's been so long since I wanted to do a piece on the relationships and interactions that determine our perception of what's really going on around us, especially in science. For this purpose, I will be looking at four actors and four different types of truth, which change and interact with each other dynamically.
Most of the things that I will be discussing refer to controversial subjects in science, such as embryonic stem cell research and global warming, which have the potential to elicit heated debates whenever they are brought up. As a side note, I do not claim to cover all the angles, simply point some facts out.
Debates covering scientific issues are nowadays carried out between scientists, politicians, the media and laypeople. Each of these actors proposes a different kind of truth – the real one (scientists), a perceived one (laypeople), a personal or politically correct one (politicians) and an incomplete one (the media). As far as the latter goes, the need for dramatization and oversimplification needs to be kept in mind at all times.
A basic diagram of how these four points of view interact in modern societies is not that basic at all, but I will attempt to make it somewhat clear. It is very important to note here that there are two main types of interactions – presentations and feedback. All these aspects intertwine in a very complex manner.
Perhaps the most important thing that people need to be constantly reminded of is that science does not operate under the constraints of many of the norms that our society imposes. One reason for this is that social norms tend to differ across various regions, cultures and societies.
Many people find research on things as insects, sperm, mucus and other such things to be “icky,” yet progress here can open new avenues of research in fields of science that will then have applications on aspects of everyday life that people actually care a great deal about – better electronics, cheaper and more efficient construction materials and so on.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get people to understand this. In many cases, the news concerning such discoveries are not very dramatic (or cannot be sensationalized), the implications are harder to discern for someone who hasn't been tuned to that specific area of research for long periods of time, or the very essence of the studies being conducted contradicts people's personal beliefs, etc.
Returning to the issue at hand, we have these four actors interacting in a complex manner. For the purpose of this article, I will be referring primarily to the situation currently afoot in the United States, since I find that this is where the greatest potential for abuse and misinformation exists, as far as science goes.
Let's begin with scientists
. In the complex ensemble of four-way interactions, actual researchers ironically have the smallest part to play. They present their results to politicians and the media, and sometimes directly to the general public, although that is very rare. On the other hand, they tend to get feedback from the media and laypeople mostly, with only rare instances when politicians address scientists directly.
Experts present their discoveries to politicians first and foremost, since the latter have the capacity to make changes in society to reflect the newly-found truths about how the world around us works. Politicians can also propose legal frameworks to make it easier for scientists to further our understanding of various fields of research.
also have something that scientists shouldn't theoretically have, an agenda. They hear presentations from experts on various subjects, but when they relay the data to the public and the media, they distort these truths in order for the information to confirm with a variety of factors, including personal beliefs, party politic lines, religious beliefs, voters' beliefs and so on.
This is one of the places where things get really messy, and where scientific, objective truth is distorted most. The same distortions appear when politicians or corporations pay seemingly-independent researchers to conduct studies reflecting their views on tobacco, fossil fuels and so on.
Politicians also get feedback from the public – either approving of, or condemning, their stance on a certain issue – and the scientific community, which oftentimes protests about how its research is used and manipulated for political, economic, or personal gain.
It is important to keep in mind that what keeps politicians in power are their voters. By agreeing with a point of view that their voters do not accept, they are signing their political death warrant. This point is very important because it also provides a justification for trying to manipulate the truth, and involving the media in these manipulations at the same time.
Since science is interested in learning the truth regardless of whether it will inconvenience others or not, this provides politicians with a good opportunity to attack individual researchers, depicting them as heartless and whatever attributes you can think of. When the media does the same, what are the chances that the general public will listen to reason?
Additionally, it is not the express purpose of science and research to avoid offending people's sensibilities. No investigator with a trace of ethical behavior would do this, but it's not their fault if the results of their work are interpreted or depicted by third-parties as being offensive. Being politically correct is also not on the agenda, since the definition of what this means changes every year.
One of the most important things that people need to understand is that you cannot have scientists do their jobs properly if you continuously place increasing numbers of limitations on the type of studies that are acceptable. One easy step separates this approach from a dictatorship, or from total stagnation.
Moving on to the media
, things get even trickier. To say, in the 21st Century, that media in the United States is free and unbiased is a rather stupid joke. If you do not agree, just check out Fox News (I use the term news very loosely) and tell me that they present various points of view in a balanced manner.
That being said, let's review some of the influences on the media. We have political agendas and pressures from lobby groups, the claim that all news outlets have the supreme, undiluted truth, the tendency for guided debates and selecting guest speakers based on the aforementioned criteria, the need for higher rating and sensationalism, and the idiotic belief that presenting data in an offensive manner will generate debates that will bring them higher ratings.
But the most severe drawback the media is plagued with is, without a doubt, oversimplification. There is no way of presenting the results of a scientific study accurately other than presenting the study itself. This obviously cannot be done during the news, or even specialized shows, since it would require the viewers to have a considerable background in the areas of science being discussed.
This is why the concept of popular science appeared. Basically, it states that science news editors, myself included, need to present all topics they cover in a manner that can easily be understood by anyone. But writing an article trying to depict a single aspect of quantum entanglement in 300 to 400 words is a monumental task, especially since you have to explain all concepts being used.
With oversimplification, articles become easier to write, but the drawback is that you have to sacrifice accuracy and details that oftentimes make or break the conclusions of the research being presented. The old saying, “the devil is in the details,” holds more weight in science than in any other field.
Let's take the example of global warming. Many don't get the fact that this is a climate trend, which does not necessarily translate into having warmer winters and even warmer summers. The phenomenon affects areas of the globe differently, since not all regions are initially subjected to the same influencing factors.
The interplays at work in determining climate are extremely complex, and understanding them requires in-depth knowledge of planetary sciences, Earth system sciences, statistics and so on. Not many people have such knowledge, and ever fewer are willing to learn. Fewer still are willing to believe the scientific consensus on this issue, since it would imply that they would have to change their behaviors.
This unwillingness to change is one of behaviors that politicians target in their speeches, and one of the main reasons why a legal framework on dealing with climate change has yet to be established. The media also acts on this behavior, partially to elicit debates that bring in ratings, partially because they are so guided by the various interests financing it.
Finally, we arrive at laypeople
. It is very difficult to talk about how average individuals affect the other three actors – primarily politicians and the media, and to a lesser extent scientists – without offending their sensibilities. The behaviors, religious beliefs, and social norms they accept are what indirectly drives the approach politicians and the media take on scientific issues, and this is an extremely negative approach to take.
By definition, laypeople know less about a topic than scientists who specialized in that area do. Then why is it that no one seems inclined to listen to experts when they come up with a problem, when they have solutions, or when they identify a threat? The answer is simple and disappointing – because the general public does not approve of the results, based strictly on personal beliefs, not any evidence.
To me, the general public is full of hypocrisy. It accepts any and all studies and breakthroughs that improve their lives, bring them better smartphones and laptops, and puts air conditioning in their homes, but refuses issues it is uncomfortable with. The worst part is that people then go on a mental trip to find rational justifications for their refusal to accept data.
Oftentimes, this is done by finding a few dissenting points of view in the scientific community, and then using them to combat thousands of scientific papers that point to the opposing view. This is especially clear in the global warming debate. In the scientific community, the debate has been settled a long time ago, whereas the media, politicians and the public still continue to discuss this issue, even though they do not have the necessary qualification and training to understand all issues involved.
The Nature of Science
Perhaps why so many people have a hard time understanding science is that the methods through which research is conducted are different from the mental approach people take to handling everyday issues. Some words have different meanings in a scientific context, such as the term “theory.” Yet, when they trickle in the public vocabulary, their meanings are altered beyond recognition.
This is a source of confusion for laypeople, the media and politicians, which oftentimes interpret scientific results incorrectly even if they don't mean to. On the other hand, scientists tend to use the cryptic language they are famous for precisely because those terms convey only the meaning their authors intended, and cannot be interpreted in any other way.
To me, the skill many people have, of burying their heads in the proverbial ground, and pretending like nothing is wrong, is just amazing. I mean, on what basis do you contest a scientifically-proven and widely-agreed-upon phenomenon such as global warming, if you have no idea what you're talking about?
Since some controlled media outlets such as Fox love to manufacture numbers and percents related to those who oppose global warming, their viewers are in fact convinced that there is still a debate about this phenomenon, when in fact no such debate exists.
One thing I particularly love about this entertainment network is that they refer to efforts to bringing global warming in the public eye as Euro-socialist propaganda. This is retarded, to say the least, and demonstrates a lack of understanding of what is going on in Europe (where I live), what being a Socialist means, and what the definition of propaganda is. But the terms sound good to the White, Christian conservatives, from states in the Bible Belt, who make up the bulk of Fox' audience.
Ironically, it is Fox that represents the interests of the wealthy, opposing taxing the rich, and favoring an oil-based economy. This network is the voice of the oil industry, advocates inclusion on religion in public school, opposes evolution and basic science, argues for eliminating welfare and a public healthcare system, and refers to Obama as a socialist, and yet it has the nerve to say that is unbiased.
While I cannot stand individuals such as Bill O'Riley and that Glenn Beck character, I have nothing personal against Fox, other than that they claim to be impartial. Inadvertently, this network has made itself an example of how not to make journalism. I receive complaints from Softpedia readers that many articles on global warming are biased towards claiming that the phenomenon is real.
Well, of course they are biased in that direction, since 98 percent of climate scientists say that the phenomenon is real. Would they like me to believe Glenn Beck over the bulk of the international scientific community? They would, I can assure you, but that is not going to happen. If concrete evidence that climate change is not real is presented today, I will change my stance accordingly, since this is what the data point to.
This is the scientific method, and it has nothing to do with feelings or personal beliefs. This is what detractors of global warming never appear to understand. This phenomenon is not a supernatural being that you can choose to “believe” in or not. It is something that is going on right now, and which will continue to go on regardless of whatever nonsense Bill or Glenn spew out on their balanced shows.
Just imagine how it would be like if the public actually trusted scientists more than politicians, if money for research would be awarded without paying attention to political affiliation, if corporations would not be allowed to influence studies, if the media were balanced, and the people better educated. Now that would be a world I would like to live in, where decisions would be made based on fact, not on superstition, and where shows such as those on Fox would carry banners at the bottom of the screen warning the viewers: “Hypocrites conducting propaganda for special interests.”