Scientific Disinformation And The Public Debate
Recently I read a book on a subject which has interested me for some time; scientific disinformation.
The book's called Denialism, it's written by Michael Specter, a New Yorker science and health journalist. Although the book offers no solutions, it will make you aware of the disturbing depth of the problem.
For a long time I've been concerned about the dangerous way in which scientific misinformation has been spreading on the web. Gradually everything appears to be turning into one huge conspiracy. As the world becomes increasingly technological, and people increasingly uneducated in technology, magical thinking seems to be replacing real science.
Of course this is understandable when you think of the relationship and dependence people have on things like their cell phones and computers, without the smallest idea of how they actually work.
Television must seem like magic to a dog, but this doesn't mean we should allow Spot to choose the programs for us to watch.
The problem though, is that unqualified people now have the means to influence large numbers of people with scientific misinformation. The consumers of this information (on subjects such as biotech, vaccines, HIV, genetic foods, global warming etc etc), have no means of qualifying its source or its content.
Gradually scientific truth is in danger of belonging to whomever shouts the loudest. And of course, it's always the lunatics who shout loudest.
A particularly offensive example of this was the ban on federal stem cell research funding inaugurated by President George W Bush. In delaying scientific research for 8 years he will probably be ultimately responsible for 50-100 million unnecessary deaths over time.
That an ignoramus can do such damage because 'God told him to', is something truly shocking. It is an affront to all educated people who believe in civilization.
The Role Of The Scientific Community
Remarkably I think the scientific community must accept a good deal of the blame for this worsening state of affairs, even though I am a very strong and admiring supporter of their intentions, their methods and their integrity.
Somehow they have failed to uphold public perceptions of their legitimacy, even though it is an extremely substantial legitimacy, which I support unreservedly.
The scientific community have allowed a situation to develop in which third rate scientists influenced by lobbyists and minority groups with hidden agendas are able to make public pronouncements which do not constitute real science.
Creationists are a good examples of this.
We are even now witnessing the horrifying spectacle of utterly unqualified Hollywood actresses on television shows shouting down legitimate scientists and medical experts. Apparently having a cute butt now endows you with scientific expertise, as well as the traditional geo-political expertise.
Unfortunately the general public are unable to tell the difference between a first rate scientific credential and a third rate one. And so all science is rapidly becoming a matter of mere opinion in the public debate. Before long the moon will be once more made of cheese.
Oddly enough there has never been as much popular interest in science and technology as there is today, as evidenced by the amount of coverage it receives in mainstream news reports. In the past there was virtually none.
For example, I remember in the 1980s when Michael Jackson spun himself so hard in front of the crowd at the Superbowl that he made himself magnetically invisible to gamma rays, levitated into the air and his hair went on fire. The entire incident was barely reported.
Unfortunately almost all of this current plethora of technology reportage is done by journalists with little understanding of science, and frequently with the universal goal of engendering public alarm or wonderment. The news industry never wants to report the ordinary.
So what is the solution to this growing danger of scientific misinformation usurping all public scientific debate?
My feeling is that science as a whole needs to recognize the problem and produce a solution itself. It needs to produce scientific communications at a far higher standard than it has achieved in the past. It needs to make the public aware of the difference between real science and quack science, and the difference between real scientific credentials and quack science credentials.
In short, scientific communication needs to be given a much higher priority by scientists of all stripes, if important and legitimate work is not to be devalued by lunatics, lobbyists and those with personal agendas.
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