Science’s image problem; an essay

19 10 2008

This was originally posted by me on the Skeptic Forum in February 2006. I wanted to keep a copy, so I have popped it up here with some edits following the advice of the forum readers.

Science’s Image Problem 
Jarrod R. Hart 
January 2006    

Science, technology and the whole idea of modernity has developed an image problem. 

To illustrate this trend lets pick a year some will remember well: 1969. 

Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin have just walked on the moon, microwave ovens have started to appear in kitchens and nuclear power seems to hold the key to unlimited energy. 

Communication has been revolutionised by the satellite, women’s lives have been revolutionised by the contraceptive pill and the quality of life is sky rocketing: labour saving devices such as automatic washing machines, food processors and lawn mowers are finding their way into the homes of the masses. Confidence in science is at an all time high. 

Now it is 2006. In the minds of many the term ‘science’ is associated with things like animal testing, genetic engineering, global warming and nuclear war. People are even starting pay a premium for food made in ways that avoid modern technology (so called ‘organic’ foods). So what changed? 

There are many answers to this question and I am sure many readers will have powerful examples from their own fields of experience; I will however put forward theory that I feel holds water. 

Events 

When Harold Macmillan, the then Prime Minister of the UK was asked what could steer a government off course, he answered “Events, dear boy, events!” And, as I now suggest, a handful key events has been largely responsible for starting the rot. 

Public opinion is a strange beast. It is wildly reactionary and often auto-catalyzes in a frenzy of irrationality. Although its true that amazing faith can develop with little or no evidence (the latest wonder-diet for example!), this is usually born from a strong desire to believe. Far more often, it is much easier to destroy public confidence than to build it. 

Three Mile Island (1979), Bhopal (1984), Chernobyl (1986), and the Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989) all had profound effects on the public psyche. Not only did the dark side of industry rear its ugly head, but also, for the first time, the man on the street began to realise “hey, I have an opinion on this!” The general public did not immediately turn against technology, but rather, they started to ask questions. 

The Media Machine 

I would like to suggest that the rot only took hold when the media sensed this insecurity. In a fair world, an honest, open, questioning attitude is a good thing. But this world is not fair. 

Technology had, until the early 80’s, been presented in a very positive light in the media. Big business had for a long time used the public’s confidence in technology to ease in new products and services. All a marketing team needed to do was describe their product as “modern” – and this immediately implied an innate superiority. For some reason, old was bad and new was good. 

In the 1980’s something changed. People’s level of exposure to the media hit a critical level – just enough to make people think they were ‘well informed’. This new level of exposure meant, for the first time, that people were having news of industrial disasters piped into their sitting rooms. And since the public knew about it, the public would have an opinion about it. But who would decide what that opinion would be? This leads us to the ultimate downfall in the public image of technology, for too often, it would be the media that would decide for us. 

To illustrate, simply ask yourself what makes better reading – “Scientists develop drought resistant crops” or “FRANKENFOOD!” 

In the simple battle for the public’s attention, scaremongering has prevailed and its not surprising at all – its so easy! Science has this nasty habit of dealing with unknowns: questions, hypotheses and statistics. It rarely (if ever) deals in cold hard facts. This makes science a sitting duck. 

The nineties bear this trend out, and issues like the vanishing rain forests, global warming, cancer from cellular phones and genetic engineering all took their toll. 

To most people, something is either good for you or bad for you. Radiation is bad, vitamins are good; bacteria are bad and exercise is good. The media like this simple worldview – it makes for good sensational headlines and ensures that articles aren’t too full of ‘complicated science’. 

The need for shock value naturally leads to half-truths. While any chemist knows “the poison is in the dose”, most people don’t, and the media takes full advantage of this. 

Radiation (sunshine!), just like vitamins, can be good (in moderate doses) and bad (in excessive amounts). Bacteria, exercise, alcohol and almost anything for that matter is usually good and bad depending on how much, when and for whom. As Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”. 

To make matters worse, once a piece of misinformation is out there, it is hard to stop and even harder to bring anyone to account. 

A good example was the hullabaloo surrounding research by Dr Andrew Wakefield of the Royal Free Hospital in London. In his 1998 paper Dr Wakefield highlighted a “possible” link between the MMR jab (the combined Mumps, Measles and Rubella vaccine given to many children routinely) and Autism. Although it was only suggested as a possibility, needless to say the media had a field day, cleverly leaving out the ifs and buts: for example: “Child Vaccine Linked to Autism” (BBC News, 27 Feb ’98). This simple irresponsible action lead to several years of reduced vaccine take-up, with possibly fatal consequences. 

This type of misinformation is particularly dangerous because is parades as ‘proper science’. The media, by referencing a scientific paper in a reputable journal (The Lancet) are lending themselves credibility, but then the simple act of removing a single word (“possible” in the above case) they have degraded the science and greatly harmed its reputation. 

Statistics: The Media’s WMD 

Society used to simply trust the expertise of authority without question. People suffered from some sort of inferiority complex that made them think that ‘scientists’ would know best. As we have seen the media has eroded this with scaremongering, sensationalising and misreporting. However, they have one more killer tool in the toolbox: Statistics. 

The world is a complicated place. There is far too much information to possibly report it all, so we need to distil all the facts into key elements, ‘salient points’ if you like, that give a fair representation of the whole. In order to do this correctly, science produced the statistical method, a rational system for describing sets of data. It provides ways of letting the human mind grasp the important information held in large lists of numbers. The ‘average’ is a good example a player’s batting average is a faster and easier way to judge him then a long list of all the swings he or she ever took. 

So, statistics are essential to the media, who routinely inform us, sometimes well. However, few people out there realise how easily statistics can be coloured and spun. This problem is compounded by the problem that most people have coping with very large numbers (the same trick the lottery uses to fool people into thinking a lottery ticket is a wise investment). 

Rather than do a poor job of examining this, I refer you to a good analysis on the subject: “Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists” by Joel Best (2001, University of California Press) 

Attacking Science 

Another damaging phenomenon worth noting is the new tendency for the media to attack science directly. Recently, especially in the global warming debate, certain parties (with vested interests) have used the media to accuse science of dealing in uncertainty. 

The very pillars that form the foundation of science, things like theories, scepticism and debate are being held up as evidence that scientists cannot agree on anything. Is the world heating up as the result of human activity? According to some, ‘possibly’ is the best answer that science can offer. 

Scientists are rightly incensed by this slander, but what can they do? It is proving very hard to explain to the masses why this uncertainty is good and right. 

It will be even harder to explain to the people that even when most scientists do agree, they are often later proved wrong, which many will cheerfully accept, changing their position in the light of the new evidence. But this great strength is seen as flip-flopping by the public, another sign of weakness. 

The Future 

In this short essay, I have tried to examine why the reputation of science has been taking a hit in the public’s eye. We have seen how certain terrible events like Chernobyl were associated with science and how the media has misreported on the debates of the day. We have also touched on the trouble statistics cause and the difficulty in selling uncertainty. So what does this all mean? 

Is science doomed? I don’t think so. For even though the scientific community has lost ground in the struggle against the tides of ignorance, there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

Big business will continue to tell us whatever sells products, journalists will continue to write whatever sells papers, politicians will continue to say whatever wins votes; but these truths are not malicious forces bent on the destruction of science, they are simple evolutionary forces in the pool of life. And I think, that just like mankind, science will simply evolve and move on. 

References: 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/60510.stm (article at start of MMR scare) 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2038135.stm (more recent article summing up MMR scare) 
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0520219783/ref=pd_sim_b_3/103-2618564-5123866?%5Fencoding=UTF8&v=glance&n=283155 
(Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists)

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