Very recently, I stumbled into a very hot little debate over vaccination. I should blame myself. Just as with evolution and nowadays, climate science, it’s more akin to an ideological position for many people and thus, just like politics and religion, taboo in polite conversation. Personally, I don’t buy that, especially when the subject matter could make a difference to the standard of living for our species. But that’s not where I’d like to go with this article.
No; the other, who took insult by my comparing anti-vax groups to creationists (or ID theorists as they call themselves as their world view grows less and less plausible) and climate change “sceptics”, brought up a familiar argument used by many whom would like to reject the current standing conclusions derived by scientific investigation; he insisted that if the science was so strong, it is up to me to convince him of that. He reminded me of an image I’ve previously used from Jo Nova’s sceptic’s handbook.
This has always struck me as weird, which probably says more about me than anything else. If, to the best of our scientific knowledge, something seems to be true, testable and repeatable, is it the obligation of the scientific community to convince the lay audience as such before the weight of the evidence is acted upon?
I don’t really think so.
That said, I do think science communicators should do their best to explain the scientific understanding in a reasonable fashion for the wider community and there should be a high level of transparency within the science. I would love nothing more than for more people to get involved in various fields of science, if for no other reason but fascination! I, for one, never really grew out of that kid; collecting whatever crawled or buzzed around my local area. I find life amazing and couldn’t be happier if such intrigue was commonplace.
Science, of course, also prospers from transparency.
However, I wouldn’t expect to understand the biology of a particular bacteria, the chemical compounds found in a certain medicine and how these will react when they come “face-to-face” somewhere in my body, before I took the medication. Personally, I would hope that scientific methodology had rigorously tested the medication prior to human use to decrease the chance of adverse side-effects and while proving to be effective in treating the condition (I would also expect a governing body strong enough to regulate the industry so that it works for the community, not at the community’s expense, but again; another tangent).
I don’t require the schematic of a tower, including all the materials used and where, so that I can calculate just how sturdy the structure is before I will enter it.
I will never ask for… okay, you get it; we are literally immersed in technology that results from science that we’re unlikely to understand in great detail. This neither means that we refuse to use it, or, more absurdly, accept its existence! There might be a few out there who would like to remind me that these things we can see, while climate change is only in models. I could point to numerous celestial bodies, sub-cellular units – why not sub-atomic particles – or even a remote corner of the globe we haven’t been to and I have no doubt that most reasonable people would concur that such things are very likely to exist, even if we haven’t seen them or understand the methodologies undertaken to illustrate them to us.
As Scott Denning recently put it, “everybody… understands how climate works well enough. Arguing about the details is just not worth your time.”
Likewise, I would suggest that most people understands vaccination well enough to be aware that smallpox and polio are no longer concerns nowadays because of this practice. Most people understand aspirin and paracetamol well enough to know that they generally help with minor pain. Most people understand how a vehicle works well enough… again, I could go on and on.
The point is, whilst we may not necessarily understand the fundamentals behind much of the technology around us, we often understand it well enough to use it and don’t demand to be convinced about the finer details before we make use of it.
Believe it or not, I’m not attempting to make an appeal to “blind faith” in science either (oh, I can hear the scoffs of disbelief). It all comes back to the points I raised above, most notably, transparency.
Scientific methodology prospers when done in the open as this allows a global network of experts to cross-examine the procedure, the results and the conclusions. Different minds give different perceptions leading to alternate, and otherwise unthought of, modes of testing. What stands up and is repeatedly supported by independent findings becomes a building block for our model of the natural universe, as best understood at this point of time by our species. It’s a special thing. It’s not set in stone, however, it’s as credible as we’ve yet derived. We only need to look around at the technical advancements and revolutions in medical science over the enlightened period to know this to be true.
It’s not perfect, but it’s exponentially better than the four humours, exorcisms and rhino horn of times prior. All that former nonsense were pot-shots, with more often a placebo effect as their only support. That was the time of ideology where rigorous testing was largely unheard of.
Right now highly trained minds are pulling apart the held scientific conclusions so you don’t have to. That said, it doesn’t have to be that way.
If such people desire to be genuinely convinced, to the level at which they insist, they needn’t rely on the communicator of the science literature, but can fully immerse themselves in the science itself. The reason we have experts in a given field is because they, not only went to the effort of developing the required skills within an appropriate professional environment for that field of science, but went one further and actively test their hypotheses in the peer-reviewed literature, to challenge the held consensus on a given subject and prove themselves in such a competitive environment. That same window of opportunity is open to anyone willing to join.
In that way, the demand to be convinced by a science communicator is a cop-out. Firstly, the blog-o-sphere, indeed even conventional media, are so awash in pseudo-science and junk science, I’d remain highly sceptical of anything written on scientific research, especially of those making claims without linking back to the original science article (and when they do, I’d read the article for myself). Secondly, you wouldn’t take the advice of a self-proclaimed GP who admitted that his training came solely from what he read online and saw on YouTube, so why would you take such an evidence base as your only education on science? Even if the evidence base is credible, it’s still an unguided path without the skill-building exercises undertaken in tertiary education.
As I see it, science communicator is a presenter of our current learning through scientific investigation, here to present the science as best they understand it. We’re all fallible, so be wary and become concerned when an author or media outlet refuses to fix obvious mistakes. It’s not the position to teach – for one thing, you have no idea of the audience’s level of understanding or any ideological biases they may hold which could limit their perception of the science.
Therefore pandering to demands by those who insist on being convinced is a mug’s game.
Ignorance is not a basis for valid rejection of scientific conclusions. In many cases, as touched on above, rejecting the conclusions of scientific investigation on such a basis would be laughable. The obligation is not on the communicator or even the science to convince the observer, but the observer to challenge themselves in learning the subject at hand and test the held conclusions for themselves. Any high school student, for instance, wasn’t told to believe that cells exist, but were taught to see cells for themselves through a dissecting microscope.
As difficult as it may be for some to accept, if genuine holes are found, that would be excellent for our understanding of the natural universe and I, for one, thoroughly encourage such people to dive into the science and help in sweeping away our ignorance. Science favours a genuine and engaged sceptic.
All this emotionally charged banter online does nothing but bruise egos and inflate others. It’s not the way to become informed or challenge scientific conclusions.
I promise you this one thing; I won’t aim to convince you of anything.