The war on science


When I was at high school, science was a subject I had a like/hate relationship with. It was fun doing experiments and much of the course work was interesting. However I had one major problem with it, and that was it often seemed to fall on the worst class periods of the week, when students were more just thinking about the weekend ahead or about going home. Of course some students would have had to do the subject in that period, but when combined with a class of Year 10’s whose thoughts were often somewhere else, little wonder the teacher got annoyed.

Today, everyone seems to be annoyed about science and scientists. If it is not a politician blasting the work being done on global climate issues, it is someone discharging a religious discourse that evolution is an anti-God theory designed to discredit Him (Her? It?). It could simply be a misinformed member of the public who may or may not have done papers in science during their education. Or a teacher thoroughly frustrated at all the bureaucratic restrictions, that they think teaching science is not worth the effort any more. And yet in many respects science is more important now than it has been at any time in the past.

There is a perception among many people that scientists are some sort of nonsense artists, who use their craft as a form of smoke and mirrors to make it appear that they know what they are talking about. A lot seem to not understand that a theory is only as good as the person who formed it, and that if the scientific community decide it is improbable it will fail.

Two quite good examples, one a New Zealand issue, and one an international issue highlight misconceptions and ignorance around science. At one level for example reading articles about the discovery of gravitational waves, which was announced today, or research into the Alpine Fault, some of the misconceptions are as alarming as they are laughable. In the international context, commenters on a Fox News article on Facebook went to considerable lengths to somehow incorporate religion into the news that a long time Albert Einstein theory that gravitational waves exist. They tried to suggest that a higher being was somehow at work. In the New Zealand context the misconceptions have to do with the Alpine Fault. When an the news website Stuff put up an article on Facebook last week, a substantial number of article readers commented that they thought the scientists were playing with peoples lives by drilling into such a big fault. Aside from being wholly wrong on a number of levels, it also pointed to the lack of understanding about the whole research programme,  even though the people making the comments had – presumably – just read read an entire article devoted to it.

In the case of the gravitational waves being discovered, the comments are all the more incredible since Einstein’s genius is beyond dispute. But on the other they are not so surprising given that the target audience are generally not trained to trust theories that are tested by the scientific community, especially if it does not fit a preconceived view of the world. In New Zealand, despite having seismic activity comparable to California, and a new found urgency in the post-Christchurch earthquake environment, to find out what we can about our faultlines there is a credible body of ignorance. Despite much effort to publicize the research, including public meetings, public notices, media releases and journalistic research, it seems that there is much work still to be done educating the public about the necessity of the research. This is even though one day it might save thousands of lives.

I feel for scientists. They are just humans trying to do a job that at times is misunderstood, never really properly funded and sometimes deliberately turned into a political football. Is it any wonder so few want to be scientists when we treat the existing ones like this? It might not be an intentional war, but sometimes I get the impression people who do not know better are waging war against science. And that is sad. And wrong.

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