Back off man. I’m a scientist.

“Back off man. I’m a scientist”
                   -Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters

I, like many of you, read this report from the Pew Research Center last week. I was discouraged, but unsurprised, to learn that the general public and scientists differ widely in their support for ideas about which there is broad scientific support. For example, 98% of scientists agree that humans evolved over time (who are these other 2%?), while only 65% of the public agree with that statement (slightly higher than other polls in the 50% range). There are a lot of other topics about which people were polled, and despite some issues with the exact wording of the poll questions and exact poll numbers, the take home message is clear. Scientific experts agree on a set of facts, but the general public does not view those facts the same way. This is true of a variety of subjects, from vaccines to GMOs to climate change and more. How did we get to this point? What has happened to our field that most people in the general public believe that they know more about a topic than the experts in that field?

I was trying to think about this with respect to other professions. Let’s say I take my car to the mechanic and he informs me that I need an oil change. I don’t know anything about car repair, but the car seems to be driving fine, so I don’t believe him. So I take the car to a second mechanic and she also says that I need an oil change (expert consensus!), explaining that if I just look at the oil on the dipstick, I can see how dark and dirty it is (evidence!). I could go to 100 more mechanics and get the same opinion from 99 of them…but by polling so many people, I might find the one awful mechanic who thinks that dark oil is a good thing that benefits the engine. I might be inclined to believe that person, because their solution is better for me financially…but faced with such overwhelming advice in one direction, most of us would take the car in for an oil change.

Yet when scientists virtually all agree on one topic, we find that half of the public questions that, with absolutely no evidence of their own to back up that opinion. By evidence, I mean data. We all have personal experience and it varies tremendously. If I polled everybody in Los Angeles and asked them if it was cold today, some would say yes because they spent the day in an air-conditioned office, or are particularly sensitive to temperature, or grew up in the tropics. Personal experience isn’t a good gauge for measuring facts. Instead, I might go outside with a thermometer and tell you that it’s 78 degrees and that compared to all other years on this date at this location, it is actually quite warm, despite what any one person might think.

Take vaccines for instance. Virtually all doctors agree that vaccines are the best way to deal with public health issues and that they play no role in causing autism. But ONE person who published a study two decades ago thinks that they do and set off a wave of hysteria. Even after that person admits that he falsified his data in order to make a profit, and every follow-up study has found zero connection between vaccines and autism, we still have lots of people who are too scared to vaccinate their kids because they know that one person who has autism and also received a vaccine. One data point does not make a pattern and had it not been for the original fake story, nobody would connect these two events together. These are cases of confirmation bias. If somebody tells you that you’ll see a shooting star every time you eat cereal for breakfast, then every time you see a shooting star, you’ll think about what you had for breakfast that morning. And sometimes it will be cereal. And sometimes it won’t be. Either way, your breakfast choice doesn’t influence what matter enters our atmosphere. Show me the data!

It’s hard to express how frustrating this is as a scientist and how disrespected it makes you feel. Science is about a search for facts about how the world works. To do so, we run experiments and make observations with the ultimate goal of finding facts that support one solid theory over other ideas. It’s usually tough to get to that point. For example, the Theory of Natural Selection was proposed by Darwin, but had to be backed up by TONS AND TONS of data before it was fully accepted by the scientific community. Now imagine that you have 150 years worth of research to support one single idea and somebody says that they don’t believe it, not because they’ve found counter-evidence, or have even critically examined the existing evidence, but just because they don’t believe it. Imagine having millennia of data on climate change, which people can look at themselves, but having somebody tell you that it’s not true because it’s snowing outside. Imagine being the car mechanic and somebody telling you that they just don’t believe that oil is important for an engine…in fact, cars run on magic. It makes you feel almost too defeated to explain.

Part of the problem is that much of the “debate” on these issues has been driven by money and politics and the dominant voice in the news and in social media has been that of the Science-Denier. It seems to me as though scientists have begun to take back some of that message. In the last two weeks, my Facebook wall is full of pro-vaccine scientific messages and anti-vaxxer shaming, rather than hysteria about the dangers of vaccines. We could still do better. Talk about science with your friends and family. Sometimes we’re too scared of being perceived as a know-it-all to speak up about what we really know. I don’t know a mechanic who’s afraid to give advice to their friend when their car breaks down.
Part of the problem is that the consequences of denying scientific fact are not immediately evident. If you don’t put oil in your car, the engine will quickly seize and you’ll realize your mistake. The consequences of climate change or anti-vaxxers take a long time to be realized. But we’re starting to see real effects of climate change. The recent Ebola scare and the Disneyland measles outbreak have shown the dangers of an unvaccinated population. And part of the problem is that science and religion are viewed as fundamentally opposite, rather than two different fields asking very different questions.

Most of this blog has just been a rant and a chance for me to vent. As a scientist, I’m frustrated that these so-called “debates” about scientific issues are a regular part of the news each week. If you’re a scientist, you probably feel the same way. But to some extent, we have to take some of the blame for having lost people’s respect. We’ve been outcompeted by anti-science messages. I don’t know how it happened exactly, but it has. So what can be done to change our anti-science culture? Would focusing our math education on probability and statistics help at all? What are we NOT doing now that we could be doing? How can scientists be viewed as experts in their field of study whose opinions should be valued? I worry that we’re viewed more as Dr. Peter Venkman than Dr. Albert Einstein.


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