Tag: Trust

Blinded With Science

It’s the study the Left is going batshit over:

Just over 34 percent of conservatives had confidence in science as an institution in 2010, representing a long-term decline from 48 percent in 1974, according to a paper being published today in American Sociological Review.

That represents a dramatic shift for conservatives, who in 1974 were more likely than liberals or moderates (all categories based on self-identification) to express confidence in science. While the confidence levels of other groups in science have been relatively stable, the conservative drop now means that group is the least likely to have confidence in science.

Naturally, this is being touted as clinching proof of the wisdom of liberals and idiocy of conservatives (and independents, apparently, since their trust is about as low). This has even caused people to dust off the “smart enough to be dumb” canard because educated conservative are less likely to trust science.

There’s only one problem. As Nick Gillespie points out, the question was not about trusting science but about trusting scientists. And scientists have, over the last few decades, done a lot to earn this distrust.

There was Paul Ehrlich, who became a celebrity while being spectacularly wrong on overpopulation. There’s Algore, massively overstating the case on … everything. There was the EPA study of second-hand smoke, which was so riddled with distortions that Judge Osteen threw it out. There was the CDC study that claimed obesity killed 400,000 Americans, later revised down to 26,000. The CSPI first forced trans-fats down our throats, then yanked them back while blaming “industry”. A major study that claimed autism was caused by vaccines turned out to be a fraud. And while the BEST study has confirmed their results, the sloppy research at East Anglia did global warming theory no favors. Just recently, a study came out claiming that even a little red meat shortens your life. But that study may be flawed as well.

Look, I’m a scientist. I love science. I’ve spent literally half my life in astrophysics, one of the most inter-disciplinary of the sciences. I love doing public nights to bring science to the public and drag my daughter out to look through a telescope at least once a week.

I love science for many reasons. I love it because it’s cool. Last month, I was co-I on a proposal to put a telescope on a suborbital rocket and launch it into the atmosphere. How cool is that? I love it because of the sense of discovery. Last week, I discovered a star hidden in the light of its binary star companion. No one had ever seen it before.

But the chief reason I love science, as Astropixie likes to say, is because science works, bitches! The polio vaccine doesn’t work sometimes. Rockets don’t fail to launch if they’re not in the mood. Stars explode when they’re supposed to. Science works.

However, there as arisen a startling lack of humility among some of the most prominent scientists. It’s an attitude I find mysterious since among the many qualities of science is that it is humbling. But I see early results presented with the certainty of Newton’s Laws. Skepticism is blamed on shadowy industrial magnates. And the failure to correctly predict — prediction being the absolute key feature that distinguishes science from mysticism — is shrugged off. And that’s not even getting into “scientists” like Andrew Wakefield who fake their results. There has arisen a stunning tendency to do what one tobacco policy analyst calls science by press release, where preliminary and often improperly analyzed data is given banner headlines.

Part of the blame lies in our media. It’s no accident that trust in scientists began to decline as their media exposure rose. The media loves dramatic headlines. They flock to studies that make big bold statements and ignore those that are more tentative and cautious in their conclusions. And often, they simply ignore the cautions. PhD Comics ran a great cartoon a few years ago on the science news cycle, where tentative hypotheses are blown up into dramatic definitive statements.

And, to be fair, part of the blame lies in us, the public. The pace of scientific progress — particularly in genetic engineering and cloning — frightens many people. The lack of scientific success some fields like curing cancer frustrates some people. Our expectations of science have come to exceed what it is capable of.

But again and again, I return to the basic lack of caution among some of our most prominent scientific figures. Since this will eventually result in a discussion about Global Warming, I’ll go with it. Would it kill the IPCC head to say something like: “No, we’re never 100% sure of anything. But we’re 99% sure the planet is warming and tens of thousands of pieces of evidence support this. We’re mostly sure it’s manmade — the temperature patterns don’t match any other hypothesis. We’re pretty sure this will be a bad thing.” And it would kill them to leave off discussions about what to do about global warming, a subject about which most climatologists are simply not qualified?

(One other note: I can’t help but think that if the numbers were reversed, we’d be hearing a different narrative. If liberal faith in scientists were declining, we’d be hearing that this because liberals are naturally open-minded and skeptical and don’t believe what they’re told.)

I’ll give Gillespie the last word:

I do not doubt that conservatives are, in their heart of hearts, jugheaded buffoons who simply want to will away inconvenient truths by plugging their ears and covering their eyes when faced with cognitive dissonance. I’m confident that they argue from authority when it serves their purpose and then are muy skeptical when confronted with authority they don’t like. I’m metaphysically certain that many are repllent and repulsive and altogether awful and that they tend to love dogs and cats in the abstract more than they do their fellow human beings in the flesh. In all this, I suspect, they are incredibly similar to liberals and, alas, libertarians, and everyone else.

Exactly. Most of our institutions have low levels of trust. The military and small businesses we trust, but everyone else must pay cash. Congress, in particular, usually has approval ratings in the teens and the most frequent response to that number is, “Who are these freaks who approve of Congress?!” Conservatives may distrust scientists, but they have happily embraced the products of science, from medicine to communications.

That’s not being cynical about facts; that’s being cynical about people.