Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What constitutes open and honest debate about scientific issues, and how do we make one happen?

Here's a subject that keeps coming up: Does better science education increase the public's trust of science or scientists? That seems to be a common assumption, but a study done some time ago of countries in the European Union showed that those in which people scored lowest in science understanding were those in which people were most enthusiastic about science.
"We should not be surprised by this finding. A good education in science should lead people to ask questions about the impact of science," according to Lord Sainsbury. [the Former Minister of Science for the UK]' 
Further, Lord Sainsbury suggests that scientists need to engage in more 'grown up' dialogue with the public, to allow them to better understand the risks and benefits of innovations or new technologies.  Science is changing so quickly that government assessment and regulation of risk can't keep up, he says, and people feel they are being "forced to accept changes they had not been consulted over and seemed to offer them no benefit."

An example of a science dialogue done well, according to Lord Sainsbury, is the debate over stem cells.  The people were given the facts and scientists 'engaged the public in an open and honest debate'.

But what does this mean?  And did they really? A large proportion of the public, at least in the US, thinks that stem cell research is unethical.  Research using embryonic stem cells, at least, because they believe this is killing.  What kind of science education has lead them to that opinion?

If pressed, presumably many people could tell you that embryonic stem cells are harvested from frozen embryos (what happens to those frozen embryos when they aren't used for IVF or research is another issue not often considered), but could they tell you anything more about the process?  And should they know more before they make up their minds on the ethics?  Can science inform -- never mind decide -- the ethical questions? 

What about climate change?  How much do most of us actually know about the science behind the issue?  We'd venture to say not a whole lot.  And yet, most of us have an opinion on whether or not it's happening, whether or not humans are causing it, and whether or not we as a society should be doing something about it.

How much do we have to know about astrophysics to make up our minds about whether we should spend billions to go to Mars?  

Debates over scientific issues are rarely debates over the science.

And anyway, should scientists be trusted?  One problem is that science leaders are generally the ones consulted by the media about science.  But the media often don't, or can't really know what motivations, interests, or perspectives such a scientist has (usually and naturally it's often to promote his/her area of work).  And who or what decides who is a 'leader'?  History is loaded with leaders who were thoroughly wrong, even about their own field -- usually because our knowledge is always less complete than our conviction that we understand that knowledge correctly.

More of a problem, perhaps, is that government officials, such as Lord Sainsbury's Parliament, makes policy based on 'white papers', or documents drafted by staffers who consult.....the same kinds of 'experts'.  And that process is what moves money, often in large amounts.  However, the number of scientists in legislative bodies is paltry.  That means that those who decide depend on their generalist staffers who depend on the whimsical aspects of choosing experts or choosing among different advice.  Here, in Britain as in the US, influence and vested interests have a guiding, if often silent behind-the-scenes hand.  We have seen this first-hand.

If control over knowledge is power, science education should matter.  However, control over what we believe is knowledge can be power too.

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