Lawrence Krauss has been making his rounds through New Zealand, giving two talks in Dunedin (wonderfully covered by David Winter on the atavism), and last night one in Auckland, which I managed to attend. Krauss provided the audience with an entertaining and thought-provoking lecture on science communication and the role of science in society.
I think that in this day and age very few would challenge the important role that science plays in economic development, nor whether science should be the foundation of sound policy making. Yet even though the PEW surveys showed that the US public has a good basic knowledge of science facts, it also showed that understanding of more complex issues is less prevalent. Scientists would probably not be surprised by the PEW results: there are many more than just a handful of scientists that consider that the public is not well informed.
Why should we care?
Krauss argued that democracies depend on both well informed legislatures as well as well informed electorates. And further, that since science sits behind almost all important issues of government, being informed about science issues is something we should seriously care about. After all a well informed electorate is the last line of defense against policy makers that may cherry pick out of the science pool for evidence in favour or against issues depending on their prevailing agendas. But how do we get informed?
Is science coverage in the media flawed?
I would argue that, to a certain extent, it is. And there may be many reasons for this. According to Krauss, one problem is, that when scientific consensus has a direct impact on a political issue, science journalists are not given the space on the political pages where their stories should be placed, and that political reporters do not have sufficient or adequate understanding of the scientific issues to cover them well. Further, many of the stories covered in the traditional media are based on press releases of ‘novel findings’. While I encourage this, there is an underlying flaw in this kind of reporting. Although by the time that a finding is published it has gone through a tedious process of peer-review that attempts to ensure the quality of the published data, publication does not amount to consensus by the scientific community. A single finding may be interesting, but many times it is just that. It may stimulate our imaginations and fill us with awe, wonder, and even hope, but should not, by itself, be the basis of a fundamental change in policy or behaviour.
Only one side to a science story
Journalists expect to have two sides to a story. And while that may be all very well for many areas, in science, in the end, only one side is right. And for science being ‘right’ means having consensus in the scientific community. Krauss argued that part of the problem is that journalists would easily find someone with a PhD after their name willing to provide ‘another side of the story’, and in doing so, create the impression of controversy where none exists. And this, Krauss says, is part of the problem.
Nonsense and sense
’I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out’ [Arthur Hays Sulzberger, New York Times editor 1935-1961]
There is nothing wrong with having an open mind. There is nothing wrong with looking at alternatives (and science is built around doing this). But, like Krauss, I would argue that the definition of open-mindedness is forcing our beliefs to conform to reality, and not the other way around.
But separating nonsense from sense is becoming increasingly difficult. While the internet makes it easier to get information, it also makes it easier to get disinformation. As Krauss says, if we do not have a filter, then we are in trouble: instead of overcoming ignorance, we validate it. And as he highlighted, while the first amendment of the US constitution protects against religion, it does not protect against bad science.
Fundamentally, science is not a story. It is more than that. It is what we fall back on when we choose to cure diseases, enhance our agricultural practices, turn on a light at home. It is that which describes the world we live in and allows us to build a more comfortable world for ourselves.
Krauss said science is a gift to human culture: just like art and literature, science enriches our understanding of ourselves. And that search for understanding is what makes us, well, human.