By Ken Perrott 22/12/2015 2

Layla Parker-Katiraee recently asked the question Should science be a democracy? in the blog Biofortified. Most readers here would probably immediately answer no!

But hold on. The blog title is a bit misleading. She was actually posing this about social decisions related to scientific issues – not about science itself.

Layla gives this example:

“A January 2015 survey conducted by agricultural economists at Oklahoma State found that 82% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains GMOs. The same survey found that 80% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains DNA.”

She points out that while the scientifically informed may be aghast at such a result the fact is most of the general public are not scientifically literate – and we should recognise that:

“After the initial face-palm, my feelings of intellectual superiority gradually ebbed when I realized that my husband would be in the 80% of the population that doesn’t know that all food, unless it’s highly processed, contains DNA. My better-half has a degree in International Relations and Peace Studies. He is a consultant with high-tech companies. He’s amazing at his job and can charge a premium for his consulting fees. It’s safe to say that he is well educated and knows what he’s doing. However, his last biology class was 17 years ago.”

And another reason for avoiding intellectual snobbery is that even those who consider themselves scientifically literate will readily admit they do not necessarily have at hand the answers to many of the scientific questions posed by the non-scientifically literate who are campaigning against issues like GMOs, climate change or community water fluoridation.

So here is the dilemma. On the one hand, social policies should be decided democratically – or at least by democratically elected bodies. On the other hand, the public and even the membership of democratically elected bodies are usually not well-informed about the science involved in many controversial social policies.

As Layla says:

“This whole topic raises the question of whether scientific matters (such as food labeling) should be decided by a public that is not educated in the technical aspects or nuances of an issue. Should scientific matters be decided upon democratically?

Here are just a few examples: the Shasta County Board recently decided to look into chemtrails; Portland, Oregon rejects adding fluoride to the city’s water; Humbolt county votes to ban GMO production.”

The role of experts

And this despite the fact that society invests in experts to research these questions and give answers to any questions we may have. As she says:

“If we, the people, get to decide on such important scientific matters democratically, then why do we spend billions of dollars, on institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, USDA, FDA? Do we just fund them so that they can come up with recommendations and guidelines which we can then ignore depending on whether we find it convenient or if our favorite celebrity endorses it? I can use the term “we” here because I pay what feels like a kajillion dollars in US taxes, even though I’m not a citizen.

Each of the examples above has been extensively studied and guidelines have been offered. The EPA, NASA, and the FAA joined forces to write a document about chemtrails (believe it or not); the EPA and the Department of Health and Human services have done scientific assessments on the fluoridation of water; the FDA evaluates the safety of all GMOs and regulates them (if you’re of the opinion that the FDA is “bought off”, then here’s a report on GMOs from the National Academy of Sciences). Our tax dollars funded every one of these efforts, yet we’re still taking these issues to the ballot box”.

So – we should listen to, or take the advice, of those experts – after all, that is what we pay them for. And on most issues we happily do that:

“There are MANY matters where I know very little and feel comfortable deferring to experts: what material should be used when highways are built, what water purification system my county should use, and so on. My taxes paid for all these projects and they impact me directly. I spend 2 hours a day in my car. If those highways are not built properly, if the on ramps are not sturdy, if the Bay Area bridges are not properly maintained, I could be hurt or even die. I fail to see why we defer to subject matter experts on these topics, but not on others. I don’t see any direct ballot measures to decide on the amount of concrete used when paving a road. Yet somehow, we feel that it’s appropriate to tell farmers in Hawaii what they can and cannot plant. Somehow, we the people, think we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn’t.”

Why reject expert advice?

It is illogical for “we people [to] “think we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn’t.” Yet it happens – or more correctly – some of us get fooled into rejecting the advice of the professional expert on some matters.

Inevitably on these controversial issues where scientific claims are being bandied about like political slogans, one can detect the activity of ideologically or commercially motivated groups wishing to misrepresent the science – or worse, personally attack or otherwise seek to discredit the experts who should be able to give the objective information needed.

The scientifically literate person may, if they have the time, be able to check out the claims and detect the misrepresentation or distortions promoted by such groups. But even without the scientific training “we people” can always maintain a healthy suspicion of any group seeking to discredit expert scientific advice or defame such experts. We may also be able to check out the groups themselves – to discover the ideological or commercial motives and decide whether they are worth listening to.

“The ideal solution here is education”

This is what Layla Parker-Katiraee advocates. This could be helped if more students were exposed to science and critical analysis in their education.

“In the meantime, there are a few things we can do:

1) Encourage children in our circle of influence to take science classes in high school and college, even if they’re pursuing a career in an unrelated field.

2) Scientists should step up their communication skills. There aren’t many scientists in the private sector involved in science communication or education. Many of us have been trained in presentation skills. Giving concise explanations or pitches are often required in the private sector. There’s no reason why you can’t expand that skill into a part time hobby.

3) Remember that we all have gaps in our knowledge. Working to fill those gaps rather than mocking them will go a long way.”

If we worked to educate ourselves and others in understanding the role and nature of science and in critical thinking then society would be better able to handle “controversial” scientific issues requiring democratic decisions.

Image credit: James MacLeod.

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