Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Inconvenient Science

The Request Line is Open!
Yesterday I went to the Exploratorium to visit some old friends and check out some teaching resources, and posted in my FaceBook status "getting ready to go to Exploratorium." Tyree asked that I report about this in my next blog post!

Now, one one hand, my trip itself was not really newsworthy, outside of some weird pictures I took of myself in the new exhibit. But on the other hand, my blog doesn't have that many readers, and who am I to ignore such a request! Perhaps I can weave something about the Exploratorium's approach to science with something that's really concerned me lately.

The Exploratorium is the original 'hands-on' science museum for the general public. No longer just the province of nerds and geeks (not that there's anything wrong with nerds and geeks!) The Exploratorium is just downright fun, and if you're not careful, educational too! And if you've ever visited, and wondered what was going on in those classrooms in the middle of the building, the museum also runs a Teacher Institute to help with the professional development of science teachers. Their goal is to support teachers in their first years, when most teachers quit. I went through a two-year induction program with them, and found it very important to my survival, as well as making good friends that are going through the same struggles I am.

What the Exploratorium represents to me is the intersection between high science and personal experience. Many exhibits may just appear to be fun optical illusions, but if you want to know, there is much deeper science involved. You can just enjoy the beauty of the rainbow streaming into the building through the diffraction gratings installed on the roof, and if you want, you can dig deeper, to the 'why' of it all. If you haven't been there in a while, check it out again; new exhibits are built all the time.

This brings me to something that has been on my mind lately, and focused by and a recent survey published in the New York Times. There seems to be a large disconnect between what the public believes, and what scientists believe, even as far as what the public believes the scientists believe! More specifically:
...while almost all of the scientists surveyed accept that human beings evolved by natural processes and that human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, is causing global warming, general public is far less sure.

Almost a third of ordinary Americans say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists. Only about half of the public agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all.

According to the survey, about a third of Americans think there is lively scientific debate on both topics; in fact, there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution and there is little doubt that human activity is altering the chemistry of the atmosphere in ways that threaten global climate.
Plainly put, there is no actual debate among scientists about evolution or global warming, yet one can frequently find references to such a debate.

What seems to be going on here is a large denial on the part of the public about science, and I wonder why this is. I would really like to get your two bits on this.

I tend to believe that those who try to control society favor a populace that is as scientifically-illiterate as possible. That makes it easier to control people, since you don't have to be logical.

There is another train of thought that says people themselves avoid freedom, and choose to be scientifically illiterate for that very reason. They don't need any deep conspiracy to believe in superstitions.

I would really be interested to hear from you as to why this disconnect exists. What other factors might be at play here? Religion? Schools? Social customs?


Rod said...

The answer is probably more complex than I have time for, so I'll just address one thought I've had on the subject: People want reasons to continue what they are doing, not facts that, in the words of Al Gore, might inconvenience them.

This is what I think is mostly going on when people argue against climate change. They'd prefer to ignore the facts rather than change their lifestyle.

Mshray said...

Similar to Rod's point, acknowledging scientific 'truths' which differ from your own 'truths' is rather depressing these days. If your lifespan represents 1.25% of human history, that's much nicer sounding than 0.0001875% of life on the planet. Similarly it is easier to believe that some things are constant, like dear old Mother Earth, and not fragile constructs requiring vigilant maintenance.

I wonder how many people have come to terms with known astronomy post-Hubble. Not only can we now see billions of galaxies with billions of stars out there. Astronomers have observed that there have been cataclysmic events in other galaxies that would have wiped out all life in a whole galaxy (assuming there was some kind of life somewhere). Who wants to believe in the possibility of galactic annihilation?

From about the time of Newton, right up until Einstein or even Linus Pauling, scientists were heroes, bringing light and understanding and empowering humankind. Now scientists show us our limitations.

Jim said...

I'll add that people are, for the most part, inherently lazy, and it takes some real work for folks to get their heads around a lot of the theories that are being postulated to explain global warming. It's easier to go on believing in whatever you've been spoon-fed since you were a pup. Science is scary; religion (to its adherents) isn't. "Jesus loves me, this I know, 'cause the bible tells me so."

dparisst said...

I think one factor in the debate about climate change is "bad science." It's possible for corporations to pay for scientists who will report anything as long as they get paid. This is like the "science" around tobacco smoking when I was growing up. There were even doctors plugging certain brands of cigarettes in magazine ads. The general public may think that there is real debate within the scientific community.
Also I don't think that scientists are always perceived as the good guys. After all, they're the ones that brought us all the toxic chemicals and nuclear weapons that are causing us trouble now.

Pop Argot said...

"Freedom of choice is what you got. Freedom from choice is what you want." - Devo

PS: Agreeing with you all. Mshray, very nicely put. Geoff, great post, and thanks for the Fromm link. Much food for thought.

Tyree said...

First of all, thanks for responsding to my request Geoff. This post spawned some of the liveliest responses I read yet to your blog. More importantly YOu certialinly motivated me to take a trip down to the Exploratorium myself.
With that I'll take issue with Jim's comment that people are for the most inherently lazy. I believe people are inherently curious for the most part which is among several trais that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We would not have uncovered all that science tells us today without an insatiable quest for knowledge.

UnifiedTheory said...

Is there still talk of moving the Exploratorium to Fisherman's Wharf?