A ubiquitous, overly-simplistic idea about science should be put to death. It is that of the public as an empty vessel that awaits filling with scientific facts. Then education will be achieved (level up!) and we can all make smart and informed decisions.
That’s utter tosh (as the British say). Nonsense.
As much as we would like to think learning is as direct as that, the public, which is made up of many people with all kinds of values, is not homogeneous and objective. We don’t just accept facts and then know stuff. Facts have to be applied. A corollary idea is that of linear science-based decision-making. That is, if we know the scientific facts about a problem, we will use that to determine what action should be taken about it. Agreed? Hardly. That’s hilariously naïve. This just does not happen for several reasons: disputed “facts”, different personal and social values, and the complexity of problems (many smaller problems inside an overarching problem) makes a linear approach about as unrealistic as a cartoon diagram of evolution showing arrows from monkeys to man.
Facts will fail
The article that provided the impetus to write this piece was by Sarewicz in 2004 [D. Sarewicz. 2004. How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse. Env Sci & Policy, 7: 385-403] In it, he uses an example of the history-changing Bush v Gore Presidential election of 2000. No matter what “facts” were – that is, the “official” number of votes declared – would that be the basis for general acceptance in such a close contest? I doubt it because there were disputes regarding votes for either candidate. (Remember the hanging chad?) Sarewicz can’t imagine that it would have been quickly solved (and we needed it to be) so a political/judicial decision was accepted instead.Read More »