Society would benefit from a better understanding of what is and isn’t science
A theory is distinguished by having both explanatory and predictive power
The Giant’s Causeway: 50 to 60 million years old or less than 10,000? It is not a matter of opinion but of evidence. Photograph: AP
Just a year ago, the fanfare over the new Giant’s Causeway visitor centre was overshadowed by a row over the inclusion of a creationist explanation, and the National Trust’s decision to work with the evangelical Caleb Foundation. The trust’s rather weak defence that it respected debate raises some interesting questions about the public understanding of science.
In this case, the foundation’s motives are clear: they are biblical literalists and insist the world is less than 10,000 years old, a position based on their interpretation of scripture. While relatively rare in Europe, such views are common in the US. None of this changes the fact that as regards the age of the Earth they are out by a good 4.5 billion years, but the controversy illustrates that, despite its importance, there is still huge incomprehension about what science actually is and its place in society.
Those defending the Causeway centre’s questionable inclusivity argued that evolution was “just a theory”: mere musings, of equal validity to any other explanation. But there is a significant misunderstanding here. In scientific use, theory means an explanation for some phenomena that has been well-substantiated through repeated experiment and observation. It must have both explanatory and predictive power, being capable of explaining a particular phenomenon and making testable predictions. Indeed, evolution is “just a theory” – and so too are gravity, electricity and the cell cycle. In fact, any scientific idea which stands up to examination is “just a theory”.
The Causeway centre dispute raises an often overlooked question: what is science? Science is a systematic method of inquiry that seeks to investigate various phenomena through empirical and measurable means, establishing new knowledge and correcting prior ideas.
A hallmark of science is its utter objectivity. It doesn’t care about your prejudices, political persuasions or religion; it is concerned only with evidence, and that which is asserted with only dubious evidence is suspect in the extreme.
In principle, there should be no controversy over well-supported scientific evidence, but sadly this is not always the case. Not only do people dispute evolution, many deny the existence of man-made global warming, despite incontrovertible evidence.
Why do intelligent people expound such views in the face of the evidence? It is likely that their particular worldview plays a part, particularly when the plain findings of research challenge beliefs or opinions they hold dear.
There is also often an element of manufactured controversy, a ploy whereby dubious experts inflate uncertainties in the science, smear individual scientists and insist the media report “both sides” of the story, a tactic known as “false balance”.
A manufactured controversy aims to neutralise the scientific consensus but the strategy works only if the media get behind it with an uncritical eye, which almost invariably they do. This gives the illusion of credibility to profoundly unscientific arguments.
Smoking and research
For years tobacco companies downplayed the risks of smoking, claiming they were “unproven” when in fact the scientific evidence was beyond dispute. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield claimed the MMR vaccination caused autism, and people panicked, leading to a fall in the rate of immunisation. Children died needlessly from measles, a disease previously almost eradicated.
Scientific consensus is the viewpoint that the vast majority of the evidence points to, but this is often ignored by those with their own agendas. Cherry-picking is the practice of selecting weak or ambiguous data to bolster a position at odds with the overwhelming majority of evidence. It is both intellectually vapid and depressingly common.
Carl Sagan once said: “We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Improving public understanding of science would be of huge benefit to society. To achieve this, we would need more emphasis on science and critical thinking in schools, but also a media with the requisite training to evaluate evidence critically and the ability to dismiss bad science.
If we cannot do this, we will continue to believe absurdities, with detrimental and even disastrous consequences. As we face the reality of global warming and denialists try to cast doubt on the facts, one must hope that we have learned something from history.
Dr David Robert Grimes is a researcher at the University of Oxford. He has a keen interest in the public understanding of science, and keeps a science and medicine blog at davidrobertgrimes.com