bruce_parker's picture
Visiting Professor, Stevens Institute of Technology; Author, The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters
Science Made This Possible

The annual question might simply have been, “what recent scientific developments are important and will continue to be important?” But this year’s annual question is about recent important scientific news. The word “news” changes the question and the potential answers. It adds social and psychological implications. Now we have to consider not just the impact of the scientific development within a scientific field, but also its impact on people’s lives and on government policy decisions. We have to take into consideration the motivation or reason for it becoming a news story and the audience it is aimed at. What makes certain recent scientific developments “newsworthy”? And why will certain scientific stories remain newsworthy for years to come?

That being said, there seems to be a dichotomy in the scientific news stories that we see most frequently today. The first group includes news stories about exciting and/or useful scientific developments (many of which are being highlighted on edge.org in response to the annual question). The second group includes news stories about actions taken that blatantly go against scientifically acquired knowledge and that even demonstrate a skepticism of the value of science.

A few of the more well known stories from this second group include: parents refusing to vaccinate their children, the scare over genetically modified foods, the movement against teaching evolution in schools, skepticism about global warming, and a fear of fluorinating water. Both groups have stories that will remain in the news for years to come.

One would think that the first group of news stories, along with other scientific writing aimed at a general audience (including the writings of the third culture), should work to reduce the number of new stories in the second group. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. In this modern era of the Internet and cable TV the quantity of positive scientific news has certainly increased, but so has the quantity of negative scientific stories. One might guess that the positive stories in the first group are primarily read by those who already believe in science, and that the negative stories in the second group are finding an audience susceptible to the anti-science message. We need to find ways of bringing well-explained positive stories from the first group to a broader audience. And we need well-explained rebuttals written to counter the negative stories in the second group.

We must also remember that skepticism is understandable considering how complex some of the science is that people are being asked to believe. Climate change/global warming is a good example. It is one of the most complex subjects being worked on by scientists today. It involves physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy, and relies heavily on proxy data (based on isotope ratios of various elements captured in ice cores, sediment cores, corals, etc.) to provide us with records of temperature, carbon dioxide, methane, sea level, ice sheets, and other parameters needed to describe climate change (including ice ages) over millions of years. Such data are critical for validating computer climate models (run in the past), which are needed to predict future climate change. We try to explain to the non-scientist as best we can how the climate system works, and likewise how vaccines work, why genetically modified food is just as safe as food derived by Mendel-based breeding methods, why fluorinated water is safe, how natural-selection based evolution works, and so on. But given that we may not succeed with many readers, we must at least get across the incredible amount of careful meticulous work and theory testing carried out by thousands of scientists to come to each of these conclusions.

The key question is, how can we use the positive science news stories of the first group, along with third culture writings, to change the minds of some of the audience members of the second group being hit with the negative skeptical science news stories? Over the last few decades we have made such great progress in scientific discoveries and in transitioning those discoveries into practical applications that improve and save lives. But perhaps we do not do a good enough job in explaining the transitioning part of the process, and in explaining the great positive impact of science on all our lives. If the skeptics could ever gain a full appreciation of the fact that their transportation, their means to communicate with each other, everything in their homes, at their jobs and in between, all came originally from science, would that make a difference in their thinking? Would they be willing to look at a subject a bit more objectively? Many (most?) might still be too heavily influenced by biases from religious beliefs and the propaganda of special interest groups to change their minds. In this Internet cable-news driven world the negative influences are everywhere. One can only hope that at least some of our skeptical elected officials might slowly modify their views.

In writing scientific news, more emphasis should be put on the way science has made modern life possible. If only we could put “Science made this possible” at the end of every scientific story, every technology story, and every story about our everyday activities. If only we could put “Science made this possible” signs on every appliance, drug, car, computer, game machine, and other necessities of life that people buy. Maybe that might eventually make a difference.