This year, while researchers in New York gathered data on genome structure that will change how we treat the deadliest diseases, while scientists in Geneva analyzed the nature of particles that form the building blocks of our universe, a lot of kids in California got measles.
The anti-vaccination movement is to blame for this outbreak — and right now it’s getting a lot of flak for it. Scores of (at least seemingly) science-minded people are pointing out that opting out of the recommended vaccines for your children flies in the face of mountains of evidence supporting vaccines’ safety and efficacy. One popular explanation for the opt-outs is that anti-vaxxers — and similarly, global-warming-is-a-hoax-ers — are just ignorant, obstinate or stupid. These groups are often singled out for everyone else’s derision. But I don’t think so-called “science-deniers” constitute the whole problem with the perception of science in our society. These groups’ misconceptions about science are causing serious, tangible damage, but they’re not uniquely confused.
Even among the people who scoff at the ignorance of “science-deniers,” there seems to prevail a serious misunderstanding of what science actually is. Science is a method, not just a body of conclusions, but you wouldn’t know it from speaking to many people who claim to “F**king Love Science.” On this popular website/Facebook page — which has become a kind of social media brand — scientific conclusions are regularly trotted out as nuggets of truth. The attitude here is that loving science is a kind of loyalty to a particular way of viewing the world. Being “on board” with what “Science” with a capital S has to say becomes less a logical conclusion and more an identity-forming personal quirk.
So on the one hand, we have the problem of the “science-deniers’” perplexing rejection of scientific evidence. On the other hand, we have people who revere the truths handed down by “Science” to the point where it’s not uncommon to see an article entitled “Science Says...” as if “Science” is a persona in the habit of releasing occasional public statements.
This personification of science is evidence that we’ve politicized scientific results in all the wrong ways. The he said, she said of science vs. Jenny McCarthy invites us to ask ourselves who we trust more, not what the evidence ought to force us to conclude. Seeing science as a kind of static monolith we either trust or distrust encourages us to act incredibly unscientifically; it asks us to shut off our critical thinking, our analysis and our skepticism and just take a side.
And this is the heart of the issue in our public understanding of science. Somewhere along the line, a lot of people have come to see science as an ideology we can opt in or out of rather than a process of logical inquiry. Though we’re not skeptics about physics when it comes to car repair or about biology when it comes to heart surgery, when it comes to public policy, science is just another side of the debate. Either you “F**king Love Science” or you think the ice caps would be melting at this rate whether we’d started burning coal or not.
What we’re dealing with is a disconnect between the scientific community and the public — a failure of our educational system, our scientists and our journalists to properly communicate what science actually is.
The result is a total inversion of what the relationship between politics and science ought to be. Scientific knowledge should inform our politics; our politics shouldn’t inform our view of scientific knowledge. The fact that our society seems to operate the other way around should be a cause for concern. In a democracy, where individual knowledge really does affect policy decisions, the results of this failure are tangible and significant.
And this issue will only become more pressing as we continue to rely on technological advancements — products of science — in every area of our lives. For the public, keeping pace with scientific advancement shouldn’t mean choosing science over science denial. It should mean understanding that significant scientific discoveries are arrived at with a critical mindset, and it should be received with that same attitude, whether you “f**king love” it or not.
SOPHIA WUSHANLEY is a College senior from Millersville, Pa., studying philosophy. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Another Look” appears every other Monday.Comments powered by Disqus
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