David P Barash writes: Coming from a scientist, this sounds smug, but here it is: science is one of humanity’s most noble and successful endeavours, and our best way to learn how the world works. We know more than ever about our own bodies, the biosphere, the planet and even the cosmos. We take pictures of Pluto, unravel quantum mechanics, synthesise complex chemicals and can peer into (as well as manipulate) the workings of DNA, not to mention our brains and, increasingly, even our diseases.
Sometimes science’s very success causes trouble, it’s true. Nuclear weapons – perhaps the most immediate threat to life on Earth – were a triumph for science. Then there are the paradoxical downsides of modern medicine, notably overpopulation, plus the environmental destruction that science has unwittingly promoted. But these are not the cause of the crisis faced by science today. Today science faces a crisis of legitimacy which is entirely centred on rampant public distrust and disavowal.
A survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC, conducted with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reported that in 2015 a mere 33 per cent of the American public accepted evolution. A standard line from – mostly Republican – politicians when asked about climate change is ‘I’m not a scientist’… as though that absolved them from looking at the facts. Vaccines have been among medical science’s most notable achievements (essentially eradicating smallpox and nearly eliminating polio, among other infectious scourges) but the anti-vaccination movement has stalled comparable progress against measles and pertussis.
How can this be? Why must we scientists struggle to defend and promote our greatest achievements? There are many possible factors at work. In some cases, science conflicts with religious belief, particularly among fundamentalists – every year I find it necessary to give my undergraduate students a ‘talk’ in which I am frank that evolutionary science is likely to challenge any literalist religious beliefs they might have. In the political sphere, there is a conflict between scientific facts and short-term economic prospects (climate‑change deniers tend to be not merely scientifically illiterate, but funded by CO2-emitting corporations). Anti-vaxxers are propelled by the lingering effect of a single discredited research report that continues to resonate with people predisposed to ‘alternative medicine’ and stubborn opposition to establishment wisdom. [Continue reading…]