Podcast: Media and Mistrust of Science

Larta Institute just launched its third podcast on Media and Mistrust. Making a case for science and the scientific method, Rohit Shukla urges us to make the distinction between opinion and fact. Opinions are easy to come by in the age of social media, whereas scientific fact takes careful investigation, hypothesis and proof and the attempt to disprove the proof – much to the chagrinned impatience of the public. The result is we abandon science for opinion when it’s convenient, and there’s nothing convenient about science, he argues. Listen below:


Podcast Transcript

A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 79% of the adults surveyed in that study think that science has made life easier for most people, and that's a quote. Unfortunately, it is also true that on many of the issues that are of extreme importance to our lives, Americans have tended to not side with the science. In other words, there is a mistrust of the science itself and the Scientific Method.

That has been partly driven by the extraordinary explosion of information and opinion that the internet has made available so that we are increasingly occupying what is widely now recognized to be "echo chambers." Anyone, essentially, can develop a following by using increasingly outrageous claims that are not supported by fact. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great senator from New York, had a very famous and oft-quoted phrase when he said, "You are entitled to your opinions, you are not entitled to your facts. Facts need to stand above the pure recitation of opinion." The problem is, the lack of faith in science illustrates the fact that Americans have tended to become increasingly disenchanted by things they do not understand, or by the anecdotes that are increasingly playing to their worst fears.

Science tends to be neutral. It tends to move at a particular pace that is not necessarily conducive to the kind of extreme opinions and the fast pace at which those extreme opinions are offered. But it makes it no less important for us to be able to pay attention to the very small things [science] is doing in the background. To make our lives better, to find a potential solution to disease, to be able to discover new sources of food and new ways to cultivate that food, to find ways of making the planet a more benign planet than it currently is—facing the extraordinary threats of climate and weather variability.

The collection of anecdotes that I've been referring to, amplified by these echo chambers which we increasingly inhabit, constitute what I would consider to be the new anti-science. These are based on a set of "alternative facts," a movement that has been recently played-up by the comments of a few political pundits. These so-called "alternative facts" should not be confused, at all, with objective facts. Objective facts are the province of careful investigation, of study, of hypotheses that get proved and then, as the scientific method moves forward, an attempt to disprove the proof. It is so complete and so compelling that there is no better way of being able to make sense of our world, and of the choices that we have to make that are both driven by factual representation and by specific inclusions that we can expect to have.

In this world where facts swirl around and where confusing anecdotes make for a rather unnecessary maelstrom of information, often that information masquerading as fact—and in fact all they are, are opinions—science gets not just a bad rap, but science becomes effectively part of the problem.

Why is that so?

You will always have side effects from investigating a particular phenomenon, or a particular trend. Science will, in fact, get things wrong. But it is a continuous process. There is no absolute when it comes to any particular form of knowledge or conclusion that science reaches. There have been, as we know, over time, scientific missteps. But again, just because we have missteps does not mean that we do not go back on a continuing basis. To disprove what we have seemingly just proved. That is part of the continuous progress of science itself.

Look at, for example, the eradication of smallpox. Look at the very clear understanding we have of pandemics based on population studies over many, many decades. Look at the extreme climatic factors that are affecting food production in many parts of the world. Look at the increasing role that pests and pestilence are playing in agriculture. Look at the continuing effects of certain kinds of drugs to induce extraordinary pandemics in opioid use. These are all the products of scientific inquiry. The facts that have been established in each one of these instances is evidence of a tremendous scientific capability.

And yet, we step out against the science whenever it pleases us, or whenever we want to believe certain things, because we are fearful of the consequences of what the science might be able to do.

Effectively, we need to understand one very simple point: science does patrol itself. It is, in fact, hard-coated in its own nature. It's constantly clearing out old insights, bringing in new ones. There is a dialectic movement toward understanding the truth. That is part of what we have to deal with, and therefore it is incumbent on all of us who are not only friends of science but friends of fact, to be able to coalesce around solutions that are being thrown up on a consistent basis by science itself, and by scientists, and by researchers, and by people in institutions both big and small, that are driving innovation. And what is innovation if it isn't the ability for us to improve on what we know and what we've produced.