THERE is an ongoing crisis plaguing the relationship between science, politics, and people. Although it has been going on for quite some time now, recent developments reveal that it is in full swing, endangering the very future of our species. If we are to respond to this crisis, we have to remember that educating the public about science is not a matter of handing down esoteric wisdom to the ignorant masses. Instead, the focus of teaching science should not be on teaching facts; it should be on the teaching of values.
While scientists and their activities still enjoy a great deal of public prestige and respect, a considerable fraction of the public have a hard time telling the difference between actual scientific findings and disinformation, between claims supported by facts and those supported by so-called “alternative facts.”
This is a big problem in a democratic republic where the opinions of the people have an impact on how the country is governed, whether it is in the choosing of elected officials or in pressuring those officials to govern in certain ways. If those opinions are not based on sound evidence, how can we, the electorate, come up with democratic solutions to our common problems?
Where do science and science education come in this discussion? It’s in the fact that many of the issues we face today have a scientific component. To name just a few, there’s our collective response to climate change, heavy traffic and urban gridlock, disaster risk reduction and management, slow internet connections, and reproductive health policies.
But issues that are not obviously science-related involve gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to inform political and civic decisions. To give an example, when we ask about the social impact and effectiveness of the government’s so-called war on drugs, we are asking a question in which robust evidence can play an important role. Since gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence are critical parts of the methods of science, those methods play a very important role in almost every issue facing the world today.
Given the important role science and its methods play in the issues facing us, how can we begin to solve them if disinformation campaigns mounted by those who wish to mislead the public are very effective at confusing the electorate about what’s really true?
To make things worse, many of us are trapped in our social bubbles where the only information (or disinformation) that reaches us are the ones that agree with what we already believe in, and where information that challenges our worldview are often ignored, forgotten, misunderstood, or quickly rejected (“That can’t be true!”).
The lack of consensus on what counts as fact and on which sources count as credible makes broader discussions almost impossible. The different sides of the debate end up just shouting at each other.
Add to all of these the growing mistrust of experts and elites. The public is eager to “shake things up” and usher in much-needed change in the system, sometimes at the expense of the checks and balances that made the previous system slow but less prone to abuse. And who can blame the public when the elites have failed them for the longest time?
With all of these problems jamming the channels that were designed to connect the scientists with the public and the policy makers, how are we to inform the public in such a way that they can put positive pressure on a democratically-elected government?
This brings me back to my answer at the start of this article. We have to remember that science education is a kind of values education. Foremost of these values are intellectual honesty and intellectual humility. A public that holds these values have an appreciation of the imperfection and incompleteness of human knowledge, an appreciation that helps in distinguishing confident charlatans from cautious scientists.
Another value of science is critical thinking. There are experts in science, but there are no authorities. Even the experts must defend their views, because no ideas are considered sacred. Everything can be questioned and criticizes, and only those that survive criticism are considered valuable. Imagine a society that holds this value. Better yet, imagine how such a society will solve its problems.
To name but a few more, there’s curiosity, generosity in the sharing of knowledge, the desire to innovate and improve the lives of people, and the collaborative spirit. Without these values, science would not be possible. Without them, democracy would fail.
The values of science are also the values of democracy. Hence, if we are to strengthen the link between science, politics, and the public, we must realize that we cannot do it by hurling facts. We can only do it by convincing people of the value of our values.
Decierdo is resident astronomer and physicist for The Mind Museum.