Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Fear of an Enlightened Planet

As a member of SWA -- Sciencedorks With Attitude -- I'm not in the least surprised, but still plenty bent out of shape, by the latest Pew poll done in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Which helps explain my perpetual state of high curmudgeonliness. (Yes, I've finally attained the age where I get to be a curmudgeon.)

Of course, the people labeled as "scientists" aren't unanimous about anything, but 87% of them believe in evolution without any of that ID pishtosh (disappointingly low) and 84% believe that global warming is occurring due to human activity. (I'm willing to cut a little slack there, it's not something you have to be personally down with to study the Quantum Hall Effect.) And, as we already know, the public is approximately divided into thirds over the question of whether life evolved by natural processes; life evolved under divine guidance; or humans have always existed in their present form. Only 2% of "scientists" agree with the latter -- and scientists are not immune from dementia and mental illness, so that is to be expected.

No news here, but reason yet again to ponder the ugliness. It is ultimately our fault, as scientists, for thinking that it's enough for us to do what we do and know what we know. We get to talk our own secret language. We store our arcane lore in libraries you aren't allowed to enter and thousand-dollar-a-year journals you aren't allowed to read even if you could make any sense of them. We won't let your kids become initiates into our secret societies because you can't afford to pay for college and they don't score high enough on the SAT anyway. And when, as one would expect, you end up not believing our jive, we just call you a bunch of dumb hicks.

Here's what has to happen. Science must remake itself as a participatory, public enterprise. Ten percent of every NIH grant, on average (the appropriate amount depends on the type of research) should be allocated to public programs, including community based participatory research designs, public outreach and science education -- not just in school but everywhere people can be reached -- and the democratization of scientific infrastructure and enterprise. It is possible to do science in a whole different way that eliminates those walls between the research and teaching enterprise, and what has always been to scientists the "outside" world, i.e. humanity and society. This remoteness and outside perspective has even been affected by social scientists, which is a logical absurdity.

I have a lot of ideas about specific ways to do this. I'll bet that if we really changed, people would come around to understanding our point of view and agreeing with us about the stuff we're good at proving. And guess what -- we might learn a thing or two as well. More to come on this.


kathy a. said...

i just have to wonder about the reliability of these surveys, particularly the "what does the public think" ones. who do they get to participate in these?

i can only speak for myself, but i feel so bombarded with customer service surveys, marketing surveys, political surveys, etc. that i rarely agree to participate.

Bix said...

Boy would I like to see peer-reviewed journals more available to the public. My local library said they can't get (afford?) a subscription for online access. And the library of my Alma Mater won't give access to alumni. It sure is a members-only club.

Cervantes said...

Bix, this is a major bone of contention to me. I'm a very big supporter of open access publishing, but my university has a policy of not supporting it, basically because of the free rider effect. They'd have to spend money and their rivals might not. So I can't even publish open access for the most part. I have a small discretionary account from consulting work, so if there's enough in there I can consider it, but that's the only way.

Kathy, as for polls, you can hang up on market researchers and push pollers, but I hope you'll cooperate with social scientists. Survey research makes an essential contribution to our understanding of society.