Rarely has science been as much a public issue as in the past 30 years. Sure, people have queried the wisdom of this or that science or technology in the past, like the use of nuclear power or for weapons. But apart from anti-vaccination movements since the late nineteenth century, very little public attack was made on the science itself, and, when it was, it was rarely taken seriously. Sometime in the past few years, things changed. Why?
This is merely my impression, but I think that science began to be treated as equivalent to personal opinion some time in the 1970s, with the New Left movement. Most of the critics were not scientifically educated themselves, but instead were politics majors, journalists, literature students and social studies experts. Science was to be “democratised”. I believed it at the time, and in some ways I still do – science ought not to be an arcane authoritarian social structure. But it went too far.
Critics of genetics being used in a human context felt free to assert all kinds of basically false claims about genetics without feeling the need to learn anything much. Indeed, the very notion of falsehood in science was challenged. Experts were denigrated as running a political scam or shoring up their social position. The idea that they might actually know much about their topic was laughed at, at least in the social circles I inhabited at the time.
So it is interesting to see the responses of the scientists and critics of the IPCC report into global warming, where science is often treated as a political tool. Why there is a consensus needs to be explained to the laity, who think this is just about hacks for hire to the deepest pockets. Why they think that is due to the use and abuse of science by the conservation movement over many years – now in recession, thankfully – and of course the persistent claims by antiscience movements ranging from GMO oppositions to creationists to antivaccinationists to global warming “skeptics” (who are anything but skeptical) who attack ideas they dislike as “unsound science”. And this failure to understand science leads to bad law.
Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet have just published a paper in Science, which is not bad for a couple of fellow bloggers, in which they declare that scientists themselves have got to frame the issues better for the media, to overcome this problem. I can’t access the article, but their press release is here.
I don’t disagree with the release, nor do I disagree with their critics and fans, but there is something deeper here than just manipulating the media and the message. Education. We will never be able change minds unless science is taught to as many people as possible, in a manner that leads to understanding. And the mainstream media will never be that medium of education.
The media are high on bandwidth and low on information for a reason. High bandwidth provides glossy entertainment. High information content makes for low entertainment, for the core of entertainment is to take the mind away from effort. With very few exceptions, and they are often more the illusion of substance than actual substance, television and radio shows don’t do content as well as, well, hard study.
Every science requires that the audience has done some hard work to get to the point where they can assess the claims being made even slightly. In a properly educated democracy, this would be achieved sometime around year 10 or so of education, at least for that portion of the populace that has any ability in a field of science. We do not need to ensure that everyone is scientifically educated, but we do need to ensure that those that can be are. Without that division of political labour a democracy cannot work. Politicians are rarely those with any scientific education, which is why so many of them are susceptible to lobby group spin – sorry, framing – but if you have enough scientific literates in your society at large, this can be hedged against simply by votes and public discussion.
The case and place for “framing” is in political, not educational or scientific, discourse. To frame a topic is to prejudice the terms in which a discussion is held. Like propaganda, this can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing – framing, which is a form of propaganda, is not in itself desireable. To assume that the media is the way to educate the population is to itself frame the subsequent debate. It denigrates the underlying rationale for education, for a start. It privileges players in the media who are often, nay, always (find me an exception!) the very worst commentators on scientific matters. And it gives undue weight to the opinions of anti-science activists.
If we want science to be a core part of our social and intellectual milieu, then put the funds and effort into teaching it properly. Sweep away the curricula that are framed in terms of benchmarks and amount of facts learned. Replace them with curricula that require competence before advancement in that subject. Ensure that we fund and support those who can do this, say at least as much as we fund and support competitive sports or the arts (or, as we call it in Australia, the Yartz), and then a generation down the track you will have those who truly do understand science acting as a goad and a brake on the political agendas of special interests. Media is epiphenomenal on social discourse. It is not a conduit of very much of use. Of course, this is also true in the political, but as most reported politics is itself epiphenomenal on society, it’s a case of the fluff on the fluff, and doesn’t much matter.