Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Conscience of Science: Part 3 Why March for Science?

Kaytlin Goodwin receives 2017 SFIS award from
Dr. Dennis Flentge, Chair of Dept. of Science and Math
One of the key issues facing the scientific community today is not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of communication between scientists and the general population. Although I am only an undergraduate, I have already experienced the frustration of trying to relate exciting scientific information to friends and family who do not understand basic biological processes and the jargon or importance of certain natural phenomena. Research scientists regularly face similar challenges. Although their work has vital implications for both the environment and human well-being, the general public often does not understand the importance of practices that are essential for the health of the environment.  
     – Kaytlin Goodwin, Cedarville University
        Science and Faith Integration Scholarship recipient (2017)

As I write this article, scientists and supporters of science are gathering by the thousands on the Mall in Washington, DC as part of today’s March for Science.   Many of these marchers and those who are likewise participating in one of 500 marches worldwide on this Earth Day are committed to the March for Science Pledge which lists ways supporters can advance science and science-based policies.  

Related to the advancement of science, recently Abby and I were privileged to attend Academic Honor’s Chapel at Cedarville University where Kaytlin Goodwin, a senior Environmental Science major was awarded this year’s Science and Faith Integration Scholarship (SFIS).  The above quote from the integration paper which Kaytlin submitted as part of her application for the SFIS captures some of the concerns held by some of today’s Marchers for Science.  The concerns expressed by Kaytlin and at least some of the Marchers stem from a long history.

American culture has been closely aligned and influenced by the growth of science and technology since the European colonization of the Western hemisphere in the 17th century. Today, most Americans would be unable to survive without the fruits of the natural sciences--the clean air, potable water, food, health services, transportation, and air conditioning.  Therefore, it is for good reason that Americans tend to be supportive of the sciences.
March for Science--and a march for your favorite cause?

March for Science participants aim to encourage respect for science and to encourage funding of research on issues such as global climate change, energy supply, information technology, and vaccinations.  These issues continue to be highly controversial on the political stage of an increasingly divided America.  Supporters of science who are concerned about one or more of these issues are urging scientists to use their professional prestige to take a more active role in educating and influencing policy makers and the general public.  But, is it appropriate for scientists to lend their reputations to political rallies?

Instead of joining the March for Science I am reading and thinking about the nature of science and the proper role of scientists in political organizations and rallies.  In this article, Part 3 of my “Conscience of Science” series, I want to share some of the considerations and cautions that a scientist or member of the public at large should entertain before joining the March for Science, or other political movements.  When one considers joining in pubic demonstrations in support of science or science-related issues (with some unrelated issues often included), it is essential to understand (1) the nature of science, (2) science in today’s news and entertainment media, (3) the responsibility of scientists in public education, and (4) the importance of the ethical conscience in science.

1.  The Nature of Science
We will assume that most supporters of the March for Science have at least a secondary school understanding of the nature of science.  Do you remember having to memorize a definition of science?  Most definitions include two parts, one that emphasizes the method of science, and the other, the management and communication of scientific information.  Science is a method—a systematic study of something—e.g. the natural world, living organisms, humans, human behavior, and so on.  Each field of science has a name (e.g. natural sciences, biology, psychology, theological sciences) and each has its own methodology or variation of the scientific method. 

When the scientific method is employed, the scientist obtains data that can be analyzed and used to determine the validity of a hypothesis. Repeated experimental testing contributes to the development of a systematic body of knowledge that results in the support for a scientific theory.  Theories provide the basis for understanding the scientific field in question and for continued scientific research.

Defining science is much easier than proper conduct of the process of science.  For example, scientists often find it difficult to gather data without perturbing the natural system being studied. Scientists must also avoid falling victim to error or bias.  Often the resultant theories attempt to account for abstract and complex phenomena that are difficult for the average person to comprehend.  Many of us find it difficult to comprehend the nature of a subatomic particle; or conceive of how matter becomes energy at the speed of light; or understand how scientists determine the temperature of planet Earth and use this data in complex models to predict climate trends. 

Although it is challenging to develop a scientific understanding of complex natural phenomena, it is even more challenging to communicate the resultant theories to students, policy makers, or laypeople.  Numerous studies have examined the growing influence of the internet, cable news, and the entertainment media on scientific literacy and opinions about certain hot button science-related issues like those listed above. 

2.  Science in Today’s News and Entertainment Media
According to a 2016 review entitled Americans' Attitudes about Science and Technology: The Social Context for Public Communication, commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), …despite intensive efforts at public education, science literacy has remained relatively stable for several decades.  The review cites a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center which used an index of 12 questions to measure basic scientific literacy and understanding of science as a process.  Out of the 12 questions, the mean score among respondents was 7.9.  Twenty-seven percent of respondents answered 8 or 9 out of 12 questions correctly, while 26% answered 10 or 11 correctly, and only 6% received perfect scores.  Respondents with college degrees answered 9 or more correctly, and those without degrees, 8 or fewer (Pew, 2015).

Although science literacy in America is low, it does not stifle interest in science-related news.  A National Science Board (NSB) survey in 2012 reported that the percentage of American respondents interested in news about medical discoveries was 60%, new scientific discoveries, 40%, and new inventions, 43%.  These percentages were comparable to those interested in local school issues (50%) and economic and business conditions (43%).  However, only 16% of Americans said they “very closely” followed news about science and technology, as compared to those who “very closely” follow weather (52%), sports (26%), local government (21%), and political news (17%) (NSB 2014).  Could it be that the increasing trend of Americans using social media as their favored news source has diminished our tendency to follow any topic “very closely?”

According to Brossard (2013), …with the rapid adoption of Facebook, Twitter, and smart phones, the nature of science-related news consumption among the public is changing, becoming more social, participatory, and incidental.  As of 2015, two-thirds of American adults say they use Facebook and 41 percent say they get news via the platform
Again, according to the AAAS review (2016), in recent decades …political leaders, activists, and the news media have increasingly packaged almost every major policy debate in terms of clearly defined ideological differences.   Republican and Democrat parties have become brand names, each standing for a distinct set of conservative or liberal positions.  This labeling strategy has apparently contributed to the growing ideological divide between the two major parties as reflected on issues such as sanctity of human life and climate change.  The divide is enhanced and sustained by cable news networks which cover science related topics with a decided conservative (e.g. Fox News) or liberal (e.g. CNN and MSNBC) slant.

According to Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, who was interviewed on PBS NewsHour,many Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict with each other, while knowing almost nothing about the subject they are debating. There’s a lot of blame to go around for all of this. The smartphones and tablets that we carry around all day that we think can answer anything are only part of the problem. The American educational system, from grade school to graduate school, encourages students to think of themselves and their views as special.  An A is now a common grade.

3.  The Responsibility of Scientists
In our society characterized by low science literacy, yet blessed with multiple sources of science news and the opinions of many political ideologues, the role of scientists and science educators becomes very important.  Scientists who step beyond their laboratory to address policy makers and the public are taking on at least two additional responsibilities.  First, they must objectively and clearly communicate the content of their findings and implications to policy makers and the public.  Second, they must convey the challenging nature of science as a process--one which is easily threatened by unintended bias and often deliberate “spin” by adherents to conservative or liberal ideologues.

Although sound scientific theories are supported by strong statistical probabilities, scientists must continually emphasize to the layperson that there is no such thing as “settled science.”  It follows that modern science and culture should greatly value and pursue good science, a claim that I have made in a previous article, Conscience of Science: Part 2 Do Museums Make Us Muse?  I have defined good science as the dynamic, self-correcting pursuit of truth that tries to avoid error caused by experimental bias, personal bias, or political influence.
International Prototype Kilogram (IPK)
housed in Sèvres, France
To briefly underscore that science is tentative and not “settled,” let’s consider one aspect of the natural sciences that has been “settled”--the standards of weights and measure. While science may argue about the precise speed of light in meters per second, there should be no argument about the precise length of 1 standard meter.  Because the precise units of distance, mass, temperature, etc. are considered universally “settled,” uncertainties attributable to error in quantitative measurement are minimized as long as measuring devices and statistical sampling are employed properly.  It follows that more attention can then be directed at the hypothesis-testing part of science which is not “settled” because hypotheses can never be “proven.”  Scientific claims are accepted only so long as another experiment does not falsify supporting data.

Because of the complexity of the sciences, the great influence of science upon the American economy and culture, and the controversial nature of our contemporary political arena, it is no surprise that not all scientists accept a role as advocates in the public arena.  This notion brings us to the ethical consideration, the last of my four considerations in deciding whether or not one should join in the March for Science.

4.   The Ethical Conscience of Science
Science must shape policy.  Science is universal.  Science brings out the best in us.  With an informed, optimistic view of the future together, we can (Dare I say it?) SAVE THE WORLD! 
These are the words of Bill Nye, host of the PBS children’s science show, Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Nye spoke this morning at the March for Science gathering in Washington, DC. 
Bill Nye, the Science Guy:  "...we can save the world"

I sharply disagree with Mr. Nye.  Science without ethics would more nearly destroy the world than save it!   Science and technology have given us sharp tools, firearms, atomic energy, and drugs.  Where technology has sought to apply these tools for destructive means, millions have died.

 As I have pointed out in Part 1 of this series, “good science” is conscientious about being objective, cautious, humble, and unbiased in a culture that can easily bring bias and elicit unethical behavior.  In short, “good science” has a conscience ((Latin, conscientia = “knowledge of right and wrong within oneself”).  David Resnick, author of The Ethics of Science: AnIntroduction (Routledge), lists as the first three principles of scientific ethics: honesty, carefulness, and openness.

Is it ethical for scientists to utilize their professional status to support a specific policy or political initiative?  For example, should climatologists agree to an invitation to add their name to a list of signatories in support of limiting human-caused climate change?  John Kotcher and colleagues at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia attempted to address this question with a randomized survey of 1,235 Americans. Most respondents did not rate a fictitious climate scientist as less credible after hearing the scientist advocate for specific public policies.  The researchers concluded that climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility or the credibility of the scientific community.

Robert Lackey, a former senior biologist with the US Environmental Protection Agency, now in ecological policy and natural resource management at Oregon State University, disagrees with Kotcher :  If your day job is science and your night job is policy advocacy, why would I trust your day job?  Having worked in the environmental sciences for 50 years, Lackey has seen a steady erosion of the credibility of scientists. Lackey agrees that scientists have an important role in objectively informing the public of the facts, but the scientist who advocates for a given policy threatens to take public policy from the hands of the people.  He adds, You have to be careful here, because you end up in a debate over a technocracy versus a democracy.

Hastening to conclude this article while it is still Earth Day, I believe I have at least begun to make the case that the role of the scientist is better served by doing what scientists can do best:  striving to conduct his or her research while being honest, objective, careful, and humble; then, publishing conclusions in an objective, clear manner through print and digital platforms that are suited to others with expertise in decision making and formulation of policy. 

Knowing that there are up and coming Christian scholars in science like Kaytlin Goodwin, I have confidence in a future for the sciences when influenced by individuals with godly wisdom and integrity.  As a young advocate for both environmental stewardship and the importance of improved communication between scientists and laypeople, Kaytlin offers a positive way forward as applied to her field, the environmental sciences when she writes, If scientists and environmental educators can find ways to effectively communicate the relevance and importance of environmental issues, lasting change will be possible.  As Christians, we are especially responsible to teach others about the God-given value of the environment.

I realize that this subject undertaken here is beyond the scope of this article and extends beyond my expertise.  However, I hope we have raised some worthwhile points for consideration and provided some references for further reading.

Brossard, D. (2013). New media landscapes and the science information consumer. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (Supplement 3), 14096-- 14101.

Nisbet, Matthew C., et al. "Americans' attitudes about science and technology: The social context for public communication." Commissioned Review (2016). To read, click HERE

National Science Board (2014). Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation.

Pew Research Center (2015).  A Look at What the Public Knows and Does Not Know About Science. Washington, DC.

“Will a March Help Science?”  The Scientist (Feb. 2, 2017)

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