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Has science become a dirty word?

In today’s world we are increasingly seeing the denial or undermining of science

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13 December 2021

By: Mike Young

In her farewell speech in Berlin, Angela Merkel, a scientist herself, commented ‘Wherever scientific insight is denied and conspiracy theories and hatred are spread, we need to resist’

In the US too, alarm bells are ringing. This year an article in Scientific American, claimed that the anti science movement is escalating, going global and killing thousands.

It would certainly appear that a minority but growing number of the population in many countries seem to be losing whatever respect they may have had for science. In the UK at least, it would seem that the government’s claim to be following the science during the Covid crisis has been a potential stimulus but what else is driving this both in the UK and abroad?

The answer is likely to be complex, with political views most definitely playing a part. However,  more fundamental may be how people understand science. Science follows the evidence and as that changes so do the views of scientists. However, to the uninitiated this can come across as not knowing what they are doing. ‘One minute they say one thing the next they say something else’ is a not uncommon refrain. People crave certainty and expect science to provide it. If it doesn’t, then many tend to think that scientists know no more than the rest of us. A good example, at least in part, is the criticism of the precautions over Omicrom as scientists await the full facts.

Another aspect of this is understanding of risk. For more than a few people, risk is binary, it’s either there or it isn’t. It is not unusual to hear people say that they know people who have been jabbed yet they still get Covid or end up in hospital. The fact that vaccination reduces the risk but is not 100% effective seems to be difficult for some to grasp and it undermines their respect for science.

People also turn to the internet for information without understanding or caring about the credibility of sources. Loss of trust in science also undermines the credibility of the very sources from which people should be seeking their information. In addition, since emotion is an important driver in decision making, confirmation bias distorts the credibility given to information. It’s only valid if it fits with what you already think and feel.

Fundamental to this is how poor our education about science remains. Unfortunately, it’s not only anti-vaxxers or climate change deniers who have a poor understanding of science, it is also true of many politicians and the media, many of whom cease to study science after the age of 16. The need for better education of the subject is therefore clear, as is the need for science to be brought to life in all forms of communication, including the basics of how it works and where and how to seek reliable information. These things can’t happen soon enough!

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