Public Ignorance of Science

Carl Sagan once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” [1] In the thirty years since Sagan died, this statement remains true. I will argue that public ignorance of science is a dangerous condition that must be addressed. First, I will outline the reasons why people are ignorant of science. Then I will identify the risks that come with this ignorance. Finally, I will propose some solutions to overcome ignorance of science.

One reason why people are ignorant of science is because they do not think they can understand it, and in many cases they may be right. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn identified cycles of scientific paradigms in which a particular area of study adopts a set of ideas to understand their field. Once a discipline is defined, “esoteric vocabulary” is invented to communicate about it, and articles are written with an audience in mind that has already understood key assumptions[2]. This has an effect of distancing people who are not well-versed in the discipline, even other scientists. Sometimes a term can mean one thing in one field and something altogether different in another. A revolution occurs when an anomaly which does not fit the model persists, challenging the dogma that has been built around the discipline. This is resisted by the culture of the discipline until it is evident that it cannot be ignored, and then new explanations are adopted and cemented into a new paradigm. This whole process contributes to ignorance in two ways. First, the development of arcane terms is off-putting to people without the training or patience to understand them. Second, the simple fact that science allows itself the potential to be proven incorrect allows people to consider doubts as more problematic than they really are.

If understanding science is considered to present difficulties among scientists of different disciplines, it is even more problematic for non-scientists. In his 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures, Charles P. Snow identified an alarming trend among academics. If an educated person admitted ignorance of some foundational piece of literature like Shakespeare, he or she would be roundly criticized, but if this person admitted to being ignorant of a foundational theory of science such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it is dismissed “as though the exploration of the natural order was of no interest.”[3] Snow distinguished between the industrial revolution and the scientific revolution, with the first marked by a move away from agrarian labor and the second by the application of science to industry. Like Sagan, he wrote that the scientific revolution is “the social plasma of which we are part… and we know almost nothing about it.”[4] Snow worried that social ostracizing of science would contribute to a deficit of trained scientists.

Ignorance is more than just a lack of knowledge in people who refuse to learn; it is also the deliberate obfuscation of knowledge. Sometimes this is done unwittingly, and sometimes on purpose. In Heather Douglas’ lecture, she points out that many small value judgments come into deciding what subjects to study and interpreting the results[5]. There are social and economic forces at work in guiding those judgments, and those forces sometimes are not working in the best interest of society. Some scientists are censored, others assert claims without the necessary expertise, and others actively manufacture doubt to avoid being implicated in causing harm. The science historian Robert Proctor coined the term “agnotology” to describe the practice of deliberately propagating ignorance after revelations from the tobacco industry showed that they had willfully misrepresented the dangers of cigarette smoking.[6] Similar revelations have come to light regarding the agnotological pursuits of the fossil fuel industry in confusing the science around climate change. Such efforts not only undermine knowledge within their specific area of interest but also erode public confidence in the ability of science to describe reality in general.

Philosophers and scientists already struggle with the reliability of what we can know. What we call matters of fact are based on a logical process of induction by which we assume that events that occur in the future will resemble those observed in the past.  Of course, things can never be proven with absolute certainty. The philosopher David Hume was aware of this and suggested that we form customs or habits through our experiences to describe the world. This makes it seems as if one set of truths has the same value as another set of truths, but this is not the case. There are modes of thinking called pseudoscience that do not rise to the same level of credibility as “normal” science. How can we tell the difference? The philosopher Karl Popper suggested that scientific claims can be best assessed by whether they are falsifiable. He held that inductive reasoning was actually deductive reasoning where we make a risky claim and then test it. If a theory has not been proven false after some reasonably large number of experiments, we contend that that theory has been corroborated, but never proven. We can then assess the quality of a theory based on factors such as consistency, universality, and simplicity. This allows us to determine whether one theory has a high enough degree of credibility to adopt as “truth.”

While we should be skeptical about knowledge and science to avoid being hoodwinked by pseudoscience, there are real issues that have ramifications for the future of humanity that a pragmatic person cannot afford to ignore. Climate change is a looming threat to the welfare of humanity that requires immediate attention. The use of petrochemicals has given humanity a great boost in our ability to produce food, travel, manufacture goods, and communicate with one another, but excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and sunk into the oceans is on track to irreversibly alter significant life-supporting systems of the planet. Shifting to alternative sources of energy could begin to reverse those trends, but there is much inertia in the systems of energy production and consumption that would need to be overcome. Nuclear energy could be a part of the solution, but there are concerns about damage to the environment from the mining of uranium and the potential release of radioactive material. The common wisdom is that conservatives are more likely to deny the compelling scientific evidence that humans are contributing to the warming of the planet through the emission of greenhouse gasses, while liberals tend to be more critical of nuclear energy. In both cases, confirmation biases and other psychological phenomena tend to lock people into modes of thought in which evidence that challenges their point of view is rejected.

Antibiotic resistance is another issue that has profound implications for human health. Overuse of antibiotics among humans and livestock has encouraged resistant strains of bacteria to develop, which in turn has made diseases like gonorrhea and even simple infections harder to treat. Another alarming trend in human health is the widespread erroneous belief that vaccines cause autism in children. A study published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 purported that the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella caused autism, but the report has since been widely discredited and Wakefield was shown to have been funded by lawyers who were trying to establish a case against the vaccine manufacturers[7]. Fear of vaccines has contributed to a resurgence of these deadly diseases that were previously on track to be eradicated. Genetically modified organisms such as flood resistant rice and vitamin enriched rice have helped to feed and nourish millions of people, but concerns persist around the mixture of genes with natural plants and corporate control of elements of the food supply. These issues require a decent working knowledge of science in order to adequately assess the relative benefits and risks of any particular technology and to make informed personal and public policy decisions.

So, what can be done to fight against the effects of public ignorance of science? The most important action we should take as informed citizens is to hold people accountable, whether they are scientists, journalists, or politicians. In her analysis of the intersection of politics and science, Heather Douglas contends that integrity among scientists is crucial to defend and bolster the respect of scientists by the public. She says that scientists are in “an authoritative position” and as such have a heightened responsibility to not only consider the consequences of their work, but also to be ethical in their methodology and interpretation of results[8]. She encourages strong checks on the quality of research practices by the scientific community, including mentoring, peer review, and reporting of irresponsible practices. Douglas also suggests some ways to determine whether a so-called expert is on the level. The biggest red flag in assessing experts is whether they can change their mind in the face of new evidence or emerging inconsistencies in their work. Douglas concludes that “careful policy for science and for the social functioning of the science community are central to reducing pernicious politicization of science.”[9] Making sure that scientists are contributing to knowledge in an ethical way and are trustworthy in the eyes of the public will go a long way to creating an environment where their conclusions can be widely accepted. Complementary to that is making sure that the public is repeatedly reminded of efforts to deceive them, whether by disingenuous scientists or the corporations who hire them.

While education is a key consideration in helping to increase the knowledge of science in the public, the goal should not be to train everyone to be a scientist but rather to understand how to assess scientific claims. Although it is hard to believe, there are schools in thirteen U.S. states that allow the teaching of intelligent design, a thinly-veiled version of Creationism, as equivalent to science. In a debate with the popular science communicator Bill Nye, noted Creationist Ken Ham was asked what evidence would change his mind about his beliefs. He admitted that his beliefs were “definite” although he could not prove them. This is an alarming thing for someone who identifies himself as a scientist to say, and points out a problem in the public sphere. Religion and science are generally seen to be enemies of one another, and so if a person has been socialized to hold religious beliefs strongly, they will tend to reject science as simply a different, flawed, or even immoral belief system. In this instance, there may be little that can be done to logically convince a person to even entertain a point of view that they are predisposed to reject. If the attempt to educate is framed as a fight against values, education will always fail.

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt presents evidence that the tendency to feel things first and reason second is built into all human beings, even in different cultures[10]. Haidt asserts that there are five major pillars of ethical consideration in people. To communicate effectively to an audience, it is necessary to determine with what type of felt moral foundation they identify. Reasoning and logic only come after a gut-level decision is made. Those five pillars of moral foundation are care (or harm), justice, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Scientists who are engaging the media should have some training to tailor their message in such a way that it can be heard through the static of people’s biases. When talking about the impacts of climate change to a conservative audience, for example, the emphasis should be on competing against the Chinese for market share in a green economy, since that impacts a sense of loyalty to our country. It is also important to not frame the debate as a fight between ideological camps. People have a strong need to belong to a group, and they will tend to defend “their side” against all reason and logic.

When looking at the problem of public ignorance of science, it seems like a difficult task to set things right. Whether it is a public administration that is eroding education standards, multinational corporations spending billions of dollars on misinformation, or entrenched belief systems that have been around for centuries, it is difficult to imagine that things can change. Things are changing, however, and as the American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker once said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one… But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”[11] Science itself has shown steady progress since the days of the Enlightenment, and people are more educated than any time in history. Just as greater literacy has led the way forward for democracy, increased knowledge of science will be the new force for social change in the future.

Matthew Ebert
PHIL 224 – 1001
Dr. Mariscal
14 May 2017

This assignment also required the design and construction of an accompanying poster.

[1] Carl Sagan., Xplore Inc, 2017., accessed May 13, 2017.

[2] Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Third ed. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1996: Pg. 64.

[3] Snow, C. P. 1905-1980. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Vol. 1959. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959. Page 16.

[4] Snow, Page 31.

[5] Douglas, Heather. Science vs. Politics: The Battle for Integrity. The Center for Values in Medicine, Science and Technology. 25 January 2012.

[6] Kenyon, Georgina. The man who studies the spread of 6 January 2016.

[7] “A Case of Junk Science, Conflict and Hype.” Nature Immunology 9, no. 12 (2008): 1317-1317.

[8] Douglas, Heather. Science vs. Politics: The Battle for Integrity. The Center for Values in Medicine, Science and Technology. 25 January 2012.

[9] Douglas.

[10] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. First ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.