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March 26, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Welcome to Dystopia

The Endemic Abuse of Science

You probably have an opinion about nuclear energy. You likely either consider climate change an existential threat to our society, or an overblown hoax. If someone asked your thoughts on genetically modified organisms and chemicals in food, you’d be happy to oblige.

Yet it’s unlikely you’d be able to explain why nuclear fission releases energy, or why greenhouse gases heat the Earth, or even begin to describe how genetic modification actually works. In fact, if put to the test many of you wouldn’t be able to accurately explain what an atom’s nucleus is, or what gas molecules are, or what the difference between DNA and RNA is. On even the most basic scientific issues you hold opinions on things you are, in fact, woefully ignorant.

This is not mere conjecture, either. A 2005 study found that only 28 per cent of American adults achieved the level of scientific literacy needed to understand the New York Times ‘Science’ section. This was the second highest result of all countries assessed. While comparative data does not exist for New Zealand, there is no reason to believe we would score any higher: one of the reasons suspected for the United States’ ‘high’ performance (beating the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan) was the common university requirement that all undergraduates take science as part of a ‘general education’ programme, a requirement New Zealand does not possess.

So, you’re probably ignorant. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course. Learning something has a cost, and for a lot of people that cost isn’t worth paying. Knowing about the details of nuclear power will not help you get a job, or a date, or greatly improve your life, and so you don’t bother to learn it. You are rationally ignorant.

However, you still hold opinions about, the things you are rationally ignorant, because having those opinions has its own benefits. You get the satisfaction of being on a ‘side’. You can signal to others that you are a person who cares about the world around you (thereby letting you make ‘friends’ in your BA tutorials), and you satisfy the nagging suspicion that having an opinion on important issues is something you should do. In fact, as long as your opinions don’t hurt anyone, the fact you derive satisfaction from them is as good a reason as any to let you have them.

The problem is though, that your opinions do hurt people. They influence how policy is made, and if your ignorance, in aggregate with the ignorance of the whole voting public, causes bad policy to be made, then a whole edifice of informed democracy begins to come crumbling down.

Democracy, ultimately, is about giving power to the people. But when citizens stand idle because they are blind as to how to best use their power, it is unsurprising that groups emerge offering to lend a guiding hand. Three in particular stand at the fore, offering their wisdom: the Baptists, the bootleggers, and the politicians; the ultimate special interest group.

The Baptists are the moralisers and the moralists, those who know their way is the best way, because it is their way. They stand on their soapboxes and condemn society for its guilty pleasures and decadences. As the churches crumbled, and moral authority began to rest in the individual rather than the Father, those who judge others for their choices had to turn to science to validate their paternalism. Quit smoking, save your health, save your soul.

Some are prophets, calling out from street corners about the decline of civilisation, asking for repentance and donations. Buy an indulgence, only 20 dollars a month. Save a dolphin, save the world.

The bootleggers are the charlatans and snake oil sellers, the big businesses offering to ‘protect’ the community by monopolising its supply of poison. They are the small bottle stores who help spread the results of studies that show that supermarkets cause binge-drinking. They are the big pharmaceuticals–and the big homeopaths–buying ad space on television to prey on your fears about your health, your wellbeing and your baby. They sell you organic, chemical-free, guilt-free, reason-free potatoes, magnetic underlays and pills. They cure the diseases you never knew you had, all the while reminding you that you are obese, bloated and rotting away from the poor choices you made that only they can fix (for a fee).

The politicians use science to define and divide. Every issue is one that can be politicised if it can be spun against the opposition. Climate change is not just an issue of science, but an issue of social conscience, of identity. Two clans form, one denying everything unthinkingly, one accepting everything uncritically. The line between scientific fact (the Earth is warming) and political response (we should reduce emissions rather than plan for mitigation) become blurred, as the science is used to justify new taxes and new opportunities to ‘think big’. The genuine debate in the middle is warped into a pantomime played out between two teams of absolutists: white and black, red and blue.

Such lobbying is an important part of the democratic process. The problem is, though, that the tool these groups wield is the very shield that should be protecting us from them. In theory, the media play a vital role in informing and educating the electorate, yet when it comes to matters scientific, not only do they fail in this role, but they actually twist their role as enlightening hero into that of a petty henchman for those who would exploit you.

You may remember earlier that the New York Times has a ‘Science’ section. Having a dedicated and substantive section such as that is incredibly uncommon. The Washington Post does not have one. Neither does the Guardian, nor the Telegraph, nor the Sydney Morning Herald. Here in New Zealand, neither Stuff nor the Herald have one either. Instead, what you will often find is that they have a ‘Technology’ section. Instead of reporting on the actual science that defines the world around us, they report on the toys: pages upon pages of content about the shiny badges of the middle class.

It’s very easy to understand why this is. Proper coverage requires reporters with specialist knowledge, and the time and resources to put them to use. Given shrinking profit margins in a sinking industry it is no surprise that genuine science reporting is being phased out and replaced with copied Apple press-releases. Any remaining science reporting will be the stuff that sells: sensationalist reporting of health scares and poorly reported puff-pieces about speculative discoveries. Given that both Stuff and the Herald cannot afford sub-editors (last week Stuff proudly proclaimed St Cuthbert’s and Wellington College to be New Zealand’s “Branest (sic) schools”), the idea they could employ scientific fact checkers is a patent absurdity.

So the only people standing between the blind and those who would rob them are a fourth estate just as blind as those it attests to inform. The idea of the reasonable, informed voter seems but an increasingly elusive fantasy.

In fact, it’s even worse than that, for science is itself in many ways a fantasy. In 2005 John Ploannidis published an essay entitled, rather simply, ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False’. In this essay he uses a rather simple application of Bayesian probability to show that, based on a set of reasonable assumptions, most claims made in published research are likely to be false. Such a claim is shocking, but his argument is striking. Consider one of his arguments: in many areas where experiments are costly to reproduce a 95 per cent confidence interval is accepted, which means that in 5 per cent of the cases that an untrue hypothesis is tested, it will be found to be true. Of course untrue hypotheses greatly outnumber true ones–and in theory they are limitless–which leads to the conclusion that many, many published research findings are, in fact, false. Add in experimental bias, small samples, small effect sizes and discretion over design and analysis and Ploannidis’ analysis casts into doubts entire corpuses of ‘scientific fact’–particularly in the social sciences and medicine.

The conclusion is somewhat concerning: the sensationalised media articles latched onto by the Baptists, the bootleggers and the politicians, are based on a poor understanding of scientific research that may not even be true.

Think all of this is too farfetched? Consider the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. While this simple immunisation promises to let women have sex without the risk of genital warts or cervical cancer, large numbers refuse to get it because of an illusionary threat of adverse effects. The Baptists cite Andrew Wakefield’s flagrantly fraudulent research into the MMR vaccine’s apparent ‘risk’ to reinforce their (coincidental, of course) objections to liberated female sexuality, all the while relying on the breathless reporting of a media excited by the ‘controversy’. Women get sick, Wakefield made money, and the ordinary person was left quaking in the dark.

Fixing such a broken system seems to present an almost insurmountable problem. The natural response is to try and improve scientific education, yet New Zealand already has one of the finest such systems in the world. The problem is that once teenagers are told they no longer need to know science, they promptly forget it. Only 5 per cent of Japanese adults are scientifically literate, yet their school system records some of the highest rates of success in such education. If secondary school education doesn’t actually stick, then the task of educating an adult population seems almost insurmountable: you can’t force adults back to school.

The only hope, then, is that the cynicism that is so pervasive these days is eventually applied to the media and those who abuse it. Corporations and the rich are already scrutinised, yet the same scrutiny is never applied to social activists citing the latest study that supports their views. As long as people trust science—as science is described to them by the media—then they can never be truly enlightened. In other words, the path to enlightenment is the rejection of the media, and on a fundamental level, a rejection of “science” as we know it.

A chilling thought. Welcome to dystopia.

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  1. GEORGE Coffee says:

    First of all, I do not see how peoples “scientific literacy” as you put it should be taken into consideration when dealing with such matters as GM, Nuclear Weapons and other such potential nastiness.
    Most people do not know how a car works, yet they still drive one.
    You probably don’t know how the computer you’re reading this on works, yet it does not affect your ability to make a rational decision as to its safety of use.

    In such cases as serious as nuclear energy, scientific understanding is perhaps less important as ethics. Most of the debate surrounding nuclear power lies with it’s potential to be used for proliferation of nuclear arms, and safety.
    I am assuming you are alluding to New Zealand’s nuclear free stance when you make this point, and I think that you should not say that people are wrong just because they are “ignorant” as you put it.
    Although safety issues can be minimised, the threat can never be completely eliminated. Nuclear power is generally regarded to be “safe”, and in fact the radioactive waste from such power plants is less than their coal fired equivalents.
    Objectively speaking, does this mean that nuclear power is safe? Not completely, no, but it’s safer than coal.
    But wait, does NZ get its power from coal? No.
    Is nuclear power safer and cheaper than our current renewable resources, No.
    However, this is beside the point.
    Cold hard numbers and facts must be tempered with ethics.
    People may not understand the science surrounding nuclear energy, the different types of reactors and their advantages or disadvantages. People may not understand how nuclear power plants can be used to create nuclear bombs.
    People may not understand HOW a nuclear meltdown occurs.
    People do understand that these things can happen, and they have decided that it’s not worth the risk.

    How can you blame people for being scared of the HPV Vaccine, especially when there are numerous publicised cases where it has had adverse affects. In fact over 1600 people suffered *serious* complications up until September 2011 (death, permanent disability, life-threatening illness and hospitalization) in the united states alone. []
    (That’s more than half the total number of coalition deaths in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001)
    You cannot blame people for being reluctant to risk their lives with something that has empirical evidence showing its risks.

    Although I agree that it is unhealthy to avoid all immunisations (serious, highly contagious diseases should definitely be immunised against), I do not see the point in risking your life to get immunised for something that is totally avoidable.
    You may not have a choice about whether or not you catch smallpox off someone, but (unless you are raped) you have a choice about whether or not you get genital warts off some slut you met at the pub.

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