Many of the most pressing problems our species faces – such as climate change, food and water scarcity, and energy shortages – require scientific solutions. Only through research, experimentation, and innovation can we are way around these looming catastrophes.
Yet science itself faces an even greater challenge than these global crises – a lack of public and political support. That was the prevailing assessment by scientists from across the world who gathered at an annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Participants noted that the global public as a whole “does not understand science,” and that science itself was “under siege” by religious and ideological forces. As one attendee starkly observed, “We have a planetary emergency, and very few people recognise that.”
The theme of the five-day meeting, attended by some 8,000 scientists from 50 countries, was “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society.”
“It’s about persuading people to believe in science, at a time when disturbing numbers don’t,” said meeting co-chair Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University in this western Canadian city.
Experts wrangled with thorny issues such as censorship, opposition from religious groups in the United States to teaching evolution and climate change, and generally poor education standards.
“We have to plan for a future, considering the risk of climate change, with nine to 10 billion people,” said Hans Rosling, a Swedish public health expert famous for combating scientific ignorance with catchy YouTube videos.
Rosling, pointing to charts showing how human populations changed with technology and how without science the majority of a family’s children die, said it is naive to think that humanity can easily go backward in history.
“I get angry when I hear people say: ‘In the rainforest people live in ecological balance.’ They don’t. They die in ecological balance,” he said.
Indeed, global warming is an indicative example of this issue. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, the majority of Americans remain unconvinced about climate change, and skepticism has only grown more over the past few years. Even those who accept the phenomenon nonetheless erroneously believe that we’ll be able to adapt, which is yet another manifestation of scientific ignorance.
The United States is particularly susceptible to anti-intellectualism, and it runs rather deep in our history (ironic, given that our much deified founders were pretty cerebral themselves). Academics and scholars remain just as distrusted as their scientific peers, and many Americans – egged on by pundits and polemists – often see intelligent people as elitist, aloof, and even insidious (especially if they have Ivy League degrees).
Granted, bias, narrow-mindedness, and immorality bedevil even the most intelligent members of our society, as these are universal human flaws. Furthermore, even smart people can be wrong, and the scientific consensus has sometimes needed tweaking, if not outright abandonment. So some degree of measured analysis and critical thinking must be applied to any and all claims – that’s why self-correcting measures such as peer review and re-experimentation have been institutionalized.
But the general public has reached a point of extreme fallibism, in which nearly all the claims made by “experts” are reflexively doubted because of the very fact that they were made by experts. Personal experience, or even mere intuition, are seen as more legitimate, even though they’re each limited by our own cognitive constraints (e.g. our sense can fool us, our life experiences are limited, etc).