Saturday, August 1, 2009

Science's Authority

I am back to writing in this blog after a long hiatus, mostly driven by the need to complete some writing projects. In particular, I have been completing review of final pages and preparation of the index for a forthcoming book, Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science, which should appear on the bookshelves by mid-September or thereabouts. I have also finished up a shorter work, Bridging Divides: The Origins of the Beckman Institute at Illinois, based on experiences in helping to establish the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. That book should be out by about October 1 at latest.

Now I want to return to blogging, to continuing the theme I began with several months ago: the relationships of science with society, with a special attention to aspects of science’s authority. How does science exercise influence in society? What are the grounds for its claims to having an especially reliable path toward truth with respect to questions that concern the natural world? Why does the public, or various groups of people within the larger society, sometimes accord science a high degree of deference with respect to some issue or question and at other times simply ignore or reject what appears to be an established position within science? Imperfect Oracle is my attempt to deal with these and related matters. The notion of authority can be powerful in shedding light on the day-to-day instances of science’s attempts to exercise influence, and resistances to those attempts that are grounded in commitments to competing social forces: government, law, religion, public culture and so on. Although science has been instrumental in shaping the modern world as no other social force, it is for all that just one among many influences that make up the cultural tenor of modern life. To understand how and to what extent science competes with other social forces, the nature of the authority it exercises, and the limits to that authority, must be understood.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center provide a good stepping-off place for this discussion. Pew surveyed two groups of adults. One survey consisted of telephone interviews of the general public, with a sample size of about 2,000 adults. A second survey consisted of a random sample of about 2,500 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The survey of the public was designed to ascertain peoples’ perceptions of both American science and scientists, and attitudes toward both. Here are a few results: The public has high regard for science; 84% think that science has a mostly positive effect on society, and only 6% think it has a mostly negative effect. In rankings of different professions, scientists are thought by 70 % of respondents to contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being. Scientists came in third behind members of the military and teachers, comparably with medical doctors, and well ahead of clergy, journalists, lawyers and business executives. A majority of the public (60%) believes that government funding of research is “essential”. These and many other responses suggest that the public has generally positive feeling about science and scientists.

For their part scientists feel that this is a good time for science (76%), though they have some complaints. Predictably, they don’t feel that there is sufficient funding for basic research (87%). They feel overwhelmingly that the public does not know very much about science (85%), that the news media fail to distinguish between findings that are well-founded and those that are not (76%), and that the public expect solutions to problems too quickly (49%).
These results are pretty much in line with those garnered ten years ago in a similar survey, and results from other surveys conducted over the past couple of decades. The comparison of what scientists believe about the natural world with what members of the general public believe is also consistent with past survey results. As examples, only 32% of the public, as compared with 87% of scientists, believe that humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes. Only 49% of the public believe that earth is getting warmer because of human activity. Surprisingly, even among those who disagree with the scientific consensus - for example, that living things have evolved – a strong majority affirm that scientists have contributed to the well-being of society.

As we think about these and similar survey results in relation to science’s authority in society, the first important point is that science is generally well-regarded by the public, and scientists are deemed trustworthy. Science’s authority rests upon trust in its expertise, and on the feeling that scientists as a group mean to do the right thing. But that general complaisance does not automatically translate into acceptance of scientific findings when they seem to raise conflicts with beliefs anchored in religion, politics or variously derived social understandings. Furthermore, there is ample evidence based on other surveys, one of which was part of the Pew project, that the public has a quite limited understanding not only of accepted science, but also of how science actually works; that is, the means by which science comes to hold what we can call ‘scientific opinion’. These two factors together combine to weaken science’s influence when there appear to be conflicts between broadly consensual scientific opinion on the one hand, and inured beliefs grounded in experiences and teachings beginning in early life on the other. The multiple influences that determine the extent to which any person is inclined to accept scientific authority seem to operate almost independently of educational attainment or adult life situation. For example, I wrote in this blog in February about George Will’s obdurateness with respect to a scientific matter relating to global warming. From a scientific perspective, Will had virtually no ground (ice?) to stand on in his assertion that arctic ice is not thinning, and that the claim that it is serves as one more example of global warming hysteria. I attempted there to address the question of why an intelligent man with little or no expertise in the subject matter would persist in a assertion that conflicts with a strong scientific consensus. I hope to write in following blogs about similar instances in which individuals or groups adopt positions with respect to scientific questions that amount to direct challenges to scientific authority. The easiest cases to understand are those in which the individual has a financial or powerful political interest that would be adversely impacted by implementing policies based on a scientific consensus; think, for example, Exxon Mobil or Senator James Inhofe. We can call attention to their obvious bias and attempt to counter their views with arguments based on science. It is not so easy to deal with the likes of George Will, religious conservatives, political libertarians, and a host of others who choose to follow the dictates of some other authority or cultural inclination than science in determining their views on a wide range of societally important issues. If we are to make progress in increasing science’s authority, we need to recognize the conflicts with other cultural forces represented in these cases and find ways to present science and scientists more effectively.

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