January 28, 2016

PINEDA | What Do Scientists Know That We Don’t?

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People love talking about the gap in scientific beliefs between Democrats and Republicans. For example, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Democrats believe that climate change is occurring because of human activity, versus 27 percent of Republicans. This degree of difference in opinions on science is a major roadblock to forming vital political policies, whether on genetic modification of food, climate change mitigation or vaccines. There is another gap, though, that is just as telling when it comes to America’s division on science issues: the one between the public and the average scientist.

Scientists’ views on science may be even farther from laypeople’s than Democrats’ views are from Republicans’. Eighty-eight percent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — representing all scientific fields, and from here on referred to simply as “scientists” — think that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, compared to only 37 percent of U.S. adults. 87 percent of scientists believe that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity, versus 50 percent of U.S. adults and 86 percent of scientists believe that childhood vaccines should be required versus 68 percent of U.S. adults.

A 50 percent gap in opinion on genetically modified food can’t be ignored: clearly the average scientist knows something that the average member of the public doesn’t. The historical view has been that if only people were better educated, their views would come in line with the scientific consensus. Smack a layperson around a few times with enough scientific facts, and they’ll become a true believer in GMOs.

Unfortunately, research has shown that simply giving people information is not enough to change their attitudes towards science. In fact, being more scientifically literate can make people more polarized in their views on science. As you learn more about a topic, you can appreciate it more, but you can also find new grounds on which to criticize it.

This raises a major question: if having more facts doesn’t lead people to the same answer on scientific issues, then why do scientists have such homogenous views — always closer to 100 percent agreement with each other — compared to laypeople?

And why would scientists, in all their diverse expertise, be in agreement about specific fields like genetically modified food or climate change, about which most have no special knowledge? 89 percent of earth scientists agreed that climate change was occurring due to human activity – virtually the same as the 87 percent of all scientists who agreed. A microbiologist or astrophysicist likely has no more knowledge of climate science than a layperson, but they hold the same views as earth scientists anyway. So what do they know that other people don’t, if not scientific facts?

Scientists know that science is competitive. Labs are generally competing with one another in a zero-sum game for limited funds from a pre-determined budget, whether granted by the government or other organizations. If a climate lab in Berkeley could show that a climate lab in London is wrong and they are right, it is to their benefit to do so. Scientists are happy to refute each other’s research in order to make their own mark on the field and win respect and funding — far from being the uniform cabal the media likes to portray.

Scientists know that science rewards novelty. Research will get more prestige by countering the popular narrative, as opposed to adding to a chorus supporting it. Albert Einstein, for example, became the most respected scientist of all time by toppling the principles established by Isaac Newton, not by going along with consensus. If there were credible research against the scientific consensus on vaccines, climate change or evolution, the person who published it would change the world and could clear a little space on their shelves for their future Nobel Prize.

Scientists know that science is self-correcting. Unfortunately, incorrect results do get published, whether through honest error or fraud. This would be disastrous if scientists treated results like many newspaper editors do: “Scientists prove donuts cure cancer!” What newspapers don’t publish is the follow-up over the course of decades as competing labs from around the world validate or refute each other’s results. It is a slow process, but in the end the truth does win out over errors and falsehoods.

Scientists know that scientific fraud means the end of a career. The public sees politicians and advocates regularly misleading them and logically assumes that every public figure blatantly lies to suit their own ends. However, while a politician may lie twice before putting their pants on in the morning, a scientist need only lie about their results once to be out of a job and a profession. The researcher who published false data linking vaccines to autism was barred from practicing medicine when his fraud was inevitably discovered. This year, an assistant professor was not only forced to resign from Iowa State University for scientific fraud, but was also convicted of multiple felonies and sentenced to five years in prison. Political commentators and online commenters casually accuse scientists of lying about their data, but scientists know that the consequences of scientific fraud are drastic and final.

This specialist knowledge — not about facts, but about process — is absent in public discussions of science. While talking heads yell about ice ages and solar cycles, they ignore the more salient point that it is impossible for a global conspiracy of scientists to manufacture climate change. While alarmed parents cite rising rates of autism, they fail to understand that the research linking vaccination to autism was retracted years ago for being completely fraudulent.

What scientists know is that facts are not enough if we do not understand the scientific process. As the last centuries of tremendous human progress have shown (you read, on your iPhone, without polio), the scientific process works. Even though each one of us can’t have all of the facts, we can point political policy and human progress in the right direction by trusting the process.

Andre Pineda is a second-year PhD candidate at Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York City. He may be reached at anp2050@med.cornell.edu. What’s Up Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.