Monday, May 12, 2014

It's Okay to Talk to a Scientist

This week's episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey focused on the work of Michael Faraday, and gave a fascinating explanation of the relationship between magnetism, electricity, and light. As I watched the episode, I kept thinking about Insane Clown Posse. We've had plenty of fun at ICP's expense since their song "Miracles" came out a couple years ago, but there's a serious problem exemplified by Shaggy 2 Dope's lyrics: "I don't wanna talk to scientist, y'all motherf#@kers lyin', and gettin' me pissed."

Why do things like homeopathy and "organic food" and anti-vaccine advocates still find traction in our society? Because people distrust - and misunderstand - science.

Part of the problem is a lack of proper education. Too many people can't distinguish legitimate science from junk. They don't understand the base principles of science or how science works. And considering that they don't understand science, they likewise don't understand skepticism: what it means, how it works, and why it matters. Hence circumstantial evidence and emotionally-charged personal testimonies sway their views, rather than logic, reason, data, and evidence. They don't understand the objective attitude and the self-correcting mechanism built in to the scientific method. Beyond that, once in a while a scientist may be less than objective. There's often one or two bad apples in the proverbial barrel, even the barrel of science. For reasons beyond the scope of this blog entry, negative events and experiences tend to cling to the human psyche longer and stronger than positive ones, which means one negative experience vis-à-vis science may be all it takes to sour one's mind.

Religious influence also plays a part. Religion (organized religion, any way) has a long history of being at odds with science, with the inevitable conclusion being that religion eventually and reluctantly adapts as its eyes adjust to the ever-brightening light of scientific discovery. Unfortunately, that adjustment seemingly never comes without a long, hard battle. This is not only due to a lack of education and/or miseducation, but because humans are emotional creatures. We fall in love way too easily with our own opinions, and we are quick to judge everything by the yard stick of our own context. My religion is the right one because it's my religion. My country is number one because it's my country. My way of life is the best because it's my way. This is the attitude many of us have, and while most may not say it explicitly, their actions and attitudes express the sentiment all too clearly.

The answer, naturally, is education. When I think back to the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, I had reservations about whether it was a good idea for Bill to get involved. I didn't like the idea of giving Ken Ham a platform and the appearance of legitimacy. Watching the debate and seeing the conversations that happened afterward led to my change of mind. I'm a fan of the idea of getting the word out, using an entertaining vehicle like that debate to raise awareness of science and to educate people who may have never heard these ideas before. We need more spokespersons of science to speak and write and communicate and educate. Be a science spokesperson! As we saw in this week's episode of Cosmos, we can thank science for this incredible ability to communicate via the technological advancements we enjoy today.

This brings me to this week's Weekly Cosmos Quote:

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