If you won’t trust a scientist on a scientific issue…

…then who will you trust?

I get the impression from the blogosphere, YouTube and from individual members of the public that there is an increasing distrust of science, and indeed of anything scientific. This isn’t a new phonomenon either, Ben Goldacre’s book; Bad Science was published in 2008 and its purpose was to expose the prolific abuse of science by both large companies and individuals. Did the publication of this book change anything? Well no, a few journalists and reviewers commented about its honesty and veracity but nothing changed. Today there is such a backlash against science and reasoning that many scientists and science advocates are having to temper their coment and criticism. (Dr. Goldacre can be found here – http://www.badscience.net/)

Where has this backlash come from I hear you ask? Well the few religious readers I may have (and I don’t think there are many) will at this point expect me to blame the main monotheistic religions… but for once you are only partly correct. For sure there are rather huge fundamentalist movements; most notably in the United Tanks of America (USA) and middle eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and these are coming over to the UK either through large scale immigration or through media bought in by satellite TV… attribute blame where you will!

These “Fundies” may well be encouraging individuals to ignore or distrust science for their own ends (i.e. spreading religion) but in my opinion these are more of a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause… que cheers from the three great god-bothering group-thinks.

So what can we then narrow this down to if we discount the fundies? I think we can trace this back to a couple of major influences, one being Education, another being the abuse of science by large corporations (including the ludicrous misuse of UK Libel Laws) and finally something called “Equal Time”, which I will deal with individually.

First then let us tackle education, the UK lies 21st on the 2007 UNDP list of countries by Human Devlopment Index*; which is not a bad rating considering that there are upwards of 140 countries in the world… but we lie below some countries which may surprise you (go and have a look!). This may lead you to think that we have a really good education system, and I would love to agree with you, but think about the battle that is had every year when people like the Daily Mail decry declining education standards every year (Daily Mail, 2009 and retort at The Daily Quail, 2009). When I left school after collecting my A-Levels I would have adamantly defended them, and the hard work I put in to get them yet now, three years on and considering what I have read and heard from people who took the exams years ago I am (to my chagrin) inclined to agree more with the people at the Mail. Though I wouldn’t say that dumbing-down is the ONLY reason the pass rates are rising, Teaching is geting better and just perhaps the kids are getting smarter too!

But there are larger problems than “dumbing down” here… another problem was highlighted by Sir David Attenborough in a speach made to the launch of the Society of Biology this week (The Daily Telegraph, 2010a). The issue is that laws passed to prevent the over collection of endangered animals in the UK are preventing amateur naturalists (be they young or old) from collecting and learning about all species for fear of breaking the law! I am an avid fossil hunter, and luckily live on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset when not at uni, which has a very lenient collecting policy because if the fossils are not collected then they are lost to the sea, all they ask is that they get first dibs if you find something important and wish to sell… simple enough, and fair no? But even here the National Trust as a landowner on the Jurassic Coast, successfully won a crown court injunction to prevent any fossil hunting on their land (The Daily Telegraph, 2010b), perhaps it’s just me but I can see where Sir David is coming from.

Another isue is that students can now take a far wider variety of courses, and are allowed to finish school with 5 A-levels, of which none are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths), and often not even vauguely scientific subjects (Such as Geography, History or Information Technology).

Now don’t get me wrong, allowing people to study what they want is a beautiful way of ensuing continued interest in education. But given that GCSE’s these days don’t give you a good science grounding, and the “General Studies” A-Level is a joke not even worth the hour a week we had timetabled for it, I am of the opinion that people should be encouraged if not made to take a subject that is going to give them some critical thinking or science skills – Especially in a world where people are wiling to abuse science to get you to do things or buy their products.

This brings us quite neatly to the second factor I identified up in paragraph five (if you are still with me then MAJOR Kudos to you). I will be brief with this one because it is something far more comprehensively covered by others such as the aforementioned Dr Ben Goldacre at www.badscience.net. Large companies are experts at selling you their products, and more often than not are willing to lie, misrepresent or just plain bullsh*t you to get you to do it, in fact some cosmetics companies spend more on marketing than on R&D… wouldn’t this worry you? it does me!

So here we finally come on to one heck of a BIG EVIL… “Equal Time”, now this one is simply pathetic, and it is one that I can blame in part on the twin evils of Religion and Mass Media (sorry guys).

Equal time says that no matter how blatently stupid an opinion is, it is entitled to have an equal amount of time on the media dedicated to it… so we end up with…

  • Creationists “debating” Scientists,
  • Global Warming Sceptics “debating” Scientists
  • Flat Earthers “debating” Scientists
  • Chiropracters “debating” Doctors
  • Crystal Healers “debating” Doctors
  • Pro-Lifers “debating” Stem-cell Scientists
  • Pro-Lifers “debating” Abortion Doctors

and the list goes on…. and if you cannot see the problem here let me give you an analogy…

We have two people, first there’s James who studied several branches of science and published many papers on the science behind food… he spends five minutes explaining why a healthy diet is good for you…

then the TV presenter turns to the other end of the couch where Bob is sitting, Bob thinks tomatoes are from Mars and want to kill us all…

THIS OPINION DOES NOT DESERVE 5 SECONDS…. let alone five minutes… but it’s TV, and that means Equal Time!!!

Hence equal time is a bad idea, though yes I know that’s a generalisation, but it hopefully illustrates the point in a non-subtle, anyone can understand kind of way.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post, and if you got this far then well done.

Ben Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-1A

* The HDI is an index which is not just based on education, but it’s the closest I could find to a list of countries by Educational Quality, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Human_Development_Index

REFERENCES:

The Daily Mail (2009), A-levels are so easy a monkey could be trained to do them, say teachers [ONLINE] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1206973/A-levels-easy-monkey-trained-say-teachers.html (accessed 04/04/2010)

The Daily Telegraph (2010a), Let children collect flowers and fossils says Sir David Attenborough [ONLINE] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7530566/Let-children-collect-flowers-and-fossils-says-Sir-David-Attenborough.html (accessed 04/04/2010)

The Daily Telegraph (2010b), Fossil hunter banned from digging in cliffs [ONLINE] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/dinosaurs/7520196/Fossil-hunter-banned-from-digging-in-cliffs.html (accessed 04/04/2010)

The Daily Quail (2009), Newspapers complain of Dumbing Down of A-Levels for 27th year in a row [ONLINE] http://www.dailyquail.org/2009/08/newspapers-complain-of-dumbing-down-of.html (accessed 04/04/2010)

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