Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

"Better Communication" Won't Overcome Willful Scientific Ignorance

"Better Communication" Won't Overcome Willful Scientific Ignorance

By Dennis D. McDonald

Chris Mooney’s June 27 Washington Post editorial If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening provides a short course on the complexities of a major problem facing the United States: willful scientific ignorance. Unfortunately, I don’t think Mooney’s suggestion that “better communication” on the part of scientists will overcome the problem.

Yes, some Americans still believe the earth is only a few thousand years old and that dinosaurs and humans once walked the earth together. I’m not referring to that type of ignorance. Obviously some people are willing to limit their own personal conceptions of God to what they themselves can understand. That’s their right. I think it’s more likely that God created everything and gave humans the brains and ability to gradually figure out how things work using scientific methods — but I’ll never be able to “prove” that since that’s more a religious than scientific question.

The “willful scientific ignorance” I’m referring to is more complex. It’s based, I think, on the often negativeinteraction between politics and science that Mooney refers to. Political leanings do appear to have some bearing on one’s approach to understanding and acting on scientific findings. We live in a complex society where we have delegated much authority to government; science is only one of the factors that informs public policy, much of which is devoted to managing what happens in the future.

One problem is that many people just don’t understand that science isn’t just about figuring out what is and isn’t true. Real science often does not exist in a black and white/true or false dichotomy. “Doing science” often involves a long slog where, for every major breakthrough and world-changing “ah-ha” moment, there are thousands of small advances that, taken by themselves, might mean little but which occasionally are coalesced into major breakthroughs.

Examples of such profound breakthroughs are Newton’s understanding of gravity, Darwin’s observation of the workings of natural selection and, more recently, the understanding of how plate tectonics operate.

But much of science involves small steps that only seem to generate more questions and probabilities, not certainties. Politicians and government officials in their desire to manage the future can become frustrated by the messiness of real science.

A case in point: recent experience with H1N1. Everything I read last year about the potential for a catastrophic H1N1 outbreak couched such predictions with probabilities and uncertainty. Yet we now have people pointing to the LACK of a catastrophic outbreak — so far — as “evidence” that “scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.”

In an atmosphere of such aggressive anti-intellectualism and happy ignorance I don’t see how scientists can overcome ignorance with more and better listening or communication. Communication requires two parties. If one side doesn’t understand — or want to understand — that the real world of science is a constant but gradual quest for knowledge that doesn’t guarantee outcomes, no amount of quality communication and listening will suffice.

We’re talking about different world views here where, increasingly, ignorance appears to be prized and another where ignorance is the enemy. In the Unites States, I fear, ignorance appears to be winning.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald

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