We like using the results of science, but not learning it. Credit: Bing Image Creator

(We Don’t) Trust the Science

Kim Bellard

--

I know the A.I. community is eagerly waiting for me to weigh in on the Sam Altman/OpenAI dramedy (🙄), but I’m not convinced this isn’t all a ploy by ChatGPT, so I’m staying away from it. A.I. may, indeed, be an existential issue for our age, but it’s one of many such issues that I fear we’re not, as a society, going to be equipped to handle.

Last week the Pew Research Center issued an alarming report Americans’ Trust in Scientists, Positive Views of Science Continue to Decline. Now, a glass half-full kind of person might look at it and say — no, it’s good news! Fifty-seven percent of Americans agree science has a mostly positive impact on society, and 73% have a great deal or a fair amount in confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests. For medical scientists it was 77%. Only the military (74%) also scored above 70%. That’s good news, right?

The glass half-empty person would point to the downward trend in just the past few years: at the beginning of the pandemic (April 2020) the respective percentages were 87% (scientists), 89% (Medical scientists), and 83% military. The faith in them has continued to drop since. Things are trending in the wrong direction, quickly.

If the glass was half full, it’s spilling now.

About a third (34%) of the public thinks that the impact of science on society has had an equally positive and negative impact, while 8% think science has had a mostly negative impact. Again, the trend has been negative since the pandemic; the 57% who think science has a positive impact was 73% in January 2019. That’s alarming.

The skepticism about scientists and the value of science has increased generally, but is more pronounced among Republicans and those without a college degree. E.g., only 61% of Republicans have a fair/great amount of confidence in scientists, versus 85% in April 2020 and versus 86% of Democrats now. Fewer than half (47%) of Republicans think science has had a mostly positive impact on society, versus 70% on January 2019.

In the supposed most developed country in the world, thirty-nine percent of Americans think the U.S. is losing ground in science achievement versus the rest of the world, and only 52% even agree it is important for the U.S. to be a world leader in scientific achievements. Ten percent didn’t think it was important at all. Young people, surprising, were most skeptical.

I wonder what the doubters do think it is important for us to be the world leader in.

The problem may be that a third thought developments in science were changing society too quickly (43% among Republicans). They want their new iPhones, they like fast internet speeds, they demand the latest treatments when they get sick, but somehow they don’t connect those to science.

I think about this when I read about the Texas board of education fighting about how science is taught in Texas schools. This year climate change and evolution were, again, hot topics. Evelyn Brooks, a Republican board member, said: “The origins of the universe is my issue — big bang, climate change — again, what evidence is being used to support the theories, and if this is a theory that is going to be taught as a fact, that’s my issue. What about creation?”

Ms. Brooks also declared: “There is no evidence that an entirely different species can come from another species,” which suggests she’s not keeping up with the fossil record or DNA analysis.

Never mind that evolution continues to be validated by finding after finding; some 40% of Americans believe in “creationism.” Never mind that the world has just passed the landmark 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial age global temperatures or that 97% of climate scientists agree humans are causing global warming and climate change. Never mind all that because, you know, an outspoken minority don’t believe in science or in scientists. And they’re determined to not help our children prepare for the world they’re inheriting.

A recent study looked specifically at how climate change is — or isn’t — being taught in U.S. K-12 schools, and found that, indeed:

While planetary health education varies widely across the USA with respect to the presence and depth of terms, most science standards neglected to convey these concepts with a sense of urgency. Furthermore, state/territory dominant political party and primary gross domestic product (GDP) contributor were each predictive of the quality of planetary health education.

We’re worried that artificial intelligence may kill us off, but plain old human intelligence (or lack thereof) may do that first.

All that, of course, assumes that we’re teaching our kids generally, but the evidence is pretty grim on that point — again, especially since the pandemic. The pandemic led to drastic declines in math and reading scores (only 26% of 8th graders are proficient in math, only 31% are proficient in reading). The National Science Board warns: “U.S. student performance on standardized tests in science and math has not improved in over a decade, placing the U.S. in the middle of a long list of global competitors,” and urges: “the U.S. needs “all hands on deck” to modernize K-12 STEM education and to hold itself accountable with reliable, up-to-date data.”

Some of that poor performance is because absenteeism has soared since the pandemic started. According to Attendance Works, in the 2021–22 school year chronic absence affected nearly 30% of students. Yes, it disproportionately impacted minority students and high poverty schools, but all schools and all demographics were impacted. Parents wanted schools to reopen in the early days of the pandemic, but evidently they weren’t as insistent that students actually attended.

Science is a self-correcting endeavor, which means it isn’t always right at first. Scientists are human, which means they sometimes act out of impure motives. The pace of change enabled by science is, indeed, getting faster; just look at use of A.I. in the past year. But the “solution” to all that isn’t to turn our backs on science or to distrust scientists; it is to improve science literacy among all of us so that we are better equipped to adapt to what science offers us.

Hug a scientist — or better yet, help your children become one.

--

--

Kim Bellard

Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!