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Reasons to Doubt Claims About Anti-Science in America
The polarized state of American politics has once again brought speculation and claims about a rising tide of anti-science in America and an attack on reason. The prominence of such claims will only likely grow as we near election season.
Yet as many have pointed out, there is good reason to be skeptical of the fall from grace narrative for science, with a new version appearing almost every decade. In a 2009 paper, my colleague Dietram Scheufele and I discussed the nature of these claims. Below is an excerpt from the paper which is worth a full read (PDF):
Historically, a prevailing assumption has been that ignorance is at the root of social conflict over science. As a solution, after formal education ends, science media should be used to educate the public about the technical details of the matter in dispute. Once citizens are brought up to speed on the science, they will be more likely to judge scientific issues as scientists do and controversy will go away. In this decades-old “deficit” model, communication is defined as a process of transmission. The facts are assumed to speak for themselves and to be interpreted by all citizens in similar ways. If the public does not accept or recognize these facts, then the failure in transmission is blamed on journalists, “irrational” public beliefs, or both (Bauer, 2008; Bauer, Allum, & Miller, 2007; Nisbet & Goidel, 2007; Scheufele, 2007).
The heavily referenced symbols in this traditional paradigm are popular science outlets such as Scientific American or PBS’ Nova along with famous popularizers such as Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan. Often when the relationship between science and society breaks down, science illiteracy is typically blamed, the absence of quality science coverage is bemoaned, and there is a call put out for “the next Carl Sagan.”
Deficit model thinking also includes a fall from grace narrative, with various mythmakers hyperbolizing that in contrast to today’s culture of “anti-science,” there was a point in the past when the public understood--and as a direct consequence--deeply respected science. In the United States, this so-called golden era is often described as the dozen or so years of the “Space Race,” the period that stretched from the 1957 Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite to the U.S. lunar landing in 1969.
As we explain in this essay, continued adherence to the deficit model only likely fans the flames of science conflicts. Condescending claims of “public ignorance” too often serve to further alienate key audiences, especially in the case of evolutionary science, when these charges are mixed with atheist critiques of religion (Nisbet, 2009a). Myths such as Sputnik over simplify the past, making it easier to falsely define contemporary debates in terms of “anti-science,” “illiteracy” or “denial” (Goldston, 2009). Moreover, by emphasizing what is wrong with the public--or by pinning their hopes on a major focusing event such as Sputnik--many scientists ignore the possibility that their communication efforts might be part of the problem (Irwin & Wynne, 1996).
Perhaps worse, the assumptions of the deficit model cut against the conclusions of several decades of research in the area. For example, a recent meta-analysis shows that science literacy only accounts for a small fraction of the variance in how lay publics form opinions about controversial areas of science (Allum et al., 2008). Far stronger influences on opinion derive from value dispositions such as ideology, partisanship, and religious identity (Nisbet, 2005; Nisbet & Goidel, 2007; Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008; Scheufele et al., 2009). In addition, no matter how accurately communicated and understood the science, policy decisions cannot be separated from values, political context, and necessary trade-offs between costs, benefits, and risks (Jasanoff, 2005; Guston et al., 2009; Pielke, 2007).
Given these realities, to focus on science literacy as both the cause and the solution to failures in public communication remains a major distraction for science organizations. If scientists had a better understanding of the complex factors that shape public preferences and policy decisions, they would be less likely to define every debate in terms of “crisis” or “politicization,” interpretations that often only further fuel polarization, alienation, and/or political gridlock (Goldston, 2008; Nisbet, 2009b).
Just as importantly, arguing that a policy debate is simply a matter of “sound science” reduces scientific knowledge to just another resource that interest groups can draw upon in political battles, threatening the perceived integrity of science. As we will discuss relative to climate change, under these conditions, an inevitable part of the framing of an issue will involve a contest over uncertainty, with each side potentially hyping or distorting the objective state of expert agreement. Each time an exaggerated scientific claim is proven false or inaccurate; it risks further alienating publics already distrustful of the science and scientists (See Pielke, 2007 for more on this perceptual trap).
Finally, there is little reason to expect that traditional popular science approaches if applied to informing a wider public about science will ever be effective. These initiatives instead tend to reach a small audience of already informed science enthusiasts. The reason is that individuals are naturally “cognitive misers.” Science communication efforts grapple with a wider public that is for the most part unable or uninterested in developing an in-depth understanding of scientific breakthroughs, and instead rely on cognitive shortcuts and heuristic decision making to help them reach opinions about policy-related matters (Popkin, 1991; Scheufele, 2006).
The nature of the media system further exacerbates this human tendency. The increase in content choices available to a general audience, paired with decreasing public affairs news consumption across all age cohorts, makes widespread messaging difficult. Second, even leading national media outlets are investing less and less money in staffing their newsrooms with science writers meaning less coverage devoted to important scientific topics. At the local level, the historic distress to the news industry has meant that major cities and regions of the country no longer have a reliable source of news about science and the environment that is tailored to the specific needs of their communities (Brumfiel, 2009).
There is perhaps no better example of the persistence of the deficit model than the widespread belief that the period between the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the U.S. moon landing in 1969 was a golden age of science literacy, with an informed public pushing for large scale government investment in science.
In contrast to this often repeated myth, public opinion surveys taken just after Sputnik indicate a public barely familiar with the most basic science concepts. In one measure, just 12% of the public understood the scientific method. On basic questions tapping knowledge of polio, fluoridation, radioactivity, and space satellites, only 1 in 6 could answer all four questions correctly (Withey, 1959). In other survey results, only 38% knew that the Moon was smaller than the Earth and only 4% could correctly indicate the distance in miles between the Moon and the Earth (Michael, 1960). Apart from knowledge, attention to science news occurred predominantly among the 10% of American adults who held a four-year college degree (Swinehart & McLeod, 1960.)
Just after the launch of Sputnik, many Americans reported paying closer attention to the desegregation conflict in Arkansas and to the World Series than to the satellite launch and the call to arms for a Space Race (Michael, 1960). A majority of the public, in fact, did not view Sputnik as a scientific event, but rather as fitting with a larger frame of reference relative to the Cold War, describing the launch in terms of national security, international competitiveness, and falling behind the Soviet Union (Michael, 1960; Swinehart & McLeod, 1960)
By deficit model standards, these survey results reveal that the mythologized Sputnik-era America was in reality a scientifically illiterate America. The paradox then is that despite low levels of science literacy, the post-Sputnik public held science in almost universally high regard. For example, roughly 90% agreed that science was making life healthier, easier, and more comfortable and an equal number agreed that science was contributing to societal progress (Withey, 1959). The reason for this divergence between knowledge and admiration is that science literacy, as we have reviewed, has very little to do with public perceptions. Instead, driving public opinion during the Space Race and Cold War were strong frames of social progress and international competitiveness, historically consistent messages about science that we will return to later.
Today, despite a doubling in the proportion of Americans with a college-education and more science-related information available by way of the Web than at any time in media history, scores on survey questions measuring factual science knowledge have remained relatively stable for more than a decade, with Americans averaging six correct answers out of twelve true or false quiz-like items (NSF 2008). Yet even with these relatively low levels of knowledge, the best available survey data suggest that science commands as much respect as it did during the decade of the Space Race.
In 2004, the National Science Foundation brought together a team of social scientists to re-examine the organization’s bi-annual surveys on public attitudes about science and technology. The NSF asked the team to redesign the survey to include a new emphasis on what the NSF termed the “cultural authority of science,” particularly how the public views the role of scientific expertise in policymaking and societal decisions.
The commissioned survey findings, gathered in 2006, argue against the claims of the deficit model that scientific illiteracy threatens the cultural status of science. Consider that more than 85% agree that “even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government.” On the specific issues of climate change, stem cell research, and food biotechnology, Americans believe scientists hold greater expertise, are less self interested, and should have greater say in decisions than industry leaders, elected officials, and/or religious leaders. Moreover, during the past twenty years, as public trust in Congress, the presidency, industry, religious institutions, and the media have plummeted; public faith in science has remained virtually unchanged. In fact, among American institutions, only the military enjoys more trust (NSF 2008).
As we will discuss in subsequent sections, a “miserly” public relies heavily on their trust in science and scientists as a dominant heuristic in reaching judgments about policy matters. Only on a few issues, where societal leaders effectively re-define an area of science as in conflict with something else the public deeply cares about, do perceptual gaps based on values and identity appear among the general public (Brossard & Nisbet, 2007; Ho, Brossard & Scheufele, 2008). Yet even under these conditions, as is the case with climate change, scientists still appear to hold the upper hand in terms of trust (Scheufele et al., 2007).
The implication is that relative to authority, deference, and respect, scientists have earned a rich bounty of perceptual capital. When controversies occur, the challenge is to understand how to use this capital to sponsor dialogue, invite differing perspectives, facilitate public participation, reach consensus when appropriate, learn from disagreement, and avoid common communication mistakes that undermine these goals.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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