16 June 2017

Why do people not trust scientists?

The answer is simple.  Because over and over again, people bump into a picture of evil, an inconsiderate scientist who does not have any clue about real life.Let me explain. I’m following Mission Log podcast, and tend to re-watch the episodes of the Star Trek, The Next Generation. This week I ended up watching an episode called Lessons. In short, it is a cute little episode where Captain Picard falls in love with a fellow officer on Enterprise. They have a lovely little relationship until the fifth act. And because the actress is a guest star, she ends up leaving, and Picard ends up with a broken heart.
What irked me, as a scientist, was an intro into a story, where the officer, Nella, is trying to develop a model, using gravitational measurements, so that she can predict the shape of the newly formed star system two million years in the future. And of course, her model cannot be tested for two million years.
And this irked me because an episode does not only has wrong science, but that wrong science is presented in a way that nurtures anti-science feeling.
And boy one can see why. Scientists are portrayed as people who are ready to inconvenience anyone just to waste time on some useless project, which no one would be able to check it for two million years. Who would not smirk at the scientists after that?

The catch is, in a situation where science is correctly described, Nella could not be able to get any scientist to support her model. They would be first to laugh at her and refuse to give her any resources.
Scientists would be the first to declare her idea is a waste of time. And they would do so because developing a model which cannot be tested for two million years is not science. One of the underpinnings of science is that testable hypothesis has to be proposed for any new idea. And her hypothesis is not testable. Waiting for two million years for experimental results is not a valid test. It is a waste of time and resources.
But it is not surprising Hollywood showed us such incorrect science. The US has a strong tradition of the anti-science movement. I mean, we are talking about the country which was, partly, established by religious fanatics, the same ones which had to leave Europe because Europeans cramped their religious style. We are talking about the country that had to have a series of lawsuits to allow evolution to be taught in schools. We are talking about the country that since 80th of last century is pushing for stifling science in schools, just because science does not match their religious texts. So it is not surprising that in such an environment, Hollywood would present science and scientist wrongly.
However, it is not only the US. Another example, an action movie, one of Jackie Chan movies (yes, I liked watching those). If there was a scientist in those movies, they were presented as weak, stupid, incapable of resisting evil protagonist, and usually, someone who works on something so dangerous that the future of humanity is in question. And judging by such portrayal of scientists, it is easy to say the anti-science movement is spread worldwide.
Now I’ll get philosophical and ask a question, why there is such a persistent picture of the evil scientist when there is so many good stuff science contributed to our daily lives?
I wish to offer you food for thoughts, a new way to see this problem. Think, when the new ruling class is established, they have to stifle progress simply because the growth of society might remove them from a position of power. Change and growth of society might require new skills to master. Progress can simply show that rulers of yesterday have no competence to rule today, reducing them to the role of parasite that sucks juices of society blocking its growth.
And science and scientists are paramount of the progress. Science and scientists always tinker around trying to figure solutions for problems, trying to figure how things work, trying to figure an effective way to do something, trying to figure how to improve the daily life of a human. Just an example, we have wall light switches today because a scientist decided to improve the working environment in common kitchen (Podcast Skeptic guide to the universe episode 618 mentions the scientist responsible for this particular discovery, Lilian Gilbreth).
Science usually points at the prejudices and say those are wrong, science point at the lies and call them for what they are. Science usually tests our assumptions, slamming them into an ungiving reality.
So, for the ruling class to stay in power, it has to convince people that science is wrong. Because, when people think science is wrong, then rulers can stay rulers. Their subjects will demand protection from wrong and evil scientists.
Neat and sly solution. The problem is, such solutions make too many people miserable. Such approach endangers too many innocent people.
That's why I'm hoping to motivate those people to start to think, to start using those gray cells in their heads. And learn how scientific method can be applied in your everyday life to make you immune to manipulations.
 

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