A post-fact world: Part I – on how we got here

Like many scientists I have been dismayed of late to observe just how much “post-fact” or “alternative-truth” the world I live in has become. Like many scientists I have been reflecting a lot lately on what it means to be a scientist living in a post-fact world. Has my job and expertise become completely irrelevant? As regular readers know when I say I’ve been reflecting, you should expect a long post (or series of posts). I have broken my thoughts up into a 3 part series. In the first I take a historical perspective and argue that this post-fact world is really the result of trends in society going on for decades. In the second part, I turn to our social scientist colleagues who have been studying how people think and choose behavior and highlight some of the most salient points that they have learned to explain why we are in a post-fact world. In the third part, I attempt (and attempt is still a pretty strong word, struggle might be better) to draw conclusions from this about what a scientist should do in a post-fact world.

This is of course an ambitious undertaking. Even an arrogant undertaking. Many caveats apply. I am neither a historian of science nor a psychologist nor risk behavior specialist. For sure, almost none of my ideas are original, but despite that, I am not going to carefully footnote each source (this being an informal blog). And I am indubitably biased in having a primarily American perspective on this (although I try to include global examples and believe the general trends are global). In short, this is just another crackpot musing on the internet. Warning: my thoughts run a little contrary to the directions I have heard many scientists heading. But the primary value of this blog to me is the chance to throw ideas out there and hear other peoples thoughts on them. So here goes …

A post-fact world: Part I – on how we got here

It is fashionable to say that the post-fact world is a recent creation (no less an intellectual than Francis Fukuyama says it happened in 2016 although he acknowledges the seeds have been there for a decade or two. I personally think it goes back way further than that. I was born in 1966. And although you could fuzz things forward or backward by a decade, that is pretty close to the absolute high point in the esteem with which science was held by society. So I think it is accurate to say that we have been moving to a post-fact world all of my 51 years, and that some of the seeds were planted immediately post-World War II taking us back 70 years.

The rise of science’s reputation

I don’t know of formal polls or ways to indicate this, but my sense is that through the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century, the most respected group was “captains of industry”. IE business people. This is not to say there weren’t blots on the reputation of business (the Teddy Roosevelt-era rise of conservation was driven by a realization that business unchecked could despoil enormously large tracts of land or fisheries in a non-sustainable fashion).More generally, in these times there was also trust in the establishment. Government leaders were by and large held in esteem, as were the police, the clergy and etc. Science wasn’t held in low esteem but the prototypical image was Einstein – a social misfit working on theories that required enormous intelligence but weren’t necessarily useful to the average person. Inventor/entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison were seen as more improving everyday life than scientists.

In the 1950s and 1960s though, the reputation of science and scientists was clearly on the rise. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that science played a pivotal role in the Allies winning World War II. The invention of radar, the atomic bomb and antibiotics (World War II was the first war in which more soldiers died of injuries than disease) was huge. The secrets of biology were seemingly becoming tractable with the discovery of DNA as the genetic code and of the basic roles of proteins. The space race captured national attention (the first unmanned orbits and landings on the moon occurred in the 1960s with the first manned landing in 1969), it led to all kinds of science and innovation (modern computers included). Medical improvements to duration and quality of life were coming at break-neck speed. In 1971 Richard Nixon, declared our first War on Cancer. Closer to the themes of this blog, Platt published his 1964 paper on strong inference, implying it was easy to adopt a method to make science progress decisively and rapidly. Business and science were best friends. Bell labs (a private company), discovered the transistor and launched the electronic revolution, but they also made basic science discoveries like the microwave cosmic background radiation – a key piece of evidence for the big bang. The moon landing and the transistor together launched the computer revolution. Every self respecting company invested heavily in research and development with legendary labs where the line between pure and applied science blurred (Bell labs is the most famous, but  Xerox PARC invented the laser printer and the graphical user interface with a mouse, and IBM labs won two Nobel prizes as well as inventing the barcode and the relational database). Pop-culture elevated scientists. In James Bond movies, scientists (and engineers) were pivotal for both the good guys (every movie required a visit to Agent Q) and the bad guys (who mostly were using some modern technology to try to rule the world). Television commercials regularly featured scientist/engineers in lab coats endorsing products (even mundane products like soaps). Dupont’s advertising slogan was “Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry”. The world was headed to better places, and science was leading the way.

This period and the rising reputation of science was highly consequential to the funding of science. Through World War II, all government investment in science was for military applications – non-military applications were thought to be clearly the domain of private enterprise. As World War II was winding down, Vannevar Bush, then the head of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (despite its generic name this was an arm of the military) was asked to draft a plan for the future of government funded science. Vannevar Bush made a forceful case for “blue sky” research, essentially concluding that today’s basic research would quickly become tomorrow’s technology improving our lives and the National Science Foundation was created by Congress in 1950 under the advocacy of Vannevar Bush. This is not a moment to pass by too quickly. Two fundamental shifts were incorporated. First all sciences, not just the physical sciences, was valued. Second, basic research and not just applied research and not just applied research for the military, was valued and a worthy role for the government. I am less aware of the details in other countries but this shift from a government role in just applied military technology to basic research in all sciences is roughly parallel in most countries.For most of the next 60 years, funding basic science research was agreed to bi-partisanally as an important role for government and a core good for society. The modern research university emerged in this same period. Partly as a reflection of federal funding for research, but also a state-level investment in research and education. President Truman founded a Science Advisory Council with its chair serving as the President’s Science Adviser in 1951. With one brief exception, this institution has existed to the president day, and even in that one brief exception (Nixon being cranky/lazy), congress overrode him and recreated the office by congressional mandate.

The decline of science’s reputation

As so often happens in the world, just as science’s reputation in society was reaching its apex, the seeds of decline were already being laid. And Nixon’s letting the President’s Science Advisory Committee lapse (even though as best I can tell it was because he was distracted by a little thing called Watergate) might well be seen as a harbinger of things to come with 20-20 hindsight. The decline of science’s reputation is extraordinarily complex, and I’m sure any account of it is oversimplistic. But I’m going to organize around two core ideas: 1) business and science coming into conflict, and 2) social trends (including post-modernism, the 1960s counter-culture movement, and the internet).

Peter Kareiva says businesses are the keystone species in the human ecosystem. Or if you prefer, the adage “follow the money” has shown true time and again. The rise of science was surely because government fell in love with science, but it was equally and maybe more so because business also fell in love with science (as it led to discoveries that led to profits). Medical discoveries have made many businesses rich. Computers have invited a massive new industry and product domain (and a major reason for the rises in worker productivity for almost 50 years). The atom bomb was not directly profitable (thank goodness) but nuclear power made a lot of money for big business. Putting humans on the moon had so many spin-offs that made money you cannot even count them, but they range from the fundamental like miniature computers to the absurd but commercially successful like Tang (a powdered drink that supposedly tasted like orange juice but mostly just was a source of vitamin C that took off commercially when it was used by astronauts). But this love affair was tested with the discovery that cigarettes caused cancer through the 1950s and 1960s. Then Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1961 highlighting the fact that chemistry could destroy the health of people and the planet. Thousands of other chemicals were discovered as cancer causing. Satellites in space began to detect in vivid pictures deforestation, eutrophication, etc. It became clear that science could be the enemy of business as well as the friend of business. And, confirming the pivotal role of business in society (for good and bad), science was no longer an unalloyed good.

The classic example, beautifully dissected by Naomi Oreskes in her book and later movie, Merchants of Doubt, is the growing scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer – something with scientific roots back to the first half of the 20th century, but rapidly coming to the fore in the 1950s and 1960s. The tobacco companies colluded to hide research and developed a very careful strategy to resist. The key element is they realized they didn’t have to disprove the emerging research, just create an aura of doubt and distraction. Human foibles would do the rest. This strategy has since been adopted against every major scientific result that threatens the profit-motive since, albeit rarely at the scale and level of effrontery of the tobacco industry. As Oreskes nicely documents it is not just the same techniques but actually the same people who are attacking the science of climate change now. Many of the key players were physicists who emigrated to the US from Russia (and also in some cases who played roles in the Manhattan project to develop the atomic bomb). These physicists were profoundly ideologically motivated in a pro-capitalist direction by their experiences with communist Russia and were willing to align their scientific credentials, albeit almost irrelevant scientific experience (physicists talking about biology), to resist the “attack” on tobacco corporations. These same ideologically motivated individuals perceived a frightening anti-capitalist bent in the emerging 1970s environmental movement and were happy to be recruited against environmentalism as well (again with limited relevant knowledge).

I think you can see the determinative role of business in how science is perceived in a few places. First, think about cancer. Business has always been behind Nixon’s War on Cancer and the ensuing billions spent at NIH, and now on Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot. That is because these approaches lead to medical treatments, often very expensive medical treatments, that can be sold. Meanwhile Silent Spring, one of the first publicizations of growing research on the cancer-causing roles of chemicals like pesticides, was received with a monumental thud by business. To this day, it is easy to get science to mobilize and be excited about a new chemotherapy drug that costs $20,000; but it is very hard to get society and regulations mobilized on taking completely unnecessary carcinogens out of our living environments (almost certain to save more lives for fewer dollars) It is hard to view that difference through any lens but the profit motives of companies*.

Or consider the very different responses to the ozone hole problem and global warming and the keystone role (both positively and negatively) of corporations. This is nicely summarized by Maxwell and Briscoe. The first science on possible problems of the use of chloro-flouro-carbons (CFCs) in refrigeration and other industrial applications appeared in the 1970s. In 1982 the US National Academy of Sciences published a damning report. By 1987 an international agreement fixing the problem (the Montreal Protocol) had been signed. This is less than two decades from first science to fix. This contrasts noticeably with climate change with first science going back to Arrhenius and the 1920s and resolution only beginning to appear in the 2010s with many battles still to fight. A central key to this rapid transition was the role of Dupont corporation, the major producer of freon, the dominant CFC in a multi-billion dollar industry. Through an interesting mix of ethics and profits, and very likely not want to repeat the smoking-causes cancer debacle of tobacco companies, Dupont saw the writing on the wall around CFCs and worked on developing alternatives (the fact that a key patent expired in 1979 didn’t hurt either). And Dupont while not exactly championing the move away from CFCs did not fight it like some other US and all European producers. And they profited handsomely from being ready to step in with the alternatives. My point here is not to praise nor blame a single company, yet the role of a single corporation is inextricably interwoven with whether the CFC problem got fixed quickly or slowly. And there is little doubt of the role of corporations in slowing down the fix to climate change. It won’t shock anybody to learn that just a handful of oil companies combine to spend over $100,000,000/year to fight climate change and that transportation and utility companies are not far behind.

So hopefully I have made the case that business has a very strong influence on how science turns into policy and that science can quickly influence policy when it benefits business but that businesses can effectively kill science from turning into policy when it is against their interests. As a simplistic rule, businesses like physics, chemistry and biomedical research and don’t like public health and ecology/environmental research. This distinction matters a lot.

Now I want to turn to the second major trend that I think has knocked science off of its 1960s pedestal, a series of social-intellectual movements. The first of these is the rise of postmodernism (and its attack on science), something that is usually said to have started in post-World War II (1950s). Wikipedia defines postmodernism as “an attitude of skepticism, irony or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies and various tenets of Enlightenment rationality, including notions of human nature, social progress, objective reality and morality, absolute truth, and reason. Instead, it asserts that claims to knowledge and truth are products of unique social, historical or political discourses and interpretations, and are therefore contextual and constructed to varying degrees. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, irreverence and self-referentiality.” If that doesn’t summarize the post-fact age we live in, I don’t know what does!

If I were to overly simplistically summarize it, postmodernism says “there are no authorities, anybody can think anything they want, and they’re all biased anyway”. The post-modern version of philosophy of science is captured by Feyerabend, who essentially said there is no objective truth, truth is relative, and scientists are just acting out games to enhance their power. But more broadly there has been a measurable decline according to polls of trust in any number of institutions since the 1950s. Journalism, government, and clergy have all suffered. The notion of universal values manifesting in institutions pursuing the common good has taken a real hit. The counter-culture movement of the 1960s and the Watergate exposure of government corruption in the 1970s are part of this. The way the internet enables you to find “your own people” and treats all sources of information as equal and the resulting “living in a bubble” phenomenon are part of this too. As a scientist and a person I have very mixed feelings about this. Questioning authority, free flow of information and independent thinking are clearly good, but it is possible to go too far, and the current US political climate is showing this. In this post-modern trend, I don’t think science has been the primary target (aside from some social scientists in academia like Feyerabend). Science has just been a bystander casualty. But when all institutions (and individuals) are suspect and everybody’s opinion is equally valid and biased, it is very hard for science to play the role it once did in policy.

And of course the fact that businesses dislike some forms of science interacts powerfully with the overall postmodern trend. When companies feel disadvantaged by scientific results, its much easier to use the favored tactic of sowing uncertainty and doubt in a post-fact, every person-their own opinion world than it was in the “trust anybody in a white coat” world. This is playing out very clearly in, e.g., climate change denial.

And not to let academia off the hook, I think it is fair to say that universities have changed from places that seek the truth and teach students how to seek to the truth to places that seek research and student tuition dollars. This has led to a worrying kowtowing to students because challenging students ideas might turn away their dollars. Others would, with justification, pinpoint social media and traditional media trends – if people only exchange ideas with people who agree and don’t challenge them, it is a formula for overconfidence.

Summary/Conclusion:

So in summary: science reached a high point in societal esteem around the 1960s and has been gradually sliding off the pedestal ever since. Part of that is a switch from science being purely a money maker to sometimes a trouble maker for business; business responded strongly with a tactic centered on creating doubt. Another part of this is a broadest sweep societal trend towards post-modern denial of authority and expertise, replaced by absolute subjectivism and hence equality of all opinions. One can invoke other factors too,  like the changing nature of universities, the internet, and the increase in the number of channels on TVs. But however you dissect it, the societal esteem for science has suffered both from societal trends and a specific change in the relationship to business. And the key point is this has been coming for decades, indeed more than half a century. Its not surprising scientists are frustrated and angry at the new role we’ve been given (or more precisely the great role we have lost). This frustration and longing for a return to past glory is eminently understandable. But the trends are so broad brush and long term that I think it would be naive to assume they can be reversed. Instead we scientists are going to have to steer to somewhere new and define a new relationship to society and policy.

So what do you think? Is the changing relationship of science with business a key part of the story? Are post-modernist trends, enabled by media trends, a key part of the story? Is this a 50 year trend? If it is a 50 year trend, is it reversible?


* Although I hasten to add I am not opposed to the high-tech big business battle on cancer either.

27 thoughts on “A post-fact world: Part I – on how we got here

  1. I haven’t thought enough about this to answer the questions you ask at the end, but your post has given me lots to think about. Thanks for writing it! I’ve had Oreske’s book on my wish list and this makes it clear I need to get it.

    • Oreske’s book and the movie largely overlap (of course the book has more details but in the movie you actually get to see interviews with some of the characters involved). But one or the other or both, should, in my opinion, be at the top of the list for anybody interested in science policy.

      • I’ve been thinking it might be useful for teaching (though I’m not exactly sure of how). The problem is that I have a lot of books along those lines in my reading queue (not to mention lots of other books, too!) Some day I’ll find more time to read…

    • I’m well aware of those studies. In fact I have slides on them I use in teaching. It is true that particular poll shows “confidence” in scientists (and engineers & doctors) are the most stable while others have fallen. And as you note, there were pretty substantial changes already by 1973.

      However, the title of my post is about a move to a “post-fact” world, namely the way in which science is incorporated into policy and the public discussion and, while I don’t know of surveys that measure that (and a survey of the general public is probably not the right way to measure it), it certainly does seem like there has been a change in this.

      • Indeed. As Scott Alexander points out, it isn’t that individuals have lost trust in the expertise of scientists individually, it is instead that there are now difficulties in comprehending (and trusting) the prevailing scientific consensus. Much of this may be due to `alternative’ scientists as Brian suggests sowing seeds of uncertainty and doubt. Anyway, Scott has some good ideas (and links) that may be worth considering that resonate a bit with this history. How science is discussed definitely does seem a bit different to my childhood in the 90s, although that may be my own naivete or nostalgia.

        http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/04/17/learning-to-love-scientific-consensus/

      • Interesting link. Thank you. And I think loss of trust in scientific consensus is a helpful framing.

  2. Whoa–this is certainly one or more enormous can(s) of worms, and I have so many things to say in response, both general and specific, that it’s hard to prioritize them. Probably the most important thereof, however, is that this topic is so vast it requires a comprehensive and detailed understanding of the history of science to get right. But very few people have that, and thus I read lots of questionable analogizing and/or equating between different fields or cases. I take what I read on the topic with a large grain of salt. In fact I think it’s mainly shallow and/or arguable stuff, not convincing.

    First, I think the recent “anti-science” messaging is somewhat overblown. I don’t think a large fraction of people are truly broad-brush “anti-science”, including Trump and Pruitt, although some of the post-modernists and religious believers might indeed qualify. Rather, I think science critics are mainly against what they perceive to be over-confidence and/or exaggerated statements in certain branches of science that involve either (1) the importance of the problem and/or (2) the quality of the science. Sometimes this also involves perceptions of the amount of public money spent relative to the returns (although the perceptions of both can certainly be objectively wrong).

    On the issue of “big science”, it’s history, and what topics therein tend to be emphasized, I think the case is more complex, with a much longer history, at least in the US. Tocqueville had a chapter or two on American science circa early 19th century and noted repeatedly how practically and economically oriented it was. There are good reasons to understand why that would have been so at the time, especially in the eyes of a French visitor. But whatever the state of “government science” before the Civil War, it certainly changed after that. Some very key points were the establishment of the land grant college system (by the Morrill Act?), and the establishment of federal agencies with scientific research mandates that were not just economically motivated, or even not at all. Most noteworthy of these were the USGS, which had a significant non-mining-related element to it, and the Bureau of Ethnography (both headed by John Wesley Powell). The USDA was formed later but had roots in that era also, within the Dept. of Interior. And the USDI Bureau of Forestry (USDA Forest Service after 1905) had a very strong timber and water sustainability mission to it from the beginning, even apart from the massive and unparalleled land reservation system that began in the 1890s. The latter remains the single most important ecological/environmental preservation step in the history of this country IMO, and a direct contradiction of the idea that private economic gain should be the dominant consideration in either the federal land domain disposal process, or in the land management policy of reserved federal lands, even to the point, starting in 1872 with Yellowstone NP, of allowing no extractive resource activities at all (save fishing). Some of this land mgt ethos in fact goes all the way back to the Land Ordinance of 1785, and subsequent land disposal/sale laws (e.g. Timber and Stone Act, Homestead Act and others).

    So I think there’s a definite, non-economically-motivated impetus for big, government science that goes well back beyond WW II and will not easily be over-run by corporate business and/or political agendas.

    On the issues of the ozone hole, climate change, cancer and the arguments of Oreskes I have *much* to say also, but not the time right now. Suffice it to say I don’t buy in to a lot of it, that it’s overly simplistic and shallow.

    Thanks for this essay Brian, it’s very important, deserving huge discussion.

    • Thanks for all the history. I agree that America’s Civil war was a turning point in the US (and more generally the industrialization that happened Europe about the same time) definitely was part of the story of the relationship between government and science. I focused on military and science, but you are of course right that agriculture and science is another part of the history. Both are quite applied though.

      Do you think these agricultural-government roots are evidence against the idea that businesses are key gateholders in government/public adoption of science, or evidence for it? I lean to the latter.

      I think you make the important point that few people are flat out anti-all-science. For example, Trump seems pretty enamored with NASA’s interplanetary missions and pretty dismissive of its near Earth (i.e. satellite sensing) missions. I guess the key assumption in my narrative (which you can disagree with) is that there was a brief period in the 1950s or 1960s where most (one can never say all) people were not picking and choosing their science. I don’t think of presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhauer or Kennedy as picking and choosing (roughly 1945-1963).

      When you have time to expand on your disagreements with Oreskes, I’d be curious to hear it. I don’t think its perfect nor the full story (no book is going to be the full story on a topic like this), but I find it fairly well researched and compelling.

      • I do need to clarify what I said w.r.t. Oreskes, namely, that I have not read her book, or seen the movie, and therefore cannot base any disagreement(s) on it. Rather, my disagreement is with the more general nature of the public discussion and arguments made along the lines you outline (by many, not just her), in particular with respect to bias and distortion of the overall case presented. I have no basis to doubt the veracity of any of the evidence she has gathered and presented.

  3. Good read. The ‘rebellion against authority/experts’ has been happening regularly since humans started living in communities – would be an interesting exercise to work out a trend over time! But over the last 100-odd years, the rise of corporate culture and affirmation culture (that promotes the person as an Individual, not a member of a community) has changed things a bit. I do think most media, social & otherwise, hype up the distrust of science thing. Perhaps many of the issues are more from a combination of resentment against the academic ‘ivory tower’ myth & a lack of appreciation/awareness of the relevance of natural sciences in a technological, profit-based society.

  4. “So in summary: science reached a high point in societal esteem around the 1960s and has been gradually sliding off the pedestal ever since.”

    I do think there is something to the notion that it was just after this high point that academia was almost completely overtaken by the liberal establishment. And don’t get me wrong- I am a registered Democrat- but there is no denying our universities were swept up in the wave of late-60s liberalism, and that is has remained in place to the present day. In fact, university agendas are almost 100% reflective of the left’s agenda.

    I believe that has quite a bit to do with the numbers trending downward from that high point. I would strongly argue that academia generally, and science specifically need to achieve far greater balance in their political ideology. There is a reason why a good percentage of the people do not trust us, and I do not blame them in the least.

    • Yes, the research community is such a different culture from rural America. We are ‘other’ from the perspective of rural, conservative folks. How could we possible know what is best for them when we are a different species? I currently work in Mississippi. Taking into account cultural differences is the single most important factor when trying to work with local people on conservation issues and gaining their trust. We have to meet them where they are culturally and find the common ground, which isn’t that difficult in truth.

      The resistance to science in this area stems from the feeling that scientists/liberals are talking down to regular people; that we have a contempt for them and their values and simply refuse to listen to them and try to understand their perspective. I think there is a strong belief that the goals of our work are for the benefit of liberal culture at the expense of their own. We have to demonstrate that we care, that we can be trusted, that we respect these people and their values, and that our work will benefit their communities.

      I agree that a more welcoming attitude toward conservatives in the research community would be helpful in regaining some trust.

    • Nice point. In Brazil the situation is quite similar. It’s almost a sin to be conservative in our universities. In fact, to be moderate or simply label-free in your political opinions is seen as a character flaw. If you dare to diverge from the Brazilian left agenda or simply to question some one-sided decisions, you suffer attacks from both students and faculty. Sometimes you can be demonized in social media and silently banned from committees. At least in Brazil, that is one key reason why a large part of society does not see Academia with good eyes. Especially now, as we are also extremely politically polarized, as in a bloody World Cup. That’s why I like to play Devil’s advocate and fight for freedom of thought in Academia, so it becomes a political force itself, independent from parties and with its own voice in the society.

  5. I largely agree with your analysis, but I think it’s worth expanding on science itself and journalism in undermining the public trust in scientific results.

    Along with the commercialization of academia, the quality of scientific output deteriorated gradually. On the one hand, there is an increasing pressure to publish as quickly and frequently as possibly, because scientific merit today is mostly measured by the number of research items and the journals they are published in, not by the actual quality of the research. On the other hand, and this might be one of the reasons for the change in evaluation standards, more people than ever are working in science, each one obliged to produce publishable results in order to sustain against a growing number of competitors. It’s easy to see how this combination undermines the mechanisms of scientific self-correction. The result is a lot of superficially spectacular, but intrinsically sloppy research (“Chocolate consumption associated with reduced cancer risk”). And this is where the media enter the equation, because that’s unfortunately the kind of research that attracts the laypeople. A bit later, another study reports the opposite results due to the same methodological issues, and makes another nice headline. Who’s supposed to believe in the reliability of scientific results, when they seem to change every two years?

    I know, that’s a bit of a dramatization, and some fields are certainly more prone to this than others, but I think it might contribute to the construction of our “post-fact” world.

    • I do believe you’re right that the modern academic pressure and journalistic deadlines lead for science getting out long before there is anything like a true scientific consensus which does make us look bad. Those too are fundamental trends though and I’m not sure how we would change it.

  6. I enjoyed reading this a lot. I taught a philosophy course on science and society and used Orekses and Conway’s book. One thing that your post does not highlight is that the swing towards being anti-science that we are now in, where society distrusts science too much, came out of the opposite swing, too much trust in science. The best example I know of of this is Eugenics. Eugenics has ties to many of things that you talk about in this post and I think it enriches your story. But I think the cases show society historically trying to work out how and on what matters science should be trusted with informing society about.

    • Yes, I think it is very important to self-examine and identifies where science misled the public. Eugenics is a very serious one. Another is that for 50 years medicine “knew” fat was bad but there is an increasing pendulum swing to thinking that carbohydrates are really the main culprit and the “fat is bad” message was based on a few papers and some dominant personalities. I personally fear that ecologists overhyping of the environmental disaster we are in the middle of (and we are in the middle of one but its not as bad as the headlines scream) is another.

  7. Do you think it has anything to do with how science is used and marketed now? Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, shifting the public scientific realm from making bombs and antibiotics to uncovering the seedy underside of industrialization (and with it criticizing capitalist pursuits). Do people see science as a left wing ideology rather than a pursuit of facts?

    • A lot of what Oreskes talks about is exactly this. Or to oversimplify, physics making bombs is right-wing and capitalist in the minds of some, but scientitsts discovering a chemical causes cancer or environmental problems is “left-wing” and communist.

      • To some extent I find he is correct. Throughout my career I have had one foot in academia and the other in reality (insert wry smile here). That is just another way of saying that while I like symphonies and antique shops, I also love the Blues and deer hunting.

        Concurrent with the tapering off of trust in science since the early 60s is the increase in partisanship. I fondly recall a time when most (almost all, really) people did not announce who they voted for, and when “talking politics” in social settings was taboo as discussing hemorrhoids. Not anymore, unfortunately.

        To this day, for example, for my many friends on the right, who do not have advanced degrees but work their tails off and go deer hunting- “farts” remain relevant concerning global warming. Most in academia would scoff at the notion, and dismiss it as an urban myth. But you know, it is the scoffing- i.e., the arrogance of academia, that often drives a wedge between the scholar and the working stiff. This attitude of “I know better” that I think gets us into a heck of a lot of trouble with world at large.

        Anyway, I seize these moments as an opportunity to build bridges, not burn them. I have a prepared response concerning cow farts and many other popular topics relating to science. I say something like, “There are about 1.5 billion cows on Earth- more than we have ever had in the Earth’s history. They are known for farting, and it is true that the methane they release is significant. In fact, it is estimated that a one-cow equivalent generates so much methane that this has the same effect as about 4 tons of CO2 per year. So with 1.5 billion cows, that is 6 billion equivalent tons of CO2 annually. YES- you have a POINT, and a GOOD ONE. But let’s see if there are other things to consider. As far as we know, methane is THE culprit when comes to global warming and is far more damaging than CO2. Cows account for about 30% of annual methane emissions. But I would also like to point out that cows are contributing a “net zero” in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. That is, they eat and digest plant material which came to be via the natural cycling of carbon. As such, cows are not contributing new sources of these gases to our atmosphere, as the burning of fossil fuels does. However that does not mean cow farts are not an issue. It turns out cow farts do contribute to global warming because of the related disruption of the natural carbon cycle. Vast swathes of forests across the globe have been cleared to raise cattle. The conversion of forests to grasslands has removed a critical carbon sink and as a result, yes, there is much more CO2 in the atmosphere.”

        “Ah, thanks for explaining that to me, I really appreciate knowing more about the global warming issue.”

        It is really that simple. Give people credit for what they do know, and fill in the gaps with kindness and humility while dispensing with the prototypical academic arrogance.

      • You beat me to the punch. You will find this comment overlaps a lot with my post tomorrow.

      • Commenting on Elliot’s response: As I mentioned above, I work in Mississippi and I experience the divide between science and the people who live here on a regular basis. I think Elliot is on the mark.

        However, my sense is that in a large majority of cases, my neighbors are not getting an improper and ugly attitude towards them directly from scientists (though it happens). They are getting it from an increasingly negative, divisive, and ugly media, and some members of the two political parties. Obviously, science is being used by many people to push a cultural/political agenda. But these are not usually folks from the research community.

        I think it is important to point out that Elliot’s approach is effective; it works. This is why some of the more successful conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited do so well. They work with local communities and have respect for them. As members of the research community, perhaps we could do better to promote this approach, to remember that our more conservative neighbors are not this caricature that the media portrays. Let us demonstrate that we are also not the caricature that the conservative media portrays.

        For me, what this means is that even though I am a conservation biologist, I try to be aware of who I support among conservationists and organizations. As with racism, I have little tolerance for groups or people who lack respect (or worse) for my neighbors. Without naming names, I bet we can all think of people or groups within the conservation community/media who have gone way too far and are harming the very cause which they claim to support. And it seems that this wave of intolerance is getting bigger.

        As mentioned in an earlier comment, a more welcoming atmosphere towards people who are conservative within the research community would be helpful, too.

  8. Although I fully share those concerns and also feel that confidence in science is dramatically decreasing (I know the post is not exactly about “confidence” but let me disgress), I tend to think that it has actually (almost) nothing to do with science per se.

    Or at least it is a more global trend towards the rejection of everything that represents power or authority. And this could be healthy! If it was only people aiming to take control of their lives and express their opinions. But there seems to be a confusion nowadays between, say, expertise and oppression. Many groups such as doctors, scientists, journalists, are now portrayed for some reason as members of an elite whose power threatens the rights of the people. And they DO have power! Doctors control people’s health, journalists control information, scientists control knowledge (what a great power we have if we think of it!). And it is only examples of powers in the hand of restricted groups of persons but we could for sure find many other examples (politicians being the most obvious). There is a push for more democracy in the Western World that aims to give the power back to the people (there are of course opposite views about how it should be accomplished, from right-wing libertarianism to socialism). And it makes people suspicious about those who have a power that cannot easily be transferred to everyone. Or, if we want to consider scientific expertise as transferrable to anyone, it is so much easier to view it as a simple opinion, such that everyone can have their own!

    Why this confusion arose is another question, and I realize while writting that what you describe might be part of the explanation. But my point is that this mistrust is in my opinion a more general trend that cannot be restricted to science only.

    • I would broadly agree. I probably could have stated this more clearly, but on the post-modernism/trust narrative I don’t think science is being targeted or singled out. Its just part of larger trends. I do think the relationship with business may be more specific to science however.

  9. Pingback: Um cientista pode ser religioso? – Sobrevivendo na Ciência

  10. I enjoyed a lot reading your text. I work in the Spanish academia as an ecologist. I agree with most of your points, and I am either an expert in epistemology, philosophy or history of science. But in my modest view, one of the main problems in conservation issues, aside from the fact that (as you note) is threatening businesses, is that everybody has an opinion about these issues. My 90y old mother does not like to see that polar bears are “disappearing” (which is far to be true) and she is unconsciously part of the mass perception that this is a problem that should be addressed -and solved. This does not happen with chemistry, physics and many other scientific disciplines because most citizens do not have the “basic knowledge” to have an opinion. The dark side of the coin is that ecologists do contribute to these naïve ideas because they “need” money for their research. One of the reasons for this is narcissism (there is a worrying trend to see my colleagues do whatever to have their names in a scientific paper that paradoxically very few people will ever read), and the other (which is “feedbacking” the first) is the increasing pressure of the scientific system (at least in Spain, but I am aware in many other countries around) to produce a lot (quantity versus quality and originality) and to obtain funding grants (the overheads are huge and the system needs this money for self-sustaining). There is an overproduction and many of the papers on environmental issues are repetitive and suffer from reification (dogmas that should belong to the religious domain). We scientists are slaves of impact factors, cites and other metrics on intellectual activity, which is actually impossible to value precisely. You wonder about the future: I do not see any improvement at least in my scientific domain. Most ecological science tries to respond about the impacts of the global change (this is where the money comes) but this scientific overproductivity will not influence political decisions in the same proportion (the relationship is clearly non-linear). What we already know should be (almost) sufficient to have a scientific argument on the arena of political decisions. Ecological science is mostly describing the impacts but is very limited to make anticipative predictions. So we always are very uncertain (if we are honest) and the global environmental debate will always be kept far from our domain, and rather close to emotions, such as those experienced by my mother, and as you properly note, to businesses.

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