Posted by: Barry Bickmore | May 5, 2010

Scientists: It’s Our Fault, Too

I’ve been complaining a lot about how some of Utah’s legislators have participated in a targeted disinformation campaign to convince people that the science behind human-induced climate change is more uncertain than it really is.  This is truly reprehensible behavior, but it leaves me asking, “Why do people fall for it?”

The main reason, I believe, is that people generally don’t understand that science isn’t “just the facts.”  Scientists do collect facts, but then we use our imaginations to make up explanations for those facts.  We collect more facts to test whether they still seem consistent with the explanations we made up, but we can never collect enough facts to be absolutely sure our explanations are exactly right.  And yet, even though science involves creativity and its conclusions are always tentative, most people would agree that it is a pretty good way to figure out how the world works and make accurate predictions about it.

People generally don’t understand this point, but they do understand that scientists aren’t always right and that they sometimes disagree with one another.  In situations like this, people generally assume that someone has done something wrong.  They divide science into the “good” kind (the kind that is “just the facts,”) and “junk science” (anything that goes beyond the facts.)  Since scientific explanations always go beyond the facts (how else could they predict anything?) it is usually pretty easy to convince people that some unpopular theory (like evolution or anthropogenic climate change) is “junk science.”  All you have to do is point to a few of the grey areas and uncertainties that inevitably come along with any theory!

But where do people get this misconception about how science works?  There is a large body of literature showing that people get this kind of idea from… their science classes.  Part of the problem is that the scientists who teach those classes have never been required to take a single course in the philosophy or history of science.  That kind of thing would give them a broader perspective, and cause them to think a little more deeply about what they do.  (Note that just because someone doesn’t think that deeply about what they do, it does not follow that they aren’t good at it.  The best baseball players don’t always make the best coaches, for instance.)  Another part of the problem is that even if scientists do have a clear understanding that science involves creativity and is always tentative, they sometimes react badly to the common practice of overhyping or exaggerating uncertainty to convince people some theory is “junk science.”  That is, when scientists see this happening, their natural inclination is to try to minimize the importance of uncertainty in science, rather than just saying, “All science involves some uncertainty–so what?”

Am I being too hard on scientists?  Well, feast your eyes on the following quotation from a paper by Geologist Steven Dutch, where he talked about how science educators should deal with people who doubt evolutionary theory.

Students at this stage of development want certitude. If they do not get it from science, they will not respect science for its honesty but rather will conclude that science has no authority. They will seek certitude from someone who does claim to have it, and there is no shortage of charlatans who claim to have it. As taxpayers, they will justifiably ask why they should pay for activities that do not lead to certainty.  And to be blunt, science does find truth…. (Dutch, S.I., 1996.  The standard model for reform in science education does not work.  Journal of Geoscience Education, 44, 245-250.)

Some colleagues and I recently published a paper in the Journal of Geoscience Education, where we made the argument that scientists need to quit waffling about the creativity and uncertainty inherent in science if we want the public to interact rationally with scientific findings.  Here is the reference:

Bickmore, B.R., Thompson, K.R., Grandy, D.A., and Tomlin, T. (2009) On Teaching the Nature of Science and the Science-Religion Interface. Journal of Geoscience Education, 57, 168-177.

In fact, we argued that scientists have to be horribly blunt about this point if we expect it to replace entrenched misconceptions.  In another paper in the same issue, we showed that a program called “Science as Storytelling” (talk about “blunt”!) was successful at replacing misconceptions about the nature of science and helping students to calm down and feel comfortable discussing things like evolutionary theory, which might conflict with some of their religious views.

Bickmore, B.R., Thompson, K.R., Grandy, D.A., and Tomlin, T. (2009) Science as Storytelling for Teaching the Nature of Science and the Science-Religion Interface. Journal of Geoscience Education, 57, 178-190.

So that’s my message, fellow scientists.  If we want people to stop rejecting scientific findings as soon as they hear any charlatan who can point to, or exaggerate, a few grey areas, we have to FIERCELY promote the truth that all science involves creativity and uncertainty.  We have to stop putting up with people saying “the science is settled,” when the truth is merely that “the evidence we have weighs heavily to one side.”  If we want people to stop thinking black-and-white, we have to stop talking black-and-white.


  1. You’re sounding a bit like Sylvia Tognetti over at Post-Normal Times: (minus the Colbert bits)

    In my view we’re entering a new kind of era for the relation between science and the public, where the public will likely want to and be able to be far more engaged, at a deeper level. At least some people who aren’t scientists still have a deep desire to understand things, and don’t like being brushed off with claims that are exaggerated or even slightly misrepresent things. And some of them could make real contributions with observations or analyses.

    Astronomy has had a bit of this sort of public engagement for a long time. Astronomers have very good relations with amateur astronomers who often make discoveries of their own (new comets, in particular). Other fields that involve outdoor observation or exploration I think also have had some of this – ornithology, entomology, perhaps paleontology (the creationism fights presumably have a lot of lessons to share with climate scientists on public engagement).

    Things like the project reach into ordinary people’s homes with real science – but I think unfortunately too many climate scientists aren’t interested in that engagement, and disparage the results from the project rather than supporting it as a natural outreach effort. There should be room for a lot more stuff like that – but it does take considerable effort to engage… It’s not clear to me where the best locus for effective change is.

  2. A better name for your site may be:

    “Anti climate change alarmism in Utah”

    Utahans who have looked critically at the issue of man-made climate change may simply be skeptical that relatively minuscule amounts of CO2 and other GHGs added to existing minuscule amounts of these gases are likely to cause significant changes in earth’s climate. They may believe that the young “science” of climate has narrowed its sights much to quickly on one element among many that may cause climate to change over time.

    • These “Utahans” would simply be showing that they haven’t actually looked at much climate science. For example, climate scientists have extensively investigated natural climate forcings and feedbacks (solar variation, volcanic forcing, water vapor feedback, the carbon cycle, and so on.) When you put all of this physics into a modern climate model, you can do a pretty good job of mimicking natural climate variation in the past. And it also does a good job of mimicking recent climate changes, but only if we add in the effects of the extra greenhouse gases we have been pumping into the atmosphere.

      So the bottom line is that your comments reveal that you haven’t really “looked critically” at the issue. You just believe whatever you want and then confuse “critical thinking” with “baseless criticism”.

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