Does The Scientific Community Get Respect?

A recent survey’s tracking of public confidence in the people running various institutions, surveyed every year or so since 1973, shows the scientific community ranked second among thirteen institutions, behind only medicine. Third was the military, followed by the U.S. Supreme Court. At the bottom of the list were Congress, the press, and TV.

future-einsteinRemarkably, among the thirteen institutions, the scientific community and the military were the only two that showed an increase in public confidence from 1973 to 1994. The survey data confirm the widespread drop in public confidence in U.S. institutions that virtually everyone has noted. For instance, public confidence in Congress, the executive branch of the federal government, and the press each dropped by about a factor of three over those two decades, and confidence in the leaders of education and organized religion dropped by about one-third. Confidence in the leaden of major companies dropped by about 15 percent.

Yet the percentage of adults who expressed a great deal of confidence in the scientific community rose slightly from 37 percent to 38 percent during the same two decades, with only slight year-to-year variations (low of 36 percent in 1977, high of 45 percent in 1987). Medicine retained its top ranking despite dropping over the two decades from a 54 percent to a 41 percent rating.

When the report was issued earlier this year, most of the attention was devoted to the public’s generally poor understanding of scientific vocabulary and concepts. Only 21 percent could give a satisfactory explanation of DNA and only 9 percent could explain what a molecule is. Only 44 percent knew that electrons are smaller than atoms, and 73 percent knew that the earth goes around the sun, meaning that 27 percent got it the other way around. As might be expected, only 44 percent said it was true that human beings developed from earlier species of animals. This less-than-majority agreement is probably at least as much a measure of religious resistance to the idea of evolution as a lack of knowledge. For example, a concept at least equally nonintuitive – that the continents on which we live move over periods of millions of years and will continue to do so – was correctly rated as true by 79 percent.

The more education, the more science education, and the more the respondents rated themselves as attentive to science, the better the scores. Males generally scored better, except on several biomedical-related questions.

Several questions asked about the nature of scientific inquiry. These asked about such things as the meaning of scientific study and the reasons for the use of control groups in experiments. The study found that only 23 percent of Americans understand the nature of scientific inquiry well enough to make informed judgments about the scientific basis of results reported in the media. Again, higher levels of education and greater exposure to science courses resulted in higher results.

So, as other commentators have noted before, the American public seems to have a strong appreciation for science but little substantive knowledge of it.

So what about the antiscience sentiment that has so concerned scientists – that has been the subject of books, articles, debates, and symposium sessions at the recent CSICOP twentieth-anniversary conference “Science in the Age of (Mis)Information”?

Well, this survey didn’t seek out attitudes among the populations where scientists say antiscience attitudes are rampant – in university humanities and social science departments and among other intellectuals and writers and opinion leaders. The concern, they say – and this was emphasized several times at the CSICOP conference by Nature’s John Maddox and others – is that antiscience attitudes are endemic among a relatively small but especially articulate and influential group of academics, including numbers of teachers of the next generation of liberal arts majors, our future politicians and business leaders.

Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s much-discussed book on antiscience attitudes in academia, Higher Superstition, focused especially on the “peculiarly troubled relationship between the natural sciences and a large and influential segment of the American academic community,” which, “for convenience but with great misgiving,” they called “the academic left.”

“To put it bluntly,” they said, “the academic left dislikes science.” In addition to the academic left’s expected hostility to the uses to which science is put by the economic and military establishments, Gross and Levitt identify a “more surprising” open hostility to the content of science and to the assumption “which one might have supposed universal among educated people, that scientific knowledge is reasonably reliable and rests on a sound methodology” (p. 2).

In his new book Einstein, History, and Other Passions, subtitled “The Rebellion Against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century,” Gerald Holton indicts “a segment of academics, eloquent popularizers, and policy makers” for mounting “a challenge to the very legitimacy of science in our culture.” This movement, he says, “signals the resurgence of a recurring rebellion against some of the presuppositions of Western civilization derived from the Enlightenment period.” He adds, “The impact of this reviving rebellion on the life of the scientist, on the education of the young, on public understanding of science generally, and on the legislation of science support is measurably growing.”

It would be interesting to ask nonscience academics and other opinion leaders the same questions that are summarized in the Science & Engineering Indicators report and track the trends in their attitudes toward science over the years.

In the meantime, scientists can take some consolation from the fact that the Science & Engineering Indicators report shows that support and appreciation for science among the American adult general public remains strong and steady, while lamenting the very real concern about the public’s lack of understanding of the science they hold in such high esteem.

Public Less Positive about Certain Technologies

The one part of the National Science Board’s Science & Engineering Indicators survey that does show some public ambiguity toward science showed up in questions about the impact of several important science-based technologies.

The survey showed Americans evenly divided on the benefits and drawbacks of using nuclear power to generate electricity. This division has lasted more than a decade, say the survey authors.

A similar division exists over the benefits and potential drawbacks of genetic engineering; but the balance was slightly toward the positive, and there is a clearer difference by level of education. College graduates hold a more positive view of such research.

As for the space program, the general public was evenly divided over the relative benefits and costs. College graduates and those who say they are interested in space exploration were very positive about the space program.

In all these areas, those attentive to the related policy issues continue to have strong positive views of the technologies and programs, say the survey authors. But the attentive public remains fairly small, approximately 10 percent of adults.

It’s A Lifestyle, Friends

That passionate appreciation of the wonders of the universe revealed by science was certainly central to his effectiveness in attracting people all over the planet to study, teach, and do science. But there was more. Carl Sagan was absolutely convinced, as am I, of an urgent imperative for science education. We live in a society utterly dependent on science and high technology. We cannot hope to maintain even the limited degree of democracy that we now have if the great majority of us are alienated from the language and methods of science. The byproducts of the scientific and technological revolution of our time are a series of complex choices that require an informed electorate. How long will we remain free if those decisions are made by a tiny, unchallenged elite, speaking a language that only a few of us comprehend?

sci-litFor three days the delegates assembled in the opulent main lounge of the Union League Club of Chicago, surrounded by paintings by masters such as Innes and Monet Attached by wire to the forty-foot ceiling, and looking puny among the grand nineteenth-century decor, hung a scale-model of Sputnik I, the symbol of the event. Jon Miller recalled how Sputnik’s “beep . . . beep . . . beep” sent shockwaves through the U.S. body politic, triggering the space race and prompting a majority of people, experts and laymen alike, to conclude that the United States had fallen behind the Soviets in science and technology.

Most Americans at the time held the complacent belief, based on post-war prosperity at home and economic dominance in world trade, that the U.S. scientific and technical establishment ruled the competition. But a poll taken in the weeks after the launch showed that nearly 70 percent of the public thought that “our schools have put too little stress on science” (Opinion Research Corporation survey, January 1958).

In response to increasing pressure on the issue, President Eisenhower appointed James R. Killian Jr., the head of MIT, as his special assistant, charged with reinvigorating the nation’s space effort. NASA came into existence within a year, and over the next two decades the National Science Foundation (NSF) would spend more than $1 billion on programs to enhance education in the sciences and engineering.

Miller described the importance of Sputnik I this way: “[Sputnik] was a significant event, because it caused a major reexamination of education in the United States, increased funding for virtually all science and technology, attracted large numbers of talented young people into science, and stimulated a public curiosity about space that continues to today.”

What Is Scientific Literacy?

One of the conference speakers was physicist and author James Trefil. Trefil served as a collaborator with the late E. D. Hirsch in writing The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. His ideas reflect the same principle that motivated the book – that scientific literacy for a nonspecialist boils down to having enough basic knowledge about science to be able to understand a newspaper article or to speak familiarly about the subject in a general discussion. After working with Hirsch, Trefil published another book in the same vein called 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Science. Again, what he argues is that scientifically literate citizens should be conversant with the major conclusions of the basic sciences and able to comprehend a nontechnical presentation of scientific ideas that draw upon this shared foundation of knowledge.

Many participants felt that scientific literacy involves more than just having command over a prescribed set of factoids. Jon Miller said scientific literacy is about having the rock-bottom skills necessary to “participat[e] in the modern world.” More and more jobs will require technical training; everyday decisions will increasingly require an ability to reason about technical issues; and public policy debates will more and more rely upon scientific data and conclusions. In short, the ability to grasp the essentials of a scientific argument – to gauge the validity and implications of scientific and technical information – will be indispensable to every citizen of a twenty-first-century democracy.

Scientific Literacy and Fate Control

Senta Raizen, a Ph.D. chemist and director of the Washington-based National Center for Improving Science Education, says that scientific literacy does concern national priorities such as economic competitiveness, but more profoundly, it is about “empowerment for the individual.” She says it is about “fate control.”

“If I’m told by my doctor, ‘You decide what treatment you want for your breast cancer,’ and I have no way of dealing with that question at all, then I could be totally at the mercy of some quack’s opinion,” said Raizen. “For me, it’s a question of whether I can handle the issues that cut close to me and are important to the society in which I live.”

According to John Durant, a professor of the history of science at Imperial College and the assistant director of the National Museum of Science and Industry in London, all of us live in societies that are “more closely dependent on science and technology than ever before in history.”

“The dangers of not knowing how one’s own society works range from a general sense of alienation that people who are undereducated can have to practical and political disadvantages,” said Durant.

A number of conferees echoed this idea: Scientific literacy, in an age dominated by science and technology, is not just about individual survival. It also takes into consideration such intangibles as personal dignity and a sense of belonging to the society in which we live. People who feel frightened or bewildered by science and technology may feel estranged from a society in which science and technology play a central role.

The question of the public’s understanding of science and technology also vitally concerns the continued democratic character of societies governed by popularly elected representatives. If progressively fewer average citizens have the knowledge to become active in debates over scientific or technical policy issues, at what point would the people lose their effectiveness in monitoring elected officials? Could a scientific/technical elite one day assume an unchallenged role in making decisions that affect the masses of ordinary people?

Miller estimates that about one in ten Americans are “attentive” to science and technology policy issues, a level that has remained stable for more than a decade. Of this group, most attend to only a tiny fraction of current debates. A certain amount of “issue specialization” is inevitable, given the complexity of the issues and the limited time people have to attend to public affairs. The question becomes, “How many people attentive to any particular issue does it take to serve as a “surrogate public?”

Miller’s work in assessing the American public’s attentiveness to the space program, for instance, reveals that about 12 percent of the U.S. population – or about 22 million people – express a high level of interest and are well-informed on space-related developments. This core group exercises a disproportionately large influence over space policy, reflecting the pattern of a “weak-party strong-interest-group political system.” What Miller says about the space program could as easily be applied to any issue involving science and technology.

Is 12 percent, or 22 million individuals, big enough to be thought of as democratic? Science and technology issues pose a special problem for the specialization model. Apart from the normal distribution of personal and profession interests, meaningful participation may require some minimal level of scientific understanding to be able to comprehend the arguments about a pending public policy issue. Given this dual set of hurdles, we might agree that an attentive public is the 20 million plus range is minimally acceptable, but urge that educational policies and practices seek to produce a large number of attentives in future generations.

Another, consideration is maintaining the ethical standards and integrity of science itself. When the work of scientists has an impact directly on people’s lives, people have an obligation to ask tough questions and challenge the scientists’ findings, when and if that seems appropriate. This is just an extension of the way science is done. Having the public involved provides another dimension of accountability.

Paths to Scientific Literacy

It is hardly surprising that people who stay in school longer are typically more scientifically literate. Surveys show a definite correlation between level of education and knowledge about science. The primary goal of increasing scientific literacy then becomes keeping people involved in formal education for as long as practical and necessary, realizing that not all people have the same interests or abilities. The second is to package the subject matter of science in ways that make it attractive, while still conveying its substance.

Informal education also plays a vital part in promoting scientific literacy, especially for continuing education. Museums, zoos, arboretums, conservatories, planetaria, aquariums all help disseminate knowledge about science and help make science engaging for a mass audience.

“It’s very striking when you look at kids in science museums,” said John Durant, “to see that most of them seem to really be enjoying what they’re doing and engaging in what they’re doing. That’s a clue to the role that the informal sector can have.”

Also key is the part played by the mass media. Conference speaker Mary Wooley, president of Research America, a science advocacy group active in the area of biotechnology, said it is crucial that the media have “a reality-based understanding of science.”

Too often the media fall short of Wooley’s recommendation. Incapable of understanding technical details, many journalists tend to romanticize science stories. In the case of Sputnik, they focused on the speculative question of life on other planets or on the then-still-fantastical idea of visiting the Moon. The same preoccupation could be seen recently in the broadcast medias coverage of the Mars Pathfinder mission. The spectacular geological data that was returned, showing a more Earth-like Mars than had been previously thought, was hardly discussed in the mass media. Instead, journalist after journalist repeated the same question: “Did Pathfinder turn up any evidence for life on Mars?” They kept asking this, even though Jet Propulsion Laboratory representatives made it clear from the beginning that the mission was never designed to look for any evidence of Martian life, past or present. The media just assumed people wanted to hear about the imaginative equivalent of “little green men,” not about the real science that was being done.

Sensationalistic press coverage of scientific discoveries does nothing to advance public understanding of science. For every Nova, there seem to be a dozen shows about UFOs or strange mysteries of the occult. Speaker Larry Gross, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, emphasized that television is not well-suited for the dissemination of scientific ideas, because the medium stresses “limited dialogue and visual action.”

Print media do a better job but reach far fewer people. Even the daily newspapers have a tendency to sensationalize science. George Hersbach, president and CEO of a biotech manufacturing company in the Netherlands called Pharming Health Care Products, spoke on this topic. His company uses transgenic cows and rabbits to produce chemicals, manufactured normally in a healthy human body, for patients whose bodies are unable to make them. The press and broadcast media tend to run stories about Pharming that stress loosely related, but controversial, subjects such as human cloning. The actual work of the company hardly gets mentioned. Sometimes the full text of an article presents a more representative view of Pharming’s business, but the headlines and lead paragraphs don’t. “Nobody reads the whole article,” said Hersbach. “The articles could be good, but the headlines bad.”

The conference examined many other questions about public attitudes toward science. For instance, political decisions regarding research funding can often be influenced by popular perceptions. From a strictly self-interested perspective, the scientific community should understand how the public views science and technology.

Another concern of conference attendees was the responsibility of scientists to earn the public’s trust. Some conferees suggested that scientists had mainly themselves to blame for any problems in the public’s view of science. They felt scientists must pay more attention to the moral implications of their work and the uses to which others put it. However, the concern that came across most forcefully was that the continued health of our democratic society will depend more and more on having a citizenry that is informed about science and technology and that can reason effectively on such issues.

The “Truth” In Science

Science is already chastised as a new religion and scientists as its high priests by a wide range of critics, from followers of Thomas Kuhn to deconstructivists. For science has become too successful. To remedy this situation, its detractors the sociologists, philosophers, and historians of science – those who know everything about science, except what it is – turn to spite and postmodernism. Scientists hunker down to escape the flak and, crouching low, disclaim that their work has any connection with truth.

whatThere is an understandable moral cowardice in this, but it is unjustified and, at heart, inexcusable.

Of course science is a creation by humankind, and we are fallible. Of course science is a cultural artifact reflecting its time and place. How could it be otherwise? We do not need the relativists to tell us this.

But, though science does not seek The Truth, it does indeed seek truths, and the truths of science are unlike social truths and unlike moral truths. Within human societies there is always great need for pluralism and tolerance. Science, however, is not a social or a moral truth, it is not a way of bringing disparate ideas together, harmoniously, peacefully, democratically. Science is not pluralistic, nor is it tolerant.

In science, pluralism and tolerance will imperceptibly fade into relativism, where there is no such thing as external truth, objective facts, intrinsic, self-sustaining reality, where there is only “my truth” and “your truth.” There is never any need to compare, contrast, question, doubt, argue, seek to learn from what the data say and what the Universe tells us. When this happens, truth – for there is such a thing – is in dire peril. And science ceases to function.

This is the opposite extreme from the fanatic, the person who is certain he is in possession of The Truth. Each extreme, that of the fanatic and that of the relativist, is deadly, for it can tear civilization apart, the one where There Is No Truth, the other where not only is there Truth but I Am in Possession of It, and therefore You had better watch out!

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, not staying for an answer. The linguistic philosopher Alfred Tarski replied that “it is all that is the case,” it is “analogous to the function of true in ordinary language.” (In other words, truth is what happens to be true.) This, we are informed, is a “semantical theory of truth.” I begin to suspect that Gell-Mann’s doctor is a wise man.

Perhaps we can do better. Perhaps we can say truth is what is out there, whether we know it to be there or not. We have nothing to do with its creation, but if we are diligent and careful, and perhaps lucky, we can discover truth, bits and pieces of it. Other philosophers believe truth is to be found if we sit very still and think very deeply about it.

Sitting still and thinking is not in and of itself a bad thing, it is what the philosophers like to call “necessary but insufficient,” for there is also the pressing need to go out and look, to experiment, observe, collect and make some sense out of the information with which we are in some danger of being drowned, once we open the floodgates of empiricism.

The empirical approach is, as we all know, the scientific approach, and there is nothing particularly new or thrilling about it. It was put forward as a system by David Hume 250 years ago, and even he harbored dark doubts about it. It tells us that what was true about external phenomena is likely to remain true – likely but not certain. This is because external phenomena obey deeper truths, truths we may not know of. Hume went on to argue, in a troubled frame of mind, that just because the sun had risen every morning for countless eons, that is no guarantee that a morning will not come some day when it does not rise. We even know, as Hume did not, that such a morning will indeed come some day, though not for a few billion years yet. This very knowledge of Earth’s doom, sad though it may be (for one half of it will inevitably fry as surely as the other half inescapably freezes), is what gives the lie to both fanatic and relativist.

For it will happen. Whatever the fanatic or relativist proclaims to be “the case” it will happen. It will happen because: 1) truth is external to man; and 2) truth exists. Fanatic and relativist can shout and stamp and proclaim all they wish. The day will come when the Earth’s rotation and revolution will be the same duration. The truth is out there (sorry, relativist) and not in us (hard luck, fanatic), it may or may not make us free. In fact it is more than likely to make us very uneasy, for we realize we cannot control it, cannot bend it to our will, cannot make it conform and perform to our little likes and dislikes, and it does not give a damn. It is sovereign. And it does not need us to tell it what it is and what it must do. Science tells us this.

And this is why fanatic and relativist, the one who is certain he holds truth in his clutches and the other who is just as certain that everyone holds it in his and in her clutches and each one clutches a different thing, are jealous of and angry with science and would destroy it if they could. For it tells them both they are not only fools, but impotent fools. And so if they cannot destroy this terrible message they can at least destroy the messenger, the bearer of ill-tidings, the truth-bringer, science and all its works.

And what does our noble truth-seeker, the scientist, say to all this? He says, What has science to do with truth? I have my petri dishes and my statistical tables to tend to. Don’t bother me with trifles and philosophy.

The truth is not trifling nor is it a philosophic point for pre-Socratics and post-moderns to conjure with. Science may be a reflection of our age, but if it is good science it is something far more. Truth is not a relative measure for each of us to make in our inertial frame of reference. It is what is out there.

If the fanatics and the relativists wish to ignore the truth that is out there, let them. Perhaps we all are in need of Gell-Mann’s doctor’s prescription. But when scientists deny that their work involves what is true, what is the real state of things, then what does science become except an elaborate, intricate game, one to be played or put away in the closet, whichever we choose.

We have no such choice, there is no such game. And we had better stop fooling ourselves that there is.

Three Tips On How To Stop Panic Attacks

images1It is very necessary for you to know how you can handle panic attacks on yourself as well as on them around you. Facing panic attacks can be the most devastating state one can face. The sweating, hyperventilation, chest pains, trembling, numbness, and tight chest can cause one feel like they are going to die or lose their mind. We shall look at five workable tips on how to stop panic attacks.

One, you can decide on acting normal as if nothing has happened to you. If you are working, continue working and do not let this state interfere with your duties. Entertaining the feelings of panic attacks can cause further effects of the symptoms that come with the panic attacks. Another tip on how to stop panic attacks is through avoiding any stressful situations in your life. If you realize that, an environment or situation can cause a panic attack, run away from it as fast as you can. Learn to entertain positive thoughts and positive environments in your life. This will contribute a lot in bringing a stop to panic attacks.

Another vital step you can take is for you to invest the right diet. Good “brain foods” such as nuts, oats, and many vegetables is very essential. They send positive signals to the brain causing one to maintain a positive attitude.

How To Stop Panic Attacks In Non-Medical Methods

Panic attack victims have a history of struggling with the condition for quite a long time in their life. The condition renders the victims to undergo poor social lives since they feel unfit to be with their family and friends. Several anxiety conditions and discarded professional aspirations are some the issues that the sufferers get to deal with. How to stop panic attacks can be so stressing because they are fear driven in nature. Different methods work for different people but below are some of the universal methods that are drug-free which can control the condition.

Meditation is the first one in this category. This method reduces the effects that the victim feels by reducing the intensity of the panic attacks. It works pretty well if used on a consistent basis. You can achieve this by making it a fundamental part of your daily schedule. You can have it done 20 minutes in the morning and evening. To get the benefits of meditation, you need to relax and not sleep during the process. Lie down and maintain a meditative environment and position to avoid sleeping.

Exercising regularly can help produce the endorphins substances that are responsible for raising your level of moods. Doing it rightly will lower the rate of suffering the condition and acquaint you with a good coping life. Others include psychotherapy which works to reduce the body’s anxiety. How to stop panic attacks will mostly depend on the person. You can resort to talking to a professional health counselor to release the feelings and get the proper guideline.

Control The Adrenalin Rush And Stop Panic Attack

images2There is an adrenaline rush any time you are about to experience a panic attack. This is a scary experience that can be related to the very scary instances in your life. It is important for you to take control and learn on how to stop panic attacks. You will end up breathing faster and quicker, in turn, this will lead blood to rush to your large vessels and it is very important to learn how to stop panic attacks if you are headed this way. This also heightens your senses and their reaction thus a lot of discomfort to you. Most of the people who experience panic attacks and know how to stop panic attacks are at an advantage of taking control of the situation.

It is important to note that all these are effects that occur when your body is getting prepared to deal with danger. The adrenalin rush is to help you out to fight danger but it the adrenalin rush is not necessary when it is released by the body. There is no reason as to why the body does so thus it is important to learn how to stop panic attacks. Let not anxiety mess with your natural lifestyle. Learn how to stop panic attacks.