I had an interesting conversation with someone over winter break. We were talking about science and how, in opinion, there are some problems with the way we treat scientists in this country. Mostly, I was talking about how researchers are pressured into publishing their findings before someone “scoops” them because of funding models. This causes professors at universities to write grants most of the time while their doctoral candidates are running the labs. PHD comics does a great job of showing the life of a grad student in a satirical, funny way. And while the comic is just that, a comic, many graduate students I know (especially in the sciences) talk about the realities of being a scientist today.
Back to the conversation I had. I was telling this person that scientists are pressured to publish and because of this pressure, there are have problems with some scientists faking their data. There was a notable case where a physicist faked some of his data in published, peer reviewed, papers. The Schon scandal along with other, more deliberate studies show that there is a problem in how we evaluate peer review studies in this country.
The first thing my friend said was “And how do they expect us to believe that GMO is safe to eat?”
What? I’m talking about physics studies and you jump to GMO. Totally different fields of studies. That’s like me saying “We need to help the rainforest” and you replying with “Well, I do yoga.” They don’t relate at all.
I think that is the problem with science communication in this country. People seem to think that all SCIENCE is done in a box and if one part of SCIENCE is flawed, than all of SCIENCE is flawed. Of course parts of science are flawed, because PEOPLE do science. Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum or a box, it happens because people are passionate about it. So of course there are going to be flaws and biases and bad data. That doesn’t mean we throw it all out. That means we have better checks in place. Instead of pressuring people into publishing, let them double and triple check their results.
A second problem is how scientists communicate with the public. Many scientists would hesitate to say that we “absolutely know” or it is “100% safe”. Most would say “the likelihood is high” or “it is possible but highly unlikely”. People don’t like those qualifiers. People want something to be 100% safe or 100% right. Maybe this is more a fault of education in this country. We often treat science education as “this is fact” when science isn’t about facts at all. Science is about likelihoods and probabilities. For example, I teach my students about the probability of finding an electron at a certain place at a certain time. We can’t know for sure that the electron is there, but the probability of finding it is high. That doesn’t sit well with students, or with most people. They want to know for sure where the electron is. I think scientists and educators need to do a better job explaining why we can’t know for certain if something is or isn’t.
Mainly, I think people need to realize that science isn’t this one caught all thing that is done perfectly all the time. Scientists are human and make mistakes. Their mistakes need to be recognized as part of the scientific process, not crucified for not being perfect. After all, no one stopped driving because Volvo recalled their trucks. We shouldn’t throw out all of science because a few people have made mistakes. We should learn from those mistakes, help fix the system that caused those mistakes, and continue forward. That is, after all, how science works.