Science in Denial

In the NYTimes, Adam Frank, a distinguished scientist at the University of Rochester laments the decline of Science in the public – but fails to address the underlying issues and reasons for the decline of Science from the publics point of view.

First and foremost, when only 26% of graduating high school students are prepared for college , you have a fundamental problem. As noted in the article that means only 1/4 of the entering studenst are able to take on the business, math and Science classes needed to  understand the Science that affects them. This is critical.

Second, Science itself is becoming ever more complicated. In my arena of Computer Science there have been major disruptive paradigm shifts at least once or twice every 2-3 years. And when I say disruptive I mean that the very basics of how computer systems are implemented have been changed profoundly every half decade or less. A biochemist friend has seen a similar topsy turvy in her world of biological research and methods. And finally, our essayist, Adam Frank, tells astonishing tales of Cosmology that are complex, wondrous but also on the bounds of understanding. In sum, the sum of Science today can only be painted and understood in the broadest of strokes. After that, one has to trust the scientists for a spinningly complex world of evidence and details.

Third, Science is becoming more menacing. It always has been but perhaps with the nuclear age, Science and Society crossed a Rubicon of scientific benefits and dangers. MAD is about nuclear weaponry raised to the power of Mutually Assured Destruction. Nuclear Power Plants produce radioactive waste materials in tonnages and centuries of perilous radioactive half life that are so intimidating that no region wants the wastes buried in their area. So blue Cerenkov radiation marks pools of “cooled” waste matter waiting for …. Godot.

Fourth,  Science can appear powerless. Autism in the past 40 years has gone from 1 in 1000 births to 1 in 50. No trusted explanations been found. Weather variability has increased and become the increasingly threatening flip side of climate change. But the explanations for why weather variability is increasing stop at gross phenomena such as Jet Stream changes and ocean warming – nowhere near practical solutions. The War on Cancer has been going on since the Nixon years with $10s of billions spent annually. Many of the current “cures” are so debilitating it is harrowing for many cancer patients.

In effect, Science appears ineffective in attacking wicked problems. Here are three more  examples. The War on Drugs has been going on for 30 to 50 years depending on who does the counting.  Yet Mexico is the latest country to be wracked by a serious, drug related murder wave with over 70,000 killed since 2006. And despite spending over $51B  per year on the drug war, the rate of drug overdose deaths has increased for the 11th straight year in the US to 38,000. Clearly Policy Science has failed to tame the Drug Problem Beast.

Since recorded History, earthquakes have exacted huge death tolls throughout the world. Despite understanding the basic plate geology behind earthquakes, no country has been able to formulate an elementary earthquake warning system.

But most tellingly, Science and automation are the engines that have created two deeply distraughtful  disruptions in manufacturing and job economics throughout the world. First, manufacturing automation created Rust Belts throughout the US and Europe in the 1970s to 1990s that affected hundreds of millions of workers.

The second phase has been as Computing and Internet innovations  have enabled the massive outsourcing of  both manufacturing and service jobs to the lowest wage providers anywhere in the world. So now increasing percentages of the workforce in developed world must compete against workers who regard $3-8/hour a very good wage.

And now a third wave of automation is coming in which every job created does not match every job lost particularly in numbers and/or wages received. See the NYTimes article about the debilitating effects of Science-based automation on the Middle Class and wages. So the faltering recovery that is seen in the US and developed world may yet be snuffed out – and observers may attribute it as much to elites engaging in careless Science aided  automation. This is as I-could-care-less and blameless for the elites as their continued dangerous financial risk taking. In sum, the World already confronted with perilous Social and Political Wicked problems, may see Science and scientists  as blindly contributing to Economic hardship of a substantial order.

So is it any  wonder Science is regarded with some skepticism if not disdain? First, the public’s ability to understand Science is declining. Second, Science’s ability to tackle important practical and wicked problems is also faltering. Third Science is the engine that is enabling ever more frequent  “creative disruptions” that take major tolls on economic  and social well being for hundreds of millions of people throughout the world .

So again, is it a surprise that what prevails is a popular  skepticism and distinct discomfort with the notion that Science produces unvarnished Progress? Is it a surprise that Science Denial abounds? Yes, denialism is aided by a cadre of business and political elites with monstrously self-serving ends who raid the Confidence in Science Commons with utter impunity. But this is the issue in the title, Welcome to the Age of Denial ,which was left largely untouched by Adam Frank.

Already, Pew Research and others tests show that Science knowledge is fragmented.  Over 40% of those polled considered math and science too hard to understand. Also the attitude and aspirations  towards science in  British youth is lower than any other field. But most telling is the fact that manipulation of scientific data, though small in scale, is persistent. Creationists and other denial organizations take advantage of these facts to sew uncertainty and doubt about the scientific results in disciplines and areas they want to discredit and impugn. And these denialist organizations take cover from the fact that major science and engineering driven organizations like Exxon Mobil and Monsanto and Koch Industries among others use the same tactics.

So Science is in Denial. First, its benign self image as being critical to technology,  welfare and economics is not shared by young and old alike. Partially that reflects the decline in scientific aptitude in the broad population. But also, it is a failure in Science teaching to instill the essential insight – that science based methods of careful hypotheses construction, unbiased trials that can among other things disprove the hypotheses, gathering unequivocal evidence, and bounded conclusions is vital not just in the classical engineering and sciences but also applies with equal efficacy to business, arts, and social sciences as well.

Finally, Science needs humility. Most good scientists have  the ability to candidly acknowledge and define its limits and acknowledge its risks. But denialists thrive on the difference between great expectations versus bounded realities. So when Science falters or errors denialists pounce. Thus,  until Science deals with its renegade Science based denialists like Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, and Monsanto among others, it will be at their  sycophants mercies.

Finally, Science must confront the Economic and Social Wicked Problems engendered by Disruptive Automation. Too many scientist regard this as similar to questions of Church and State – one does not expect scientists to question or challenge the  business or government piper who plays the funding tunes.  Until this issue is consistently addressed,  do expect Science Skepticism and Denialism to expand and flourish.

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