Talk science to me

sabretooth duckTom Weller’s Science Made Stupid has my vote as one of the funniest books I’ve read. The only problem is that anymore it seems to be more of a description of Americans’ understanding of science rather than the lampooning of science it was originally intended to be. If trends continue, another two decades might see it taught in the science classroom.

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone reading this that science illiteracy is rampant in the US. Over a quarter of the population doesn’t believe in evolution in spite of an extensive fossil record, solid scientific theory, and observations of evolution in both the laboratory and the field. This is a classic example, but does it really matter whether or not Americans believe in evolution? Is this really a knowledge deficit that will bring the nation to its knees? Well…maybe.

Let’s think about medicine – and how much of medical testing is performed on animals because of the ethics of trying out new drugs or new surgical procedures on human subjects. One of the reasons that animal testing works is that we have remarkable similarities to some species of animals – and we are more similar to animals that we are evolutionarily closer to. Do we want our medical researchers to be taught that humans were miraculously created unique from the animals, or do we want them to understand the evolutionary rationale for the work in which they are engaged?

Of course, evolution takes place right in front of our eyes, and in a way that has very real implications for all of us – the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria in our hospitals and in our livestock farms. The development of drug-resistant and multi-drug-resistant bacteria is well-documented in the scientific literature, the medical literature, and in the popular literature. Multi-drug resistant microbes are a huge threat – according to the World Health Organization multi-drug resistant tuberculosis alone kills over 150,000 people annually, and deaths from multi-drug resistant microbes in the US and elsewhere in the world have risen significantly over the last decade or so. Everyone who enters a hospital is at greater risk of catching a fatal infection because of the rise of multi-drug resistant germs and the reason for this is the evolution of antibiotic resistance among microbes exposed to human antibiotics on the farm, in hospitals, and elsewhere. But how do we explain this to a population that increasingly denies that evolution of any sort occurs?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are another area in which people are all too willing to vent opinions without an understanding of the underlying science. Simply throwing around terms like “frankenfood” and “the precautionary principle” as reasons to avoid genetically modified food is one thing, but few – if any – of those shunning these foods have any real understanding of what a gene is, let alone what is involved in splicing them from one organism into another. I can’t help but wonder how many anti-GMO advocates realize that there are hundreds or thousands of genes in their bodies that are identical to genes found in lizards, fish, and even bacteria. Consider an analogy – the basic tasks involved in running most businesses are the same, regardless of what the business happens to be or the size of the company. Every company has to deal with the basics – paying rent and utilities, managing a payroll, taking orders, scheduling workers, and so forth – and General Electric handles these tasks in much the same manner as I did when I worked as an independent consultant. Similarly, every cell has a certain amount of “housekeeping” that has to take place, and a great deal of this is done the same way – using the same genes – regardless of the organism.

In my own field of expertise for example, there are a bunch of DNA repair genes in each of my cells that are identical to those in the E. coli in my intestines. Similarly, each of my cells produces energy using a molecule called ATP – the genes that cause this process to occur are the same in humans as they are in every other organism that makes energy in this manner – all but a handful of bacteria. Seen from this perspective – realizing the immense amount of genetic overlap between humans and so many other creatures – genetically modified foods might not seem quite as risky. But lacking this level of understanding, the case against GMOs might seem far stronger than is really the case. This is important – not only are genetically modified crops extensively farmed throughout the world, but GMOs hold out the promise of feeding and nourishing hundreds of millions of the world’s hungry – if we decide to ban all GMOs then we are condemning many of these hundreds of millions to lives of malnutrition and hunger and early death; surely this decision should be made based on a sound understanding of the science involved rather than a gut feeling that messing with nature is wrong.

Statistics is yet another area that is willfully overlooked by too many. I have to admit that my college statistics class was not the most scintillating I’ve taken – but what I learned there more than made up for the lack of excitement. Statistics is what helps us to understand what the numbers we are deluged with actually mean, and it is what helps us to make sense of the world around us. And if properly used they also help us to look past the hype and to see the underlying structure. Risk is a statistical phenomenon – we use statistics to help us to understand whether it’s safer to drive or to fly from New York to Los Angeles, to help us determine whether or not this year’s cool spring means that global warming is a non-phenomenon or a continuing threat, and they tell us that (media hysteria to the contrary) the typical American citizen is safer now than at any time in decades. This is not to say that statistics can’t (or aren’t) manipulated to make a point – but even in these cases we can’t refute (and may not even detect) such manipulation if we lack a sufficient understanding of statistics ourselves. If we refuse to learn a bare minimum of statistics ourselves we are left at the mercy of those who have learned the subject, or we have to go with our gut feelings.

And for that matter, how many decisions do we make based on our gut feelings rather than on a rational examination of the facts? It can be satisfying to make a decision that we know in our bones is the right thing to do, and our popular media is replete with stories of people who buck the odds to do the “right thing.” But these stories stand out because they are so rare – how many times do we hear about a person who took a good look at the information, weighed it carefully, made a decision, and had everything go as expected? Similarly, we hear about the week’s lottery winner, but we never hear about the millions who played the lottery and lost, and never hear about those who chose not to play at all because they understand the odds are against them. Humanity spent millennia developing scientific and rational methods of looking at the world – it’s too bad we are so willing to give this up just as our society has become so dependent on science.

Of course there’s more to decision-making than science – but it seems ludicrous to eschew science altogether. Yet in an increasingly science-avoidant age this is exactly what we’re doing – ignoring statistical evidence when it exists, claiming that our gut informs us better than does our brain, and simply ignoring scientific evidence that contradicts what we want to believe. And what better example of this than the spectacle of a bevy of candidates for the position of President even being asked if they believed in evolution – let alone the fact that all but three claimed they did not? How long will it be until we all think that angels (or demons) are pushing the electrons through our computers to make them work and that magic keeps our planes in the air? How long can we maintain a leading role when there are so many who take perverse pride in their utter lack of scientific understanding? And with so many other threats – acid rain, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, climate change, lack of good drinking water, epidemic and pandemic disease (to name a few) – that can only be resolved through science, this refusal to engage in science becomes even more puzzling and even more dangerous. And – may I point out – that even if you don’t believe that these are problems, you should couch your refutation in science and scientific observation; to do otherwise is to simply choose rhetoric over rationality.

It’s not necessary that everyone in the country understands that our GPS units depend on the theory of relativity to function properly, and it’s not essential that we all realize that the same phenomenon that lights our compact fluorescent bulbs also lights the universe’s distant nebulae. But it is essential that a society that depends on science and technology at least acknowledge this dependence, and that it make an effort to live by the same scientific and rational principles that keep so many of us alive, comfortable, and more prosperous (even in our recession) than at any other time in history. Forgetting the odd fact is understandable and forgivable – turning our backs and willfully forgetting or refusing to learn in the first place is neither.

5 Responses to “Talk science to me”

  1. Mark May 20, 2013 at 10:03 PM #

    Glad to see you’re back!

    Speaking of statistics, I do wonder if we can really say that these sorts of beliefs are increasing. People have been complaining about growing anti-science sentiment since at least the 70s. I did a brief Google search looking for an answer, and found a graph of polling data showing that beliefs about evolution have been roughly constant for the last few decades. I did a similar search for climate change, and found graphs showing that – after falling sharply in 2008 – belief has been slowly growing over the last four years, and is getting back to its original peak. That was just five minutes of Googling, I didn’t dig deeply enough to tell if these are reliable sources.

  2. Dana May 21, 2013 at 1:15 PM #

    Not only do I understand what a gene is, I understand that genes occur in sequences and that when you splice from one species to another, you don’t necessarily wind up with the exact same kind of sequence in the spliced organism that existed in the donor organism–furthermore, if the spliced organism had already had that exact gene in that exact spot in the sequence, it wouldn’t have “needed” splicing.

    Evolution doesn’t work that way and you bloody well know it. We cannot get it right in our management of *land masses,* what makes you think we will get it right in our management of the microscopic world?

    You are a hack, sir. I was going to share this article because most of it is actually good. But how much is Monsanto or one of the other gene tech corporations paying you for this?

    • Dr. Y May 21, 2013 at 2:17 PM #

      Understanding what a gene is and how they work puts you ahead of virtually anyone I’ve heard from on this matter. You should look into the topic of genetic reassortment – the process by which organisms (typically bacteria) exchange genes wholesale. This is how, for example, a flu virus will pick up the ability to spread by a different route, or how bacteria can pick up the trait of antibiotic resistance. And our own genomes carry around a host of genetic “parasites” where viral or bacterial DNA has been incorporated into our own genome. So this phemonenon is common in nature. However, in the limited case of plucking a specific gene for a specific trait from one organism and putting it into another you are correct that that level of specificity does not tend to happen in nature. But the question should be about the level of harm that this causes and the risk it poses to us and to the environment.

      With regards to my own writing, I will state unequivocally that I am not paid by FAS or by anyone else for writing this blog, that I have never been paid (or even approached) by Monsanto or by any other company to write (or to slant) any particular piece, and that I would not do so in any event. I have also never worked for any nuclear utility or for any federal agency (with the exception of the Navy, which I have mentioned in earlier postings) – my working career has been primarily in academia, as a private consultant, and in state and local government. I come up with the ideas for my postings myself, I write them myself, and I post them myself without asking for approval. You may feel free to question my intelligence, my writing style, or my grasp of the materials – but if you’re questioning my integrity then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

      Finally, with that aspersion aside, I do appreciate you kind comment about the rest of the posting!

  3. Dr. Y May 21, 2013 at 2:06 PM #

    Mark – I guess I fell into the same mistake I was cautioning against; thanks for taking a closer look. But I would maintain that, to some extent, it doesn’t much matter whether we’ve gone from bad to abyssmal or just remained bad in our scientific literacy. It still leaves us at risk. I will see what I can find on this matter, and please feel free to share any more that you learn on the matter. Thanks!

  4. Mark May 22, 2013 at 9:53 AM #

    I agree – half the country believing in YEC is far too many, even if the percentage isn’t increasing. But at least we don’t seem to be losing.

    I’ve been doing some more Googling. Here’s what I’ve found:

    The public likes science and scientists. Even the parts of the public that don’t believe in climate change, evolution, etc. In one survey, the only professions that are more trusted are teachers and the military.
    And they seem to be interested in science – more than 90% report being “very interested” or “moderately interested” in new discoveries.
    The above also reports that public scientific knowledge, measured in a short quiz, has been roughly stable in the US for about a decade, is comparable to results in Europe, and is higher than results from China, Japan, and Russia.

    According to Gallup, belief in Creationism has decreased very slightly since 1982. Belief in evolution, with or without divine assistance, has increased from 47% to 54%. But half the jump occurred in just the last poll, so you could equally well argue that things have been essentially static over the last thirty years.

    In terms of climate change, I wasn’t able to find a reliable-looking poll on whether people believe the Earth is warming or not, but I did find a poll on the cause of warming from Gallup:
    The poll shows belief in anthropogenic warming dropped by about eight points after climategate, and is inching back up, but has not yet really recovered. However, more than half of respondents in the last poll do believe in anthropogenic global warming. Similarly, the NSF report:
    Says that “assessments of environmental hazards from pollution, nuclear power, and climate change were largely stable between 1993 and 2010.” I did find a Gallup poll showing a rising percentage of people who, while they believe in global warming, think the risk is exaggerated by the media, but I’ve lost the link.

    I suspect, although I obviously can’t prove, that a lot of people who don’t believe in climate change do so because they are unaware of what the science says, rather than because they distrust or reject science. For example, in the Gallup poll, the percentage of people who say the earth is warming due to human action is roughly the same as the percentage of people who say scientists believe that it is occurring, while the percentage who believe it is due to natural causes roughly equals the percentage who think scientists are unsure or believe it is not occurring. With the exception of evolution, which has gathered all sorts of cultural identity baggage, I suspect a similar pattern applies to other issues like vaccinations and radiation safety. At least in my anecdotal experience talking to people, most of the uninformed think the science is on their side.

    Of course, I’m not sure how much difference that actually makes. Speaking anecdotally again, pointing out they’re wrong hasn’t really helped, even with copious citations – most people can’t really distinguish between legitimate science and pseudoscience, and thus tend to side with whoever supports their preexisting beliefs.

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