Throughout the history of mankind technology and later science has been an important part of our societies. Technology has always played a big role in how our societies evolved and developed into more and more complex structures. As our technology and our understanding of the world around us (that’s the main goal of science) evolved, so did the ways at which we relate to each other, how we do business and how we go about our lives.
Today we live in a society that is technology and science dependent as never before in history. We put so much trust into technology as well as expect technology to solve all our problems. Indeed it does and did solve many problems, but there are some problems that technology can hardly do anything about it. Our society is now structured on things like social networks, emails, websites – the internet generally is creating its own society in a completely new environment that is very different from the environment we lived and evolved in for thousands of years. On the internet the classical perception of space and time is no longer valid. There is no close or near on the internet, no borders, no obstacles nothing to limit ones ability to communicate (with some exceptions), the sense of time is also blurred as things can happen really fast in mere seconds. And still with all of us being so sucked in by the internet and the wonderful things it can offer how many of us can really say we understand how it works. How many people actually know how basic services like websites and email works, how networks are build, what things are required to make it all happen.
Most people view this internet as this ether that simply exists – somewhere out there. All you need to do is connect to a hot spot or put your cable in and voila you are there. But rarely anyone realizes how many things need to be there, how much infrastructure and software alike needs to exist in order to support the internet’s existence.
Why does this matter at all, can’t we just use it and not care? Well it seems it works this way, but the whole idea behind democracy is that the people make informed decisions – at least that’s what the idea is. But today this is starting to slowly dissolve for two important reasons, the first reason is something that’s probably not possible to overcome – that the complexity of modern technology and science alike is simple to vast for any one person to know it all. The other reason, which is one I think we can and should try to fix is that scientific literacy is incredibly low.
Firstly lets talk about the first reason, the one that’s mostly not solvable by classical means. You can be a well-educated person, but we as humans simply lack the capacity and even time to learn all there is to learn even on a single subject, let alone on a myriad of subjects that would be required to understand just one piece of technology we use today – like the smart phone. For really understanding how a smart phone works you would first need to understand how its hardware works and operates as well as later you would need to know how operating system conduct their business and how they support all that software – the apps you use.
Just understanding the hardware would be a serious challenge. Getting a basic overview and understanding of how circuits and processors work requires a fair amount of work. Sure, if you are a student of Computer Science, this should not pose a problem for you. You should be able to throw all this out of your sleeve – still the question remains to what extent. As far as I know studying Computer Science gives a fairly broad overview of the field and all the sub-fields in it. But later on if you wish to really become an expert on something you need to specialize. And specializing takes time, while also specializing in one field means not specializing in another.
I’m not trying to say that specialization is bad. On the contrary I think it is critical for today’s society. But while it has many benefits it does pose its own challenges.
Getting back to the scientific illiteracy problem. We are going to take a simple example – well maybe not a simple one but a very illustrative one. The well know anti-vaxers movement. This movement for me represents the whole scientific illiteracy problem and the fact that science itself is poorly understood in general. Some background – anti-vaxers are those who do not wish to vaccinate their children, there are many reasons but the main reason is that they thing that vaccinations somehow harm and/or are ineffective.
Where this belief comes from is a bit of a mystery and there are probably many factors and variants, one of them being the infamous supposed link between autism and vaccinations. This has been disproved many times over by the scientific community and honestly it should not even get the attention it got because the study/studies that were supposedly the source of this (mis) information were simply put junk. While I will not try to explain the whole process of how and why studies should be made in a certain way I can recommend a book that illustrates this wonderfully. Bad Science from Ben Goldacre
One possible way of viewing this situation is that most people simply cannot trust anyone anymore, I would partially put myself into this group as due to all recent events I find it extremely hard to trust anything. Most people view the pharmaceutical industry as simply evil, which does have some ground and one can understand why this happens. The problem is when this perception of the world clouds judgement and makes people bias. Combine that with lack of knowledge and you have a very dangerous mix.
In the anti-vaxers movement you see exactly that, on one side they to not believe the pharmaceutical industry and then they extrapolate this lack of trust into science in general (as if there is some world conspiracy among scientists). They start thinking of science as simply some propaganda tool and do not appreciate that one of the main goals of science still is to find the truth and prevent hoaxes. Because of this bias they then tend to believe someone who you can actually demonstrate that has a financial or personal interest. While also ignoring all the scientific facts about vaccinations.
So on one hand you have suspicion (based on previous bad experience), with little or no evidence of foul play. And on the other side you have demonstrable self-interest and a mountain of evidence that says otherwise. How should you choose, well actually this is where knowledge and knowing things comes into play. Without any additional knowledge, you could still be choosing the wrong way.
But once you have a little bit of knowledge you can try to dissect what one or the other sides are saying and see what makes more sense. In the anti-vaccination community you see a general lack of understanding how modern vaccines work and general lack of any knowledge about chemistry, biochemistry, immunology etc. You can hardly expect them to be people making rational decisions. One simple example is that they lack the basic understanding that some chemical element being dangerous or lethal does not mean that all the molecules containing this element are also lethal or dangerous. Some may be, some may not, but you cannot get this information by simply observing the element. It also goes the other way around – if some molecule is made out of elements that are by themselves harmless it can still be dangerous and/or lethal.
Example: Tetrodotoxin, which molecular formula is C11H17N3O8 The elements of this molecule are all non-lethal by themselves. Carbon makes nice diamonds and all living things, hydrogen is the component of water and the driving force of the Sun. The air we breathe is almost 80% nitrogen. And oxygen is the thing we cannot live without. So if you would follow the anti-vaxing idea of inferring lethality from just the elements a molecule is composed of – then this molecule should be harmless. But it far away from that.
What we see here is scientific illiteracy, there are many more examples but I don’t want to be boring with all of them. The basic idea of making rational decisions that you need information and knowledge to asses that information. Without that you are just acting out on faith. Yeah sure you cannot trust all the information given, but you must then apply both of these rules everywhere. First choose whether you trust some source of information and then asses the information with the knowledge you have no matter how much you trust the source. If you do not have knowledge to do so, then you are in trouble, because then all you have is trust, but you lack the means to rationally decide who to trust.
At least for me, you do not trust someone just because he tells you what you want to hear, or is nice to you, looks nice or any other thing. You trust first based on some form of information that this person is an expert of the field (this can be formal education for instance) and then you must also see his “track record”, has he been right many times, does he have any biases that might make him an unreliable source etc.
Yes sometimes some correct ideas go completely against the current and it takes someone to break the existing paradigms, but this does not happen so often so just because you might make some (a very tiny amount) of false negatives is far better than simply saying anything that is against the current paradigms must be true because of this or that conspiracy, that way what you will mostly get is many false positives as well as many false negatives. So you will be wrong most of the time, any maybe just maybe right on one special occasion.
So what we would need today is more scientific literacy for people to be able to appropriately asses the information they are being fed, to detect bullshit from either side. Doubt is great, but knowledge and later informed doubt is better. And also some curiosity would not hurt anyone, if you want to or have an opinion about something and you are vocal about it, do some research and read up on the basic literature for understanding the topic, doing good research means firstly checking both sides but not simply going trough the conclusions but also assessing the stuff you read.
There is much more to be said on this topic, but for now lets leave it here, and later on we might address some parts of this in more detail.