This a post about scientific literacy, and it’s in response to a rash of climate change skeptics posting on this site. When I say scientific literacy, what I mean is the average person’s ability to locate, understand, and use scientific research.
What I find truly amazing is the ability of an average person to say, “The guy with the PhD who’s dedicated his entire life to studying a particular field and been trained to do so? That guy is totally wrong because I read a book and visited a website that said so.” People in this country have an amazing propensity to completely dismiss the findings of experts. It’s my opinion that this is because, now more than ever, people have access to information and data that they never had in previous decades. And while this is can be a good thing, as of right now it’s terrible because the average American doesn’t have the scientific literacy to draw any legitimate conclusions from it.
Science in this country is suffering. Fewer and fewer people are going into the field, and Americans are usually at the bottom of the list when it comes to math and science comprehension among developed nations. Where the problem lies is that science is a complicated, lengthy process, and scientific studies are even more complicated. If you gave the average American raw, primary data from a scientific study, they wouldn’t know what to make of it. They wouldn’t know how to qualitatively or quantitatively analyze the data–how many Americans do you think understand what a linear regression is? Or a p-value. Or an odds ratio? Or attributable risk? Probably very, very few. How many people understand what a bias truly is, or a confounding variable? Again, probably very, very few.
So what ends up happening? Scientific research is summarized by some third party for public consumption. And that, my friends, is the true danger, because that’s where personal and political agendas come into play. It’s great that you read an article that gave the results of a study. But how was the data collected? How was the sample population obtained? How was the data analyzed? How does this evidence compare to other evidence?
I’ll give you a prime example, one that doesn’t involve climate change. I live in Portland, OR, and we recently had to vote on whether or not to fluoridate our water supply. Many people against it cite a study done that linked one of the chemicals used to deliver the fluoride with increased lead levels in children. Well that sounds pretty bad, you might say. After all, who wants that for our children? Well, what if I told you that by and large, the two largest sources of lead in the environment were the air and the soil? The problem then becomes this: how did the original study account for this? Unless they shut all the children indoors and only pumped in filtered air, there was no way to control for lead exposure through air and soil, two highly variable factors.
I’m not trying to say that people should never question the results of a scientific study or a generally accepted principle. Questioning things is, after all, the basis of the scientific process and necessary for improvement. Question whether climate change is a man-made phenomenon all you want. What I DO have a problem with is someone with zero training or experience evaluating research data making conclusive statements about a topic. We have people who are trained to do that much better than you can, so just let them do their jobs.
And I’m picking on climate change skeptics for a reason: there’s a lot at stake. Climate change has the potential to drastically change all life on this planet, so if you’re going to argue that it doesn’t exist, you better have some quality evidence, and you better damn well pour over it with an objective fine-tooth comb. You can’t just shrug and say, “Oops, I guess my data was bad,” or “Uh oh, turns out the research was done incorrectly.”