Chief Science Correspondent
Earlier this evening, science journalist Ira Flatow presented a talk at Ohio University on ways in which popular culture has succeeded traditional media in promoting science culture to a public audience.
It is no secret that the public-science disconnect is great. This phenomenon is reflected most strongly in a series of rather striking statistics. This was particularly evident last week, when several recent polls regarding public perceptions of science went viral. One found that 41 percent of Americans believe antibiotics are capable of treating viral diseases. Another found that 80 percent of Americans oppose food that contains DNA.
A Pew Research Center study released last week found that while 79 percent of Americans appreciate the broader merits of science as a discipline, they tend to oppose certain specific issues that have become controversial including genetically modified crops, human evolution, childhood vaccines, and climate change. IFLS published a detailed review of these studies last week. And while I maintain that many of these tests fail as a true measure of science literacy and create an unfairly harsh evaluation of the public, it is clear that, in many ways, our science communication has failed.
People love science, but tend to lack basic scientific knowledge. That's a difficult dynamic to balance, and one that Flatow largely attributed what he called a general degradation in the quality of news coverage over the past several decades, in which reporters skirt around popular, sensational stories while avoiding more relevant topics.
"Our media is dumbing down our culture," said Flatow, who is best known for the radio talk show Science Friday. "And now people believe more in science fiction than science fact."
Flatow referenced a woman who had called into his show last week and told him that she had chosen not to vaccinate her children. When asked whether she would be open to changing her opinion if presented with scientific evidence in favor of vaccines, she firmly stated no. And here, Flatow says, lies the problem; person's opinion is nearly always extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change.
But Flatow went on to describe how science has not left our culture entirely; in fact, the media has made science more popular then ever. Flatow cited clips from a variety of shows, from cartoons like The Simpsons and Family Guy; to faux news shows such The Daily Show and The Colbert Report; and even more science-centered programs such as The Big Bang Theory and Scorpion. Flatow explained that, unlike more traditional media, these programs are not afraid to highlight major science issues.
Flatow pointed to scientists (citing Carl Sagan as one of the earliest examples) who have become "celebrities" in popular culture. Other science communicators, such as Elise Andrew (the founder of IFLS), have found success by reaching out to various niches in social media.
"Science is very hot now!" Flatow said. And while I certainly would agree with this assessment (read here for my more complete review of science in new media), Flatow has created somewhat of a paradox in his analysis. How can science become more popular through social media and promote an almost universal appreciation for the discipline, but keep the public widely uninformed about the basics of science as a whole?
When I asked Flatow about this disconnect, he replied that he believed the solution would be to encourage more scientists to step up and promote their work - not only through peer reviewed journals, but popular media outlets. Flatow also said this problem could be remedied by better educating science journalists. However, he also admitted that, because science is no longer prioritized in traditional media, most science communicators now use the internet as a forum for disseminating research.
I still found this reply a bit contradictory. Flatow had already stated that it is incredibly difficult to change the public mentality regarding science. Again, he had spoken to a woman who said she would never consider changing her mind on vaccines, even if she read a peer-reviewed study or had the change to speak with a vaccine scientist personally. And I've seen this trend on a variety of internet forums that I follow regarding topics such as evolution, genetic engineering and vaccines. The arguments are generally heated and circular. I have yet to see an internet debate actually change the mind of any user; it almost always simply ends in mutual anger and frustration.
So while the internet is certainly an extremely valuable forum for communicating science, it seems to me that it is mostly only effective in uniting people who are already interested in learning from what scientists have to say.
The answer to this dilemma, which Flatow only briefly mentioned, may be emerging differences between the older generation, which relies more heavily on traditional media, and the younger generation, which is more reliant on digital media. If so, then the newest generation certainly provides hope for our culture.
And this was mostly true. Younger participants were more likely to support science and science funding, and were generally more likely to trust the authority of scientists rather than alternative views. However, younger adults were less likely to support childhood vaccinations - not a surprise, as the anti-vax movement has become increasingly popular in recent years. In fact, the anti-vax and anti-GMO movements have spread much in the same way as the pro-science movements - through the ease and accessibility of social media.
But it's hard to say. While the current research supports the notion that young people are becoming more educated about these larger topics within science, some work has shown that many young people still have not grasped the actual basics of science knowledge. Flatow showed the audience a video of recent Harvard graduates who believed the seasons are caused by changes in Earth's proximity to the sun. The work was simply anecdotal evidence, but could be evident of a larger problem in which non-scientists quickly lose any science knowledge they had gained during their early education.
As the younger generation ages and emerges as the new leaders of our culture, will we lose our passion for the so-called "sexy" wealth of science that currently consumes many of our Facebook and Twitter feeds? Will our scientists continue to beg for support from a community that no longer identifies with the excitement of research?
Personally, I am more optimistic that this generation's enthusiasm for science will spill over into the future decades. As leaders, it will be our responsibility to decide whether the public chooses to objectively look to scientists as authorities in these critical fields.