Sunday, February 7, 2010

Democracy doesn't work?

I heard a really interesting piece on NPR's On the Media today. It's a conversation between the host Bob Garfield the Richard Horton, editor of the British journal The Lancet. They discussed the retraction of a 1998 paper that linked autism to MMR vaccines, in particular how the media hyped the story way beyond the limits, nuances, and refutations of the original research. Here's the audio version:

A Shot of Reality

And here's my transcription of the bit that really caught my attention:
Horton: We don't seem able to have a rational conversation in the public space about difficult, controversial issues without people drawing a conclusion which could be very, very adverse.

Garfield: But is this a case where these conversations would have been better confined to the medical community, that somehow the public should not be participating in these things because we simply don't have the wherewithal to evaluate them?

Horton: I think that although that's a nice thought, the problem is that that's just impossible today. The nineteenth century days where you could sit in the salon of the Royal Society and have a private conversation amongst your fellows - it just doesn't exist anymore. So I think, yeah, too much information in this particular case is a bad thing, which seems to go against every kind of democratic principle that we believe in, but in the case of science it seems to be true.
Now I'm sure that sounds horribly elitist to some of you, but I think the basic idea is right on the money. As I listened, I kept thinking how this sounds just like what happens in creationism. Someone publishes a paper on hominid fossils, some press outlet picks it up and hypes it as "requiring a complete revision of our understanding of human evolution," and creationists conclude that evolutionists never knew what they were talking about in the beginning. It also happens on the other side: I publish a paper on baraminology, an anticreationist concludes that since it doesn't explain everything in biology, then it must be bogus and therefore creationists are ignorant frauds and liars.

I'm not sure what exactly to do about this. As Horton said, we obviously can't just limit access to scientific research or technical debates about novel or speculative ideas. At the same time, it's far too easy for the uninformed to draw silly conclusions from the slow, steady progress of research. Perhaps the best we can do is to begin teaching the public the realities of science. Get rid of science education as mere transmission of facts or (worse) the nonexistent "scientific method" (observe, hypothesize, theorize, then it becomes law!). Teach people that science is tentative, that it doesn't establish truth, and that too often it gets warped to serve political agendas.

But that would require a radical change in science education. Gone would be the days of just taking a biology or geology class at the local community college and transfering the credit to a four-year institution. We'd have to actually - gasp - educate our students about science as a whole, as a phenomenon in and of itself.

Maybe we're just not ready for that.