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Word of the Year -- Science: Fact vs. Fiction

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In early December, Merriam Webster announced its selection of "science" as its word of the year for 2013. This choice stood in stark contrast to the selection of "selfie" announced in November by the Oxford University Press as its word for the year.

When we first heard of the choice of "science" we were almost as enthused as we were dismayed by the choice of "selfie" in terms of what these apparently battling words of the year say about our times. Then, our "inner scientist" kicked in.

We hypothesized that while these two words were quite different in their definitions, the reason for their popularity might be similar. That is the ascendancy of the focus on and importance of the individual both in form and opinion as opposed to a concern for truth or facts.

We could not design a controlled experiment to test our hypothesis. But, there is some data that we have seen that supports this conjecture. Let's begin by examining Merriam Webster's selection of science.

In the announcement of its word of the year, Merriam Webster stated that there was a 176 percent increase in look ups for science in this year compared to last year. In explaining the choice of science in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, John Morse, president and publisher of the company, said, "The more we thought about it, the righter it seemed in that it does lurk behind a lot of big stories that we as a society are grappling with whether it's climate change or environmental regulation or what's in our textbooks."

It appears the choice of science was not driven by the increased importance we as a society are placing on the scientific method or increased rigor in research and analysis to inform our discovery and decision-making. Rather, it was caused by the pushback and intensifying struggle for supremacy between the forces for empiricism and evidence versus those for beliefs and opinions -- a fight between good and evil if you will, or evil and good -- depending on where one stands or sits on the issue.

Are we overstating the case? Is there really a struggle going on? Consider the following, in September of this year, Popular Science shut off the on-line comments section of its website.

In announcing this, Popular Science declared, "As the news arm of a 141-year old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter." It went on to assert, "A politically motivated, decades long war on expertise has eroded the political consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change is mistakenly up for grabs again."

In its announcement, Popular Science referenced a research study by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard. She found that when a randomly assigned group of Americans read a fake blog on nanotechnology followed by civil comments how they felt about the subject stayed the same. In contrast, uncivil comments had a contaminating effect on those who were exposed to them.

According to Professor Brossard and co-author, professor Dietram A. Scheufele, in a New York Times op-ed reporting the study results, "Uncivil comments not only polarized readers but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself... Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the technology was greater than they'd previously thought."

So, in this struggle it appears that those with the "anti-science" minds, and ruder comments or more poison pens are winning. Or, maybe they have already won -- at least for the time being. That's the position that Adam Frank, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester takes in his New York Times op-ed in August of this year.

Professor Frank writes, "...Instead of sending my students into a world that celebrates the latest science has to offer, I am delivering them into a society ambivalent, even skeptical about the fruits of science." He continues, "Our society no longer values the integrity of scientific fact."

We're not certain if that is a fact. But, we do know that it is not completely a fiction. To support our assessment, we turn to no lesser an authority than a Dilbert cartoon strip that we saw on September 26.

In the first frame, Alice who is standing over Dilbert sitting at a desk with his computer says, "I got your e-mail with your stupid link to that stupid scientific study." In the second frame with fists clenched Alice yells, "I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR SO-CALLED 'FACTS'. I KNOW I'M RIGHT!" In the third frame Alice has gone and Dilbert slumped at his desk says to himself, "Winning an argument never FEELS like winning."

And the reason that Dilbert feels that way is because in many instances or arguments facts don't matter. That's true not only for those involved in the science or anti-science debate but in a variety of different areas because we are human beings and not robots.

We may have entirely different perspectives but we share common characteristics. These include hardened beliefs, personal style preferences, selective reception of data, decision-making and thinking flaws, and bounded rationality. These characteristics create our ideological and interpretive biases.

Much has been written about this over the past several years by various psychologists, political scientists and economists such as Daniel Kahneman, Philip Tetlock, and George Akerloff. One of our favorites for explaining how and why we think and act the way we do remains Thomas Gilovich, Professor of Psychology at Cornell, who wrote , How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life which was published in 1991.

In his classic book, Gilovich observes, "When examining evidence relevant to a given belief, people are inclined to see what they expect to see, and conclude what they expect to conclude. Information that is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs is often accepted at face value, whereas evidence that contradicts them is critically scrutinized and discounted."

In other words, all of us have blind spots. Let us own up to one of ours -- and that is a preference for the objective and logical as opposed to the subjective and emotional.

That probably partially explains why it much was easier for us to accept and appreciate Merriam Webster's selection of "science" and other words on its list for this year such as: cognitive, rapport, and ethic compared to the Oxford University Press selection of "selfie" and other words on its list for this year such as binge-watch, showrooming and twerking.

It also could be, however, that we believe who wins this war over the status and relevance of science and whether facts matter in America is one that is critical to the future of our country and its citizens. We choose to think that it is both. That's our bias and we're sticking to it -- but, given our predispositions, we could be persuaded otherwise by sufficient evidence that is both valid and reliable.

There's one thing that no amount of information would change, however, and that is what we would like to see selected as the three words of the year for 2014. They are peace, love and understanding.

That's more likely wishful thinking and science fiction than science. In fact, we are certain that it is.

Still, you've got to start some place. Believing will not make it so, but not believing makes it impossible.

Here's to happier words of the year in the New Year!

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