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Priyamvada Natarajan Headshot

How Science Works

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We hear a lot about American children's poor performance in science. But we really ought to be worried about the scientific ignorance of American adults.

Most of our fellow citizens can't describe the structure of the atom. They maintain that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, and deny evolution. They believe in the efficacy of scientifically unproven medical interventions, such as pills that promise to melt away fat, and the legitimacy of ESP.

Why are Americans so uninformed about science, and so doubtful of solid scientific findings? This mistrust of science is rooted in a misunderstanding of how science works.

Science is evidence based, and provides a continuing understanding of complex natural phenomena. Our understanding is constantly evolving and continually improving.

Evidence based reasoning underpins all scientific thinking and it involves testing hypotheses or theories against data. Validating a theory requires replicable measurements from independent groups with different equipment and methods of analysis. Convergence of evidence is critical to the acceptance of a scientific idea.

Scientific knowledge is by its nature provisional. This is due to the fact that as time goes on, with the invention of better instruments, more data and better data hone our understanding further. Social, cultural, economic and political context are relevant to our understanding of how science works.

Progress in science occurs in fits and starts, and paradigm shifts occur when evidence can be marshaled to support a new point of view. Science is practiced in a climate of inherent uncertainty and the process of verifying a hypothesis or theory is never-ending. Since over time evidence may accumulate to support or falsify a hypothesis, disagreements are essential to the honing of an acceptable theory.

The reality of how science works is in sharp contrast to the way most Americans seem to see it--perhaps as definitive, time-limited, and based on speculation or assertion.

While this misunderstanding of science is a longstanding phenomenon and not new, it has been aggravated by a new development: the scientific process now occurs in the full view of the public at large in this age of information sharing. This has led to a rush to interpret the frictions in what is simply the normal process of contestation prior to acceptance, as evidence that the theory being contested is not valid.

A case in point is the debate over climate change. Scientists do not disagree on the facts or the data but do so in the interpretation. Given the complexity of the climate-modeling problem, it is unsurprising that there are uncertainties -- for instance the best 23 models predict a range in rise of the global mean temperature by anywhere between 1.1 - 6.4 oC by 2100. The major uncertainty hinges on the need to include the future emissions of carbon dioxide into the modeling. While no one disputes the current measurements of carbon dioxide emissions levels in the atmosphere, it's in the estimates of the anticipated growth rate that disagreement lies.

What we see playing out now is a clash of values, differences that arise from our commitments to and the sense of stewardship we as humans feel for the environment today and for the future. This clash of values is real and needs to be confronted but it is apart from the scientific facts.

If American adults don't know the structure of the atom, that's a blot on our national scientific literacy. But if American adults don't understand how vaccines work or how carbon emissions are heating up the earth, we have a catastrophe on our hands.

What do we do about this? Some of this mistrust of science is rooted in the lack of appreciation and first-hand experience of how science works. Part of the blame can be attributed to my community, that of scientists, we have not been very effective in translating and communicating our practices, the results of our research and its implications to the public in clear terms.

Outreach had not been high on our agendas until recently but this is changing rapidly with a large number of scientists writing and engaging more actively in the public sphere. Also we have failed to clearly delineate the nature of scientific explanations in contrast to other kinds of explanations that are not supported by data.

Insufficient communication and engagement, in my opinion has contributed to the lack of understanding of the practice of science and the nature of scientific discovery.

In addition, politicians and policymakers need to explain how they're using scientific evidence to make their decisions.

And last but not the least, we need to improve science education in schools so that we produce a new generation of scientifically literate adults who are able to grapple with, and solve, the big problems confronting us. On this there is near unanimous agreement, for 97 percent of voters in a recent poll making sure American students receive a world-class education in math and science ranked second only to fixing the nation's financial health .