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Date:

March 9, 2000

Subject:

SCIENTISTS DESERVE PUBLIC ATTENTION

 

A good article worth sharing with our SIVB group.

- Prakash
----------

SCIENTISTS DESERVE PUBLIC ATTENTION, BUT EXALT THEM AT YOUR PERIL: THE
DEFERENCE PEOPLE SHOW EXPERTS IS OFTEN UNWARRANTED AND SHOULD NOT EXCUSE
WIDESPREAD PART-ICIPATION IN SETTING PUBLIC POLICY.
March 9, 2000
The Vancouver Sun
Editorial
A13
Mark Winston, a professor of biological sciences at Simon Fraser University
and a regular contributor to Insight, asks in this op-ed piece, What do the
words ``scientist''and ``intimidate'' have in common? Superficially,
nothing. Science provides us with impartial observations and experimental
tests that describe our world and universe, while intimidate means ``filling
with fear.''
Surely, scientific discoveries about biological or physical phenomena should
leave us reassured with information rather than full of dread.
Yet, Winston says he has had some experiences recently that brought home the
link even highly educated people make between scientists and intimidation.
His own image of scientists is that of the unbiased and pensive prober,
pushing the edges of knowledge for its own sake and in order to improve the
human condition.
The public's image apparently is a bit different, more like dreaded egghead
super-being, whose greater knowledge should be deferred to because he or she
knows more than we do.
Winston says he recently talked as part of the Vancouver Institute lecture
series about pests and pesticides, and after the lecture we had a
stimulating round of questions. One of the first was from a woman who wanted
to disagree with a point I had made, but her question surprised me with its
submissive and deferential tone. You know the pose: ``I'm not a scientist,
and I'm sure you know more than I do about this subject, and I don't
understand the data as well as you do...''
I answered her question (as it turned out, I agreed with her point
completely), but then a few minutes later it happened again. This time, it
was a fellow who wanted to express concern about genetically modified crops,
but also began with the ``I'm not a scientist'' routine.
Winston says he suddenly experienced a flashback to a biology course he had
taught last winter in Simon Fraser University's downtown liberal studies
program. Students in this program are a diverse group of non-scientific,
mature individuals who have returned to school purely to enjoy studying an
eclectic mix of interesting subjects. During the first class, he asked them
to free-associate and provide language that described scientists, which he
frantically wrote on the blackboard.
Their initial word choices characterizing scientists certainly were
informative: intimidating, tyrannical, egotistical, close-minded, ogre,
arrogant, overbearing, disdainful... It was only well into their list that a
few more positive terms popped up, faint praise such as curious,
absent-minded, and inquisitive.
Winston says that scientists, of course, bear some of the blame. We have
been known to hide behind highly technical language when public concern
surfaces about our activities, and few of us have nurtured our ability to
communicate complex issues in a clear, straightforward manner.
Yet, public passivity and deference when confronted with data have a deeper
source than scientific arrogance. The ability to think critically and
evaluate diverse knowledge has diminished in our up-tempo times.
We function in a world of rapid-fire television, radio and World Wide Web
sound bites, and our attention span to issues lasts for only hours or days.
We have lost the communal ability to give thoughtful, prolonged
consideration to complex scientific issues, yet the need has never been
greater for well-considered policies about science-driven matters.
Scientists should have an important role to play in discussing the issues
science has presented us, but overly deferring to scientists as the sole
arbitrators of how to implement technological advances is unwise. Respect
for individual scientists and the knowledge they generate may be
appropriate, but deferring opinions to experts alone is one of the early
signs of a lazy society heading into deep trouble.
The core issue is the public's ability to think critically, and here
scientists do have an advantage. Our training is in many technically diverse
areas, but the essence of all science is the culture of critical thinking,
rigorously evaluating information from an unbiased and information-driven
perspective.
The non-scientific public needs to develop a similar ability to think
critically if our society is to retake the decision-making ground we now
defer to the experts. Scientific civilians do not need a scientist's level
of technical expertise, but do need sufficient scientific literacy to be
conversant with fundamental policy issues.
The public should not be afraid of scientists, or allow itself to be snowed
by our voluminous data. Some scientists are indeed arrogant, disdainful and
egotistical, but others are user-friendly, respectful and communally
responsible.
We reflect the same range of personal foibles and strengths as any group,
but what we do share is a passion for probing analysis.
Scientists should be a resource for society, but we are not your surrogates
to decide public policy about science-based issues. Defer to me at your
peril. Winston concludes that he may be an expert, but if I intimidate you,
the fault lies not in my knowledge or personality, but in your deference.