April 22, 2019

There is a deeply ingrained misunderstanding and distrust of science held by many individuals in our society. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, ranging from a blind faith in the cure-all claims peddled by essential oil advocates to anti-vaxers, climate deniers, disgust of GMOs, and creationists.

Unfortunately, the media rarely helps ease this divide between scientists and the general public, often hosting debates on topics that scientists almost unanimously agree upon (GMOs or climate change to name a couple) or publishing articles on flashy studies that have yet to be repeated. One example is the recent panic in California after a judge ruled that coffee must possess cancer warning labels. This was later walked back due to the fact that there is no evidence that coffee causes cancer. 

However, can we really blame journalists alone for the generally poor understanding of science that society possesses? They are, after all, trained to write and present unbiased stories, not to possess infallible readings of the latest cancer research.

A recent study from 3M found that 80 per cent of people in developed countries trusted the information they heard directly from scientists, but barely more than half trusted their regular news sources for science-related stories. If reporters with degrees in media studies or journalism cannot be trusted to always bring reliable scientific data to the public, then what society requires are more communications between actual scientists — people like Neil deGrass Tyson or Gad Saad, a Canadian evolutionary biologist who has made appearances on Joe Rogan’s podcast and elsewhere — and the public. We need more scientists who are personable and who can present complicated ideas and discoveries in a fashion that laypersons can understand ( deGrasse Tyson’s book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is a superb example of this). If there was a deGrass Tyson for molecular chemistry, ecology, nanotechnology, biology and every other major scientific discipline, it would go a long way towards helping the average person understand the vital role science plays in their lives, and hopefully dispelling any unfounded distrust of the well-researched claims made by scientists.

There is some dogma on this subject within academia — academics who have become stuck in the way they have always performed and published research. This is something that Saad lamented on the Rubin Report last December. He illustrated his frustration with a story of having dinner with a Stanford professor who told him, “We don’t do research to have sexy findings we repeat on Joe Rogan.” Saad told the man from Stanford that “appearing on Joe Rogan and having 10 million people consume your ideas might be as valuable as a paper that is published in a scientific journal and read by you, the editor, two reviewers and your mom.” Tyson expressed similar sentiments on Sam Harris’s podcast back in 2016.

There are people making noises in this space. Rogan is an excellent example of someone with a massive audience who regularly brings scientists and academics onto his show to discuss their research and ideas — folks like Harris, Saad, Steven Pinker (author of Enlightenment Now) and many more. Harris himself has one of the most popular podcasts in North America and brings on guests who are almost always academics, researchers or philosophers. The Rubin Report is another rapidly growing podcast that routinely hosts scientists and academics, although Rubin also attracts some controversy by bringing on many polarizing individuals.

All of this is not to say that the general public bears no culpability for their own ignorance (most of the people hosted by the podcasts mentioned have published books and written articles for large news outlets). People should read more and seek to expand their knowledge. Judging from how popular Rogan and Harris are, many people are pursuing the growth of their worldly understanding. However, many more are indifferent or willingly benighted to a scientific understanding of our planet, and that is a tragedy that demands a remedy. Increasing the dialogue between scientists and the public may not be the final cure, but it certainly won’t hurt.

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