Sunday, October 04, 2009

Pseudo Science, the Internets and Politicians

A while back, I was at a party with some smart non-scientists who happen to be extremely paranoid about health issues.

They were ranting about organic food this, pesticide-free that, traces of pharmaceuticals in the water supply, genetically-engineered plants, etc. Unfortunately, I was getting frustrated because they didn't seem to know what they were talking about.

Gradually, as I argued with them, I came to realize that they had been reading about these things on the internets, and getting their information largely from one-sided documentary films and whatever the water filter guy in Home Depot told them they needed to buy.

They didn't understand what genetically engineered actually means. Sure, it sounds kinda scary. But they didn't seem to know what "DNA" is, relative to "genetic". They were throwing around these terms about genes being "different" from ours without knowing that our most important genes are all conserved.

And they had seen some documentary about the potential evils of bionic alien plants, or whatever, which got them off on this kick of being very anti- almost anything scientific.

"It's not natural!" they kept screaming, and I really should have asked them if they use birth control (they don't have any kids, so I'm pretty sure they do). But I think you'll agree that some people believe that birth control of any kind is not "natural", either.

Or indoor plumbing. Or tv. Or microwaving.

I guess if they keep going on this path, they'll insist on joining the Raw Food movement and living in the forest, or something.

Mostly I was amazed at how much it annoyed me that they were vehemently arguing with me. Not because they were arguing, but because they were so dramatically misinformed.

And it breaks my heart a little, because I think they would make great scientists. Here's why:

1) They are interested in getting information, going to great lengths to learn about how the world works (however inept they were at determining the quality of what they found).

2) They are unrelentingly skeptical, not caring one whit for academic reputation or the Establishment.

3) They are passionate about their cause.

4) They have no investment in doing science to make money.

I always draw the analogy between science and government. If you've studied American History, you know that members of Congress were not supposed to serve lifetime appointments the way they tend to do now. There were supposed to be term limits for a reason: to avoid having career politicians (the way we do now).

I still think maybe the idea of science as a temporary position is not such a bad one, and we kind of already have it with most of our scientists working as terminal postdocs (but without the prestige of serving our country). I have to wonder if it's not the career scientists who do the most damage, just like career politicians?

And yet, as I ranted about on my last post, we're really doing a terrible job of educating the public. Instead, we're taking some of the most intelligent, vocal, self-directed amateur researchers and letting them feed on junk information.

If only they were as scrupulous about their reading as they are about their food.

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At 12:53 PM, Anonymous oliviacw said...

My dad, an educated and intelligent man who spent his life as an electrical engineer, goes off on these kinds of issues on a regular basis, too. The evils of Nutrasweet! The Gardasil vaccine causes every immune system issue know to man! The FDA is suppressing essential nutrients! And so forth.

I decided some time back that it's not really about science or facts or any of that sort of thing. Instead, it's a mindset that says that big oppressive entities are keeping secrets from ordinary people. And the only way the "little man" can win is to reject their "lies".

It just so happens that nutritional/health information is actually relatively harmless and easy information to reject. It's much harder to do anything about areas where there might actually be issues where corporations or the government are really acting against people's best interests (by, say, spending billions of dollars of fruitless wars, or failing to regulate the financial markets). So, people focus on the issues where they think they can make a difference in their own life, while not really addressing their underlying fears.

At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post comes across as a bit puzzling. As a scientist in a field frequently misperceived among the general populace, I can empathize with your frustrations; however, I wonder how exactly they were misinformed and whether I am equally misinformed.

My understanding of genetic engineering in plants is something like this. It isn't genetic modification (g.m.) alone that is the problem -- it is the way it is used, and the implications. Herbicide companies modify plants to make them resistant to ... herbicides, so that the plants can be sprayed with herbicide, killing only the weeds. Negative impacts: (1) crops doused in herbicide, potentially harmful to humans, appear on store shelves. (2) G.m. seeds blow off of transport vehicles into fields of farmers who don't use those seeds; g.m. seed companies secretly inspect those farmers' fields and find plants grown from said seeds; seed companies then sue the farmers, permanently crippling them financially; (3) g.m. seeds have a self-terminating routine, unlike non-g.m. seeds, forcing farmers to buy them more frequently than they otherwise would; (4) increasing usage of g.m. seeds compromises overall biodiversity in crops...

Obviously I didn't hear these women, and I see that your argument isn't "g.m. seeds == good!!" Your point has more to do with misinformation. But am I stating falsehoods picked up from a one-sided documentary, or am I basically right and these women were saying something different (and false)?

At 10:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do think it's the career scientists who do the most damage (like the career politicians). It's ironic because I would like to have a career in science, yet I despise the behavior and hypocrisy I see in most career scientists.

At 4:33 AM, Anonymous a physicist said...

I have the same debate with my wife from time to time. She doesn't like chemicals in food. She has gradually learned that everything is chemicals, and that even scary sounding ones are typically derived from natural sources. She still doesn't like chemicals, though.

At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You’re on to something here, and in the previous post. And yes, you won’t ever be adequately rewarded for having those concerns. Worrying about public science literacy doesn’t get you a tenure track job, and it sure won’t get you tenure. In fact, it can create the impression that you are “not serious” about research, too distracted, and can take away from your accomplishments, like funding and publications, because people will wonder why, if you had so much time to teach your class really well or talk to the biology club about Kitzmiller vs. Dover, you didn’t just write another R01.

So, what do we do about it? I am asking sincerely, here. I have no idea myself. I’ve noticed over the years that you seem to be at your best when you are talking about this issue-how can/should scientists engage with the public, how can we make our world more science-literate. I can tell you from personal experience that people that think the way you do (and I do) tend to be the most frustrated in/with science. So the real challenge will be figuring out how long you can put up with it, and what you will do after with your energy and good ideas and desire to be useful. I just answered the first question for myself (20 years) and am now tackling the second. I wish you good luck, and I’m serious, keep thinking out loud about this in your blog, if you’d like. These kinds of posts are always full of insight that I find helpful. Others do as well, no doubt, and hopefully they are very useful to you as well.

At 12:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree and disagree. It's nice they are skeptical (and possibly thinking critically), but they are doing it unwaveringly so, in effect being completely biased. If they were truly like scientists, as you said, they would have bothered to look into the details of their 'facts.' I also agree with your point in this post and the previous one about scientists being less than optimal educators/ambassadors. It is our duty to inform the public... but you know, many times it's just so much friggin hassle. (I know, I know. If we don't do it, who will?)

At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Term Papers said...

I love internet and hate politicians but your article compare both very perfectly I really like it thanks for sharing..!


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