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.