Commentary: Let’s view science as a powerful tool, not as a threat

It is alarming that many members of society distrust science and question its value and validity. Advances in science are increasingly central to how we experience life, what drives the global economy and how we find reliable evidence to support decisions. Science will continue to impact our lives in the decades ahead.

If the public and our leaders continue to have an inadequate appreciation of what science can contribute to decision-making, the consequences will be grim. It is dangerous, for example, to develop policies related to energy, public health or clean water if such policies are not informed by the best scientific information. Accordingly, it is a key challenge for our time to find a way to help everyone appreciate the shared human success of scientific discovery and to help our leaders use scientific advances to benefit all.

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Communicating science effectively is important yet difficult. Many people and institutions involved with scientific research acknowledge the seriousness of a poor public attitude toward science. Yet these institutions rarely take the logical step of incentivizing scholars to address this communication problem.

We call for universities and other institutions to encourage the innovation of ways to engage the public, including educators, in the appreciation of the role of science in the human endeavor. Incentives for work on public education and appreciation of science should be equivalent to those for traditional disciplinary research. Advancing science communication will require focused work to create effective methods that have not yet been discovered.

Unfortunately, scientists are all too frequently ineffective ambassadors of science. One of the strengths of science lies in its overt attempts to avoid personal biases. Science is demanding in its rigorous testing of hypotheses, encouraging scientists to work with emotionless detachment. This detachment may contribute to the current suboptimal relationship between science and the public; yet it is the rigor of science that allows us to make amazing progress. Just a few examples include remarkable advances in treating cancer and other diseases; guiding a spacecraft 3 billion miles over 10 years to uncover the mysteries of Pluto; and breaking the cold case of how our relative, Lucy, met an untimely demise 3.2 million years ago. New breakthroughs lie just ahead through the systematic exploration of the unknown.

At its root, science is merely an effective tool for helping us learn more about our world and how it works. The scientific method is not a peculiar process practiced only by a few. Albert Einstein said, “The whole of science is merely a refinement of everyday thinking.” Everyone can feel the compelling curiosity of asking why the world works as it does.

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Scientists are far from perfecting ways to convey the societal enrichment and personal enjoyment that science can give to humanity. We advocate that artists, humanists, social scientists and physical scientists collaborate in conveying how science can elevate us, exhilarate us and provide the best evidence for us to use in making important decisions. In part, this educational challenge requires us to respectfully address long-standing cultural and societal biases toward long-held beliefs. The public and our leaders would benefit from viewing scientific progress not as a threat but as a powerful tool to enhance the quality and enjoyment of our world.

To get that message to our leaders and the public requires incentives and concentrated effort, but the potential societal benefits are enormous. Conversely, the consequences of living in a society where the public and our leaders ignore, dismiss or bet against science are dire. Let’s wisely choose to provide real incentives for work on the unsolved problem of how to help the public embrace the scientific endeavor for the benefit of us all.

Starbird is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas. Banner is the F.M. Bullard Professor of Geological Sciences at UT.

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