The Scientific Endeavor is Not a Buffet Table

You may have caught an article or two about a recent AP/GFK survey of the American public on their attitudes re: science and the validity of major scientific findings. The results are unsurprising, and representative of the typical pattern of things in this country. Generally speaking, American’s are not the most scientifically literate people on the planet:

A statement of operating principles is in order: I am of the firm, and unqualified belief that the scientific endeavor is the most significant realm of human inquiry into the functioning of the Universe that our species has ever undertaken. Both in terms of what it has told us about the nature of existence, and in terms of what it has produced for society, I can not point to any other realm of experience that comes close. That established, I am consistently rendered slack-jawed by just how many people don’t seem to hold an understanding of the scientific process that is worth a smidgeon of a damn.

The results of the recent survey are a useful example, not because of what the particular sentiments of the public are on any one particular topic (though that sentiment is regrettable in many areas), but because of the pattern of responses on offer. How is it possible to accept some of the findings of science, while rejecting others? How can one trust in the process that has lead to the conclusion that smoking causes cancer, and simultaneously distrust that same process when it leads to conclusions about the efficacy of vaccines, or the age of the Earth? However it is that this has come to pass, it is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process. The scientific process is not a piecemeal endeavor. It is not a value pack from which people can take the bits that are most agreeable to them, and leave the ones they dislike. If you feel strongly that some scientific finding or other is valid, than internal consistency should demand that you jump on board for all of the others.

This is not to suggest that science is not above critique, or beyond the need for continual revision. In point of fact, science is the most critiqued, and revised part of human knowledge on offer. That’s why it works so well in discovering interesting things, and why the things that it discovers are breathtaking in their revelatory power. And if you can show me a data set that suggests that the American’s who are expressing a lack of confidence in the mechanisms of climate change, or the Big Bang, are doing so with the express disclaimer that their gripe is with specific unrefined nuances of the models under consideration, I’ll be happy to upgrade my own outlook on this topic. But until that time, I’ll continue to be shocked by just how badly the denizens of the most developed nation on the planet relate to the very process that has lead to their position as such.