Monday, February 02, 2015

scientific authori-tay shouted down by popular skepticism...,

WaPo |  Not surprisingly, many scientists — whether they design climate models or genetically engineer crops — feel they are under assault. In just five years, since the latest survey in 2009, the number of AAAS members who feel that “today is a good time for science” has plummeted from 76 percent to 52 percent. There is increasing skepticism about American global leadership in science and the way science is taught in schools. Scientists are also increasingly dismayed that government regulations — particularly on food safety and environmental management — are influenced more by public sentiment that scientific evidence. It now costs tens of millions of dollars to get a new genetically modified crop variety past cautious government bureaucrats, because of the public’s fears of modified food; whereas new seeds developed using chemical or radiation mutagenesis can go straight to market and even be labeled organic.

There are serious implications for democratic governance when large minorities — or even, in the case of GMOs, majorities — of the general public ignore or disbelieve the scientific consensus. With vaccines the implications can be immediate: witness the recent measles outbreak in California. On climate change, public support for urgent decarbonization measures is being undercut, while food security and agricultural sustainability is under threat by activists aiming to prohibit technological innovation in seeds.

Lobbyists and activists who promote their ideological agendas and financial interests over those of good science and public policy must take much of the blame for this situation. But scientists also have to be better communicators. With social media, everyone has a megaphone, however well- or ill-informed they are. If scientists want the public to understand their research, they have to spend more time sharing and explaining it to the public. This is the goal of the newly launched Cornell Alliance for Science, which aims to bridge the gap between scientists and the rest of society — in particular on genetically modified crops.

Effective governance in a democratic society depends on voters being able to make choices based on accurate information. If the voices of scientific experts continue to be drowned out by those of ideologues, whether from left or right, America risks moving even farther away from the Enlightenment values on which the republic was founded. Such a shift would harm everyone – whether or not they believe the Earth is warming.


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