During the last few years, I’ve noticed that there seems to be some confusion about the difference between science and opinions. This theme, the widening gap between these areas, has been made more and more apparent by the news coverage of topics like the anti-vaccination movement, climate change (and the deniers), and beliefs about genetically modified, or GM, foods.
When these topics appear in the media, its because there has been another argument that the science is wrong and vaccines or GM foods are hurting our kids or destroying our planet, or that humans aren’t changing the climate. The point being made is that the scientists are lying; science is wrong regardless of the evidence being presented. These views are able to catch on, and quickly, because the opponents of science and scientists are able to make reasonable-souding arguments with little or no evidence to support them.
Another problem that science has to contend with is that throughout its history, scientists have revised the hypotheses and theories that have been generally accepted within the scientific community. For instance: there was once a time when the Earth was the center of the universe. This was accepted by the scientific experts of the time. Based on scientific observations and experiments, though, it was found that the prevaling theory was false – the only thing that revolved around the Earth is the Moon. Anecdotes like this have taken place throughout the history of science. This is because science isn’t afraid of correcting itself. Where the problem comes into play is that the nature of science – to improve and revise our understanding of the natural world (and a willingness to admit when its wrong) – is exactly what the opponents of science use to “prove” that mainstream science is wrong about things like vaccines, the climate, and GM foods.
The people who make these arguments are responsible for confusing science for opinion. Their arguments are easy enough to follow (and believe) that it causes others to doubt science, to consider it an opinion, rather than the rigorous methods, data sets, and observations that make up science.
Based on what I’ve observed, listened to, and read in the news, (and the findings of a Pew Research poll earlier this year), the shift in viewing science as opinion has ties to political ideologies and the cultural demographics associated with them. Science has been associated more with more liberal and “left-wing” ideologies while “anti-science” rhetoric is associated more with the conservative, “right-wing” ideologies. In the United States, as our political process has become more polarized, with the left and right wings becoming increasingly at odds with one another, their oppositions have extended well beyond the political landscape. The political battles being fought are extending into whether or not scientists, and science, can be trusted. This is a problem.
Gleiser, Marcelo. “Are Science And Truth At Odds?” 13.7 Cosmos & Culture: Commentary on Science and Society. NPR News September 02, 2015.
Funk, Cary and Lee Rainie. “Americans, Politics and Scientific Issues” Pew Research Center. July 01, 2015
“Major Gaps Between the Public, Scientists on Key Issues” Pew Research Center. July 01, 2015