Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Necessity of Being Informed

The general population in the United States is not very good at discerning fact from fiction, or reality from a carefully cultivated distortion. I do not think this is something that only the USA has to deal with, but hey, this is where I live, and I write what I know.

So earlier today, in an epic facebook rant, I presented my feelings about certain aspects of scientific literacy and education, and was asked by a friend how I could foresee this education being facilitated. I went off on a huge rant. So here I will present a mostly copy-pasted, somewhat re-arranged version of my response, with maybe some thoughtful additions, and organized for clarity and flow. I won’t link to the original for the sake of privacy.

How do we educate people to make good decisions and draw good conclusions? We have to take two approaches. We have to both increase scientific literacy, and decrease sensationalism of science in the media. If a journalist doesn't understand how to write about science properly, they shouldn't be writing about it. I understand that the sensationalist bullshit gets them the views, but they are lying to the public. They are dishonestly propagating false materials in order to make money. This blatant misinformation is reprehensible as it can have negative impacts on the health of people.   We need a population which understands the basics of genetics and biology and chemistry, and who understand how "significance" is achieved, and who are aware of the meaning of words like theory and hypothesis, or the difference between precision and accuracy. We need an education system that encourages thinking, not just blind vomiting up of facts. Any idiot can parrot information from textbooks or TV shows like Cosmos, but to build a conceptual foundation of how the world works, and to encourage conceptual linking of principles across fields is the key to developing a society which can actively and honestly interact with facts. There are things, like Cosmos, which are garnering interest, but interest isn’t enough to create a well-informed public.

If we "educate" a generation of children and evaluate this learning by their ability to mimic facts, we've done nothing more than teach them interesting tricks. They can bark on command, but so can my dog. Except my dog can’t vote in favor of their personal brand of ignorance. Anyone can parrot facts. That shouldn't be the point of education. Education should be using the facts we know and concepts we can teach in order to create a foundation of thinking which encompasses comparative thinking, reasonable assumptions based on present information, and an ability to tie concepts together into a framework which properly facilitates the individual’s ability to draw an approximately-accurate conclusion. I would also say the healthy skepticism is necessary... not arbitrary questioning of all points of view, but the ability to inform themselves of all facets of an argument and draw conclusions based on the best information they have, as well as a willingness to amend their thoughts when new information is made available. Conspiracy theorists are not skeptics for this very reason... their counterpoint is based entirely on false information (or a complete absence of information) and they are merely presenting a counterpoint based on a cognitive prejudice.

Of course, being educated in the sciences, people who misrepresent or ignore science are the worst. People who deny science are actively ignoring the preponderance of evidence. The overwhelming understanding of scientific research is pretty clear now:

-Evolution occurs. We have fossils. We have genetic links, and molecular and biochemical evidence to the point where arguing against evolution is an exercise in obvious stupidity. You evolved from an ape-like hominid, get the fuck over it.

-Vaccines are good. We understand the biology of the immune response which allows vaccines to function. We understand what is in them, and we've tested them all to make sure that they work and are safe. If you do not vaccinate your children, you are abusing them. Herd Immunity is a real thing. Immunizations save lives, so get your shit together.

-GMO foods are the most heavily regulated thing you consume besides medications. Every major scientific organization has found no evidence that they are any more harmful than non-GMO foods. Also ignoring the fact that humans have genetically modified foods manually for eons. Modern pigs, chickens, cows (look up he Belgian Blue) broccoli, corn, bananas have all been selectively cultivated to choose genes WE want. The only people against GMOs are the people who don't understand what they are arguing against. This technology saves and improves lives. Could more research be done? Always. Is the current research lagging in any way? Maybe a few, but nothing significant.

-Homeopathy/alternative medicine... if it worked, it would just be called medicine. These snake oil salesmen are con artists who are culpable in the deteriorating health and even deaths of many people. They are the same kind of lunatics or shills that claim to be psychics or mediums or faith healers. You are either mentally unstable, or a strict liar. Either way, fuck off. Adults are talking.

-Climate change is happening. Science is clear on this. Climate scientists especially are aware of the implications of anthrogenic climate change. This is not just about us having clean air, or our children, or even their grandchildren. This is about survival of our species. If we don’t get our shit together, there will be a tipping point, and we are not equipped to handle the forces of nature that would be thrust into our lives. The world, and life, will persist… regardless of the damage we cause. Humanity though? They need to get their shit together. If you don’t understand this, you’re an idiot.

The list could continue ad nauseum. It's tough to be even mildly scientifically literate in a society which doesn't value it. I have two degrees in the sciences and I don't even consider myself literate enough to make decisions on anything without reading the original research and asking other people who know what they're talking about. I can't imagine how someone could be comfortable googling something for 15minutes and calling themselves experts, or worse: anyone who only asks other people who have never ACTUALLY researched the topic questions.  This does bring me to another point, though. Education does not equate with knowledge. I know healthcare professional who are anti-vaccine and nutritionists who are anti-GMO. I know biology students who think evolution isn’t real. There is a difference between being informed and being educated. Also, be wary of trusting anyone who uses their degree as authority for something in which they have no basis to claim expertise. For example, don’t listen to me about physics… my education is in biochemistry and molecular biology. Sure, well-educated people who are informed may be knowledgeable in other fields, and they may very well have legitimate points, but their expertise stops where their knowledge becomes less complete.

So what is a scientifically literate populace, and why do we need one? Well, a scientifically literate populace could discern the "woo" and the "bunk" from legitimate science. We need scientific literacy for a healthy, informed, thinking society. But science literacy is not a priority, especially among fringe groups who misrepresent science or ignore it all together.  Piled on top of that, the scientific process is fraught with human error. There are falsified reports, edited data and figures and images. Negative data goes unreported. Conclusions can be twisted to fit a bias. As a human system, science is flawed. Peer review is not some magical holy grail of accuracy and precision, but it's better than just making shit up. Unfortunately, all human endeavors will be colored by bias. Fortunately, science still does a better job (in general) than any other field, when it comes to figuring things out.

If you don't understand the science, don't comment on the science. This applies to GMOs, vaccines, evolution, climate change, homeopathy/alternative medicine, astrology, etc. You are scientifically illiterate, because a lack of understanding of the science is essential to this fear-mongering propaganda and ignorant drivel which is perpetuated by pseudoscience and driven by an agenda which doesn’t care to examine the evidence.

GMOs are not bad. Vaccines are necessary. Homeopathy is bullshit. Climate change is real. Evolution is a fact. If you talk about the science, ask an expert. If you think you're an expert, but disagree with these simple scientific thoughts, then guess what?

You're wrong.

This message brought to you by someone frustrated with people too ignorant of science to actually comment on the science. (But who insist on doing so anyway).

PS: I focus on science here because science is what I know best, but this same idea is applicable to all sorts of magical thinking and ignorant sensational hoopla and information. Racism, sexism, ableism, and many other prejudice-based –isms could all be responded to more appropriately by a society which valued information over feelings. An informed society is a prepared, successful society. Become informed on politics, economics, human rights, science, and everything in between. Education is the key to this, and education is sorely lacking in the sense that it is rare for an education to encourage thought more than simply learning material. If we can learn to ask the right questions, seek appropriate answers, and make every assumption based on the best available information, we can go much further than spouting personal bias and ignorant fear-mongering. It won't solve all the problems, but it is sure a step in the right direction.