By Nijah Glenn
Science has always been a field of controversy. From the beginnings of modern science in the ancient world to the Middle Ages to the recent autism vaccine controversy, one needn’t look far to know what any scientist acknowledges. Not unlike previous eras, science is not only under scrutiny by the powers that fund it, but by the masses. While a mob and pitchfork mentality towards science may have been acceptable in the days of the Inquisition, how could such a mentality persist in the modern day? Much of this animosity can be attributed to the inability to accept information in the age of information.
As a STEM major, I constantly see posts on social media about something of a scientific nature, only to watch people distort its meaning or refute it all together if it is not compatible with their worldview. Perhaps somewhat worse is the scenario where someone who has possibly read two scientific journal articles in their lifetime will argue with me about a subject I have studied at length in my program. While I initially would debate until the other side gave up, I realized this did neither side any favors, simply because the other side did not engage with the intention of listening.
In the age in which we live, the impact of science is undeniable. Without science and technology, we would lack our cellphones, laptops, vaccinations, pasteurized milk, cleaning products, and countless other items that contribute to health or daily routine. However, the regressive mentality that has taken hold is dangerous. A scientific writing class I took noted that much of the general population is actually not very well educated on scientific matters.
While apathy is partially to blame, scientific literacy is low because much of science is under lock and key. For instance, many articles are not open access (accessible without buying), and even if they were, a phrase such as “examining effluent from a specialized nitrogen extraction system” doesn’t go over too well without prior knowledge of effluents or extraction systems. When scientific literacy is low, it is easy for science to then be distorted by entities with an agenda, and creates an undeserved mistrust of those within the scientific profession.
An example of this would be the controversy surrounding fracking. Despite the furor around the quality of water after fracking, the public is still easily divided. In its 2015 draft, the EPA stated that they “did not find evidence that these mechanisms [fracking] have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States;” after further revision, the EPA itself also realized the limitations of its study and revoked this sentence. Despite the EPA investigating fracking and releasing information to the public about its dangers, many (including a peer in a science writing course) take this sentence in a draft as proof that the EPA does not critique fracking, protecting the interests of big oil and shale.
Students, professors, physicians, and researchers are all seen as suspects, rather than authorities, unless the science fits the agenda of the entity manipulating information. By touting a single credible, peer-reviewed study, it becomes easy to then spout information that seems veritable enough to not fact-check. The danger of this move, however, comes into play when the public refuses to admit that global warming exists, or that lead is indeed toxic, regardless of the level. In an age of disinformation, science remains as a stalwart which prides itself on the ability to remain honest regardless of public opinion.
I fear that despite our technological advancements, we are going in the exact opposite direction of progress. Rather than fear a Brave New World of scientific intervention in every aspect of life in the future, and a proliferation of information, we may very well face the fate H.G. Wells outlined in The Time Machine, in which humanity moved forward in year, and regressed in knowledge. Without scientific investigation, we would lack the regulations which ensure proper food safety; we would not have proper sewage regulations, and would still worry about smallpox and perfectly treatable diseases on a mass scale.
Before you think of denying any piece of science, challenge yourself; do you know what you are challenging? Are you familiar with why it is important? Are you neutrally examining your stance and reputable information, or spouting off in accordance with your personal views? It is important that in an age of technology, we continue to challenge what we know and to investigate and grow, not simply google what fits our immediate interest and discard the rest. Our lives and those of the planet and posterity depend upon it.
Nijah Glenn is a senior biology major and dedicated youth activist. She is a TMC board member, member of the NewPeople editorial collective, avid coffee consumer, literature/film/music critic, and is dedicated to making both the scientific field & world more equitable.
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