Science and society – Do we have a problem?

Meredith Doig / 29 June 2015

RSA Member David Thurley speaks of the growing problem of science denialism in society. He has given this speech to a number of community groups in the Albury region of NSW.


I want to discuss how science is viewed in our society at all levels and to ponder how much we understand what science is and how it works.

I would like to start with a quote from the Chief Scientist of Australia, Professor Ian Chubb.[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]At the core of almost every agenda is science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  We need to recognise that it is the knowledge that science will offer and the application of that knowledge to agreed goals that will build a stronger Australia.  Whether it is our climate, our health, our ageing population, our food supply, our economy or our security it will be scientific discovery and the use of scientific knowledge that will give us the capacity to respond.[/quote]

It behoves us all to have a better understanding of science and how it works.  Jacob Broinowski said “We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real.  We cannot turn it into a game simply by taking sides.”

Science is one of the few human constructs designed to test its own veracity continuously.  All aspects of scientific enquiry are always under review!  I have great faith in the scientific method and let me here quote Carl Sagan: “At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthless scepticism of all ideas old and new.  This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”

This is not a political article but inevitably I will mention politicians or government in some way.  When we have a Prime Minister who once declared that climate change “is all crap’, who for some time did not have a science minister and who removed $150 million from the CSIRO budget in the interest of “fixing the budget mess” while giving an additional $250 million to the school’s chaplaincy programme, then I think you would have to agree with me that we have a problem.

Then we have a government Minister repeating the ridiculous claims that abortion is linked with a higher rate of breast cancer.  The Australian community is poorly served and we should not be surprised that the level of scientific understanding in the community is poor and scientists can be denigrated by all manner of newspaper and television commentators.

If we are to improve scientific literacy in our community we need to start at an early age and inspire our students and help.  It is this mentor, or exceptional hero that Professor Suzanne Corey refers to in her 2014 Boyer lectures when she says she was “inspired by a wonderful high school science teacher”.

I went to government schools and learned my science and mathematics from some wonderful teachers.  At a young age I entered projects in the Science Talent Search.  The poet W B Yeats said “Education is not about filling a pail but about lighting a fire.”  In that context I am an avowed arsonist!

But back to science and society.

Amongst comparable countries we sit in the middle of the pack for primary and secondary schools performance in science and maths literacy.  Only 4% of year 11 and 12 students thought that science was “almost always” useful in daily life and only 42% thought it would be useful in their future.  How can that be when the children of today are surrounded by the things that science and technology have brought to them.  Is it because no one has talked to them about how amazing science is and what it gives to them?

If we are to be the smart country we need to get our kids excited about science and technology and increase the numbers of people studying those disciplines.  But this won’t happen just by hectoring them and setting targets.  We need to connect with them and get them to study science not just business and banking and other things that start with B.  And perhaps here you can see the beginnings of a problem.  When a bank executive can earn $10 million plus, and the CEO of Qantas Alan Joyce earns about $3.5 million, some AFL or NRL players can earn close to a million dollars and a cricketer can invite his team-mates to a barbecue at his $6.5 million mansion, what can a scientist look forward to.  It’s in a different league!

So what are some of the issues facing us today where there seems to be debate (I use the word loosely) and controversy.  Let me mention a few – climate change, vaccination, stem cell research, genetically modified plants and wind farms.  These are frequent topics in the media and on blogs and if you want to read some really “whacko“ stuff just Google ‘vaccination’.  I frequently have a laugh at the stuff I see in the Chemist’s Warehouse catalogue but there is a serious side to this too.  The prostitution of proper scientific terms to market some face cream or other miracle substance debases science and lowers its importance in people’s minds.  The marketers try to impress us by telling us that the potion they ae selling contains α-ketones or raspberry ketones.  When I studied chemistry ketones did not have a flavour, just a double bond in a certain configuration with an oxygen atom.

When you look on the internet, read newspapers or listen to radio or television you can find so many fantastic (and I use that word in its literal sense) stories that you may begin to wonder how you can possibly know what is true.  There are some techniques you can use.  If it’s a medical research paper or it supposedly comes from a place with a fancy sounding name, check who the authors are, which journal was it published in and in which university or research institute did they work.  Look for some history, use Google Scholar and a healthy dose of scepticism!

A typical story about vaccination might come from the Vaccination Network and a person called Merry Dorey.  She has no medical qualifications of any kind yet the site regularly posts articles warning of the dire consequences of vaccination which include autism, impaired intellectual development and so on.  Last year I had the pleasure of spending 4 days in the company of Professor Peter Doherty, Nobel Laureate for Medicine in 1996 and I know whose advice I would take on the safety and benefits of vaccination.  We almost had measles eradicated here in Australia and now we get regular outbreaks of measles as well as whooping cough and other preventable illnesses.  The adverse consequences of catching measles far outweigh the risks of complication from vaccination.

There are opponents of stem cell research whose opposition is based almost entirely on certain religious beliefs but it seems to me that we owe our longer life expectancy to scientific advances in the areas of vaccination, immunisation and cutting edge technology such as stem cell research.  Cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s, motor neurone and multiple sclerosis will probably come as a result of work in this field.

Before I start on the last issue I want to talk about I want to say that everyone is entitled to their opinion.  If that just means that no one has the right to stop people thinking or saying what they want then that is trivial.  But if it means “entitled to have your views considered as serious candidates for the truth” then that is clearly wrong.  There is evidence and there is bulldust and it is no part of ‘balance’ to give bulldust equal time!

Climate change is clearly one area that attracts a lot of comment.  But I have to ask you why should we pay attention to the likes of Andrew Jones, Ray Hadley or Andrew Bolt?  Why should I listen to Cardinal George Pell who had this to say; “Some of the hysteric and extreme claims about global warming are also a symptom of pagan emptiness, of Western fear when confronted by the immense and basically uncontrollable forces of nature.  Belief in a benign God who is master of the universe has a steadying psychological effect, although it is no guarantee of Utopia, no guarantee that the continuing climate and geographic changes will be benign.  In the past pagans sacrificed animals and even humans in vain attempts to placate capricious and cruel gods.  Today they demand a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.”

The journal Nature put it this way in March 2010: [quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Climate scientists are on the defensive, knocked off balance by a re-energized community of global-warming deniers who, by dominating the media agenda, are sowing doubts about the fundamental science.  Most researchers find themselves completely out of their league in this kind of battle because it’s only superficially about the science.  The real goal is to stoke the angry fires of talk radio, cable news, the blogosphere and the like, all of which feed off of contrarian story lines and seldom make the time to assess facts and weigh evidence.  Civility, honesty, fact and perspective are irrelevant.[/quote]

If you think about a number of issues past and present you may see some similarities.  Think asbestos, tobacco and now climate change.  There were clearly vested interests at work and we need to factor that into our thinking as we try to judge the merits of what they are saying.

So what do we do about trying to raise the level of scientific understanding in the community?

We must start with our primary school children and our teachers and I have a special story to tell on this.  It concerns the Astronomical Society of Albury Wodonga which has now run a science week event for over 8 years.  So far we have had more than 4,000 students take part.  We have had a NASA astronaut, two Nobel Prize winners and a past Minister for Science talk to students and give a public lecture.  I also do some volunteer science teaching in a couple of schools to try to show what fun science can be.

Can I finish by saying that I do not believe that science can give us an answer to every question.  Thirty years ago the American nuclear scientist Alvin Weinberg argued that there is a class of problems which can be stated in the language of science, which are technical questions that are within science’s sphere of knowledge, but which cannot be answered in terms that are acceptable within the scientific tradition.  Consider the matter of blood alcohol levels.  We know that alcohol affects our judgement and there is no threshold below which the increased risk is zero, simply a decreasing risk as alcohol levels decrease.  Science can tell you about the relationship between blood alcohol concentration and impaired judgement but society must make the value judgement about what level of risk we are prepared to tolerate.

David ThurleyDavid Thurley is a member of the Rationalist Society of Australia.

Originally from Tasmania, Councillor David Thurley has always been interested in government at all levels. Beginning his career as a Research Scientist for Australian Newsprint Mills, Cr Thurley moved to Albury Wodonga in his thirties to work as the Technical Manager for the paper mill now owned by Norske Skog. He began his own environmental consultancy in 1994, specialising in water treatment.

Cr Thurley was elected to Council in 2012, noting that he has the time and energy to give back to the community. In addition to his Council duties Cr Thurley is also president of the Astronomical Society of Albury Wodonga and president of the Board of Age Concern. Outside Council you might find him riding, reading or devising fun science experiments for his 11 grandchildren.

All the more reason.