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Why Have People Lost Faith In Science?

Sanofi Pasteur
Public health officials in Milwaukee and around the country continue to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated against the measles in the face of an outbreak, caused in part by skeptics who don't believe vaccinations are safe.

A Milwaukee scientist believes the culmination of a bunch of cultural phenomena - individualism, mistrust of centralized authority, mistrust of elites - has led to the public's questioning of science.

There are plenty of recent examples of the public, and politicians, doubting science.

A few weeks ago, Oklahoma Senator – and Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee – James Inhofe took to the US Senate floor with a snowball to demonstrate why he thinks climate change is a myth.  More recently came the news that Florida’s government reportedly banned its employees from using the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in its official documents.

Here at home, public health officials in Milwaukee are encouraging people to get their children vaccinated against measles in the face of an outbreak caused in part by large numbers of people who don’t believe vaccines are safe.  And it was a couple of weeks ago when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker spoke to members of the international media and declined to answer whether he believes in evolution.

It’s a challenging time for scientists, especially those who look to the public to fund and support their research.  But how did the divide over science open up in this country? 

Andrew Petto, a senior lecturer in science education, evolution education and anatomy at UW-Milwaukee, says that it is his job, and other teachers at the university, to get students, and the public, to better understand the scientific process - basically what science seeks to do, and how it works.

Petto, who is also on the board of governors for the National Vaccine Education Project, says he also sees a general misunderstanding of what science is set up to accomplish from some of our political leaders.

"Their expectation that the purpose of science is technology, the purpose of science is to make something better for us," he says. "Science does have a practical application...but, really the foundation [of science] is a better understanding... it's a way to untangle complicated things to help us better understand them and predict things we have not seen."

Petto attributes some of the public skepticism of science today to the actual nature of the process of science. "Many of our favorite things that we know today, like continental drift for example, were roundly rejected by the scientific community in the beginning, and for quite sometime, until the appropriate evidence and understanding was made available and could be applied to the problem," he says.

"Part of the problem is really a problem of authority. We scientists have made a big deal about the fact that science is revisable, science is tentative, science can be changed when new information comes along," Petto says.

People question science because it is revisable and adaptable, and may contradict their experiences. But Petto says it's important to understand our understanding of basic scientific principles - like, say, evolution - changes only a small amount through the kinds of discoveries we hear about on the radio or read about in newspapers.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.