Monday, July 13, 2009

PACHS and Public opinions on science

Posted by Darin Hayton on 07/13 at 10:02 PM

PACHS’s goal of “promoting scholarly and public understanding of history of science, technology and medicine” was evident in the recent Galileo symposium (see Babak’s recent post), where scholars—from physicists and mathematicians to philosophers and historians of science—came together with interested members of the broader public to discuss Galileo, his infamous conflict with the Church, and his contribution to physics and science in general. Such symposia provide important opportunities to engage the public in broad discussions about history of science, technology and medicine. We might fruitfully ask: Why does PACHS want to promote scholarly and public understanding?

Without excluding other possible responses to that question, I would suggest that raising public and scholarly understanding of history science, technology and medicine will help the public make more informed choices about the role of science and scientists in contemporary society. In other words, an informed public will be better able to assess and perhaps contribute to discussions about issues in science policy, the funding of scientific research, and the role and contributions of scientific experts

In addition to symposia, PACHS could use this blog space offers a convenient venue for promoting the understanding of history of science, technology and medicine. One might even hope that through the comments and the posts by different contributors PACHSmörgåsbord could provide a lively forum for discussions about the relevance of history of science, technology and medicine. This post hopes to prompt just such a discussion.

The following thoughts were prompted by a recent survey conducted by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in collaboration with the American Academy for the Advancement of Science AAAS. I have not yet digested the entire report, and some of my thoughts here are incompletely formed.

While the general public respects scientists and their contributions to society, people are less enthusiastic about the relative worth of science in the U.S. Less than one fifth of the respondents thought the U.S. scientific achievement was the best in the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost half of the scientists (culled from AAAS members) thought U.S. science was the best in the world. A related finding suggests that the public is less enthusiastic about science in general than it was a decade ago. The percentage of people who think science/technology/medicine is the greatest achievement of the last 50 years has fallen from 47% in 1999 to 27% today (this finding has bothered some scientists).

Apparently, the U.S. public knows little about science. People who took the science quiz correctly answered only about 8 of the 12 questions. Scientists blame poor education and incomplete or misleading media coverage for much of the public’s ignorance. Yet these same scientists overwhelmingly do not talk to reporters about their own work (76% rarely or never speak to reporters) or participate in any sort of public outreach or education.

Taken together, the survey’s findings should be rather disturbing. The public reveres scientists and science, but can say little about what those scientists do or know. Nevertheless, like scientists themselves, the public thinks the government needs to continue to fund basic research and needs to rely on scientific experts in controversial issues, such as stem cell research and nuclear energy. Meanwhile, the scientists want to continue to receive public funding and to be relied on as experts in controversial issues, but feel no obligation to make their work known or knowable to the broader public, who indirectly fund their science and could be affected by their expertise.

Perhaps through the history of science, technology and medicine PACHS can begin to contribute to a conversation between scientists and the public. The Galileo symposium certainly moved in that direction when it brought scholars from diverse fields together and gave them a space to talk to (and at times past) one another in front of an interested public. But such symposia are grand, expensive, and consequently infrequent events. PACHSmörgåsbord, by contrast, could provide a more frequent and economical venue for such discussions. Here are some possible suggestions for how this might work:

  • Critical analysis of recent research in some scientific field

  • Posts about important science-policy issues (e.g., funding, legislation, etc.)

  • Review of recent technological developments

  • Historical portraits of emblematic people or events in the history of science

  • Critique of recent media coverage of some aspect of science

  • Review of some recent book or article that claims to address the relationship between science and the public

In tackling these topics, PACHSmörgåsbord could benefit from the depth and breadth of contributors and participants in the wider Philadelphia history of science community.

Just some thoughts.

(Post script: the Pew survey contains many interesting bits, and covers some predictable topics (e.g., belief in evolution, the perineal science-religion controversy, and partisan differences in belief in science). And like most surveys, the findings are suggestive but not conclusive.)

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