Between 2010 and 2011 there were more than 1,500 cases of whooping cough in San Diego, a life-threatening childhood disease that can be effectively prevented by vaccination. Before the panic of that epidemic becomes just another page in San Diego’s history book, perhaps it is a good moment to draw some lessons for our future. Beyond the obvious need for things like public health awareness, effective communication and robust vaccination campaigns, our frightening memories may reveal an even more fundamental problem. The truth is that, historically, we do have a robust vaccination campaign in this country. But, as most of us know, in the last 10 years many have become skeptical of vaccines, concerned that they cause autism, or that they are simply a scam, designed by Big Pharma to increase sales.

And this sort of ungrounded skepticism (the link between vaccination and autism has been demonstrated to be non-existent many times over) is not specific to this issue. Many do not believe that global warming is real because they trust non-scientist, political opinions more than scientists. And a quick search on the internet will uncover robust communities of conspiracy theorists on topics ranging from so-called “chem-trails” to genetic cloning.

We are a population out of touch with science, and this is becoming an increasingly dangerous position. So, how has this happened? And, more importantly, how do we fix this problem? Of course, the answers to each of these questions are many and complex. Still, that should not be an excuse for not beginning to unravel them.

Science is more complicated now than ever before. Scientific knowledge has become increasingly specialized. Progress has been coming at breakneck speed. Meanwhile, science education in this country has been languishing. In some scientific fields, at the top of the educational curve we have become less and less able to produce enough scientists qualified to meet the demands of cutting edge science. And, for the rest of us, the vast majority who have taken only the minimum required science courses, our knowledge lags so far behind the curve that we find ourselves lost, confused, frustrated and defeated. To the extent that we have not experienced these feelings, it is increasingly because we have not even tried and we are largely uninterested. The options are equally unproductive.


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However, when we are confronted with painfully tough questions — is the planet warming, or, could I be harming my kids, even as I try to protect them? — and we do not have the background or training to be able to work through the scientific investigations related to these questions, we are, as answer-seeking animals, drawn to alternatives with easily accessible logic and charismatic presentations.

Enter mass media science coverage.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is precisely what happens to Deborah Lacks as she gives up on the impenetrable answers she receives from the scientists at John Hopkins, so she tries to make sense of her mother’s legacy, instead, on Google. What she finds is what we have all found: simple answers that satisfy her curiosity — understandable but not necessarily scientifically or medically reliable.

But this is not simply the tale of citizens without the skills to participate in the process. This is also the tale of scientists and scientific communities who do not see the full effects of their failure to communicate effectively. As science has become more specialized and scientists have insulated themselves and their work from the public, fear and mistrust of science have kept almost apace with our growing disconnection from its progress.

Scientists must remember to be citizens too — and this means being accessible, human faces, especially for our school-age children. For them there is time to spark the fire of interest in science. This is essential, whether they become scientists or not. Scientists have the power, as citizens, to help raise our science achievement levels in this country. And, as practitioners with a stake in the future of science, they have a responsibility to participate in the behaviors that will help insure its productive future. The era when science could move forward productively without the rest of the country (if such an era ever existed) ended with the information age.

What might this new scientific face look like, you may ask. One model for such work is already in place. San Diego is already home to the new and growing science and engineering festival. Modeled after popular European science festivals, it is designed to introduce people, in accessible and captivating ways, to the new innovations and directions in sciences. Also, and equally importantly, it is a real, physical meeting place for the scientist and the non-scientist to look one another in the eye, to know each other, and to learn to trust each other.

The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology will be hosting a free public forum on March 7 at 5:30 p.m. to further explore how scientific research can be effectively explored and communicated. This forum is part of the Henrietta Lacks Series and you can register here to attend.

Stanley Maloy is dean of the College of Sciences and a professor of biology at San Diego State University. He lives in Del Cerro.

Tate Hurvitz is a project director at the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology and an assistant professor of English at Grossmont College. He lives in Chula Vista.


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    This article relates to: Community, Letters, Opinion

    Written by K Hernandez

    22 comments
    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    The vested interest of the global warming chicken littles is as great or greater than any critic of their work.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    The vested interest of the global warming chicken littles is as great or greater than any critic of their work.

    Jon Osborn
    Jon Osborn subscriber

    One of the most misleading techniques used in scientific "debates" is to put one scientist on one side and another on the other side, lending the impression that the two sides are equally split. Regarding human-caused climate change, the denialists are in the vast minority and invariably seem to be connected to an entity or entities with vested interests in denying human-cause climate change.

    Jon Osborn
    Jon Osborn

    One of the most misleading techniques used in scientific "debates" is to put one scientist on one side and another on the other side, lending the impression that the two sides are equally split. Regarding human-caused climate change, the denialists are in the vast minority and invariably seem to be connected to an entity or entities with vested interests in denying human-cause climate change.

    Brian Harward
    Brian Harward subscriber

    Proof? No! Evidence? Yes! The problem is everyone wants to "win" the debate and that's just not how it works. I don't believe climate change is true or a hoax. I believe in science which clearly says "maybe" we are to blame.

    Energetive
    Energetive

    Proof? No! Evidence? Yes! The problem is everyone wants to "win" the debate and that's just not how it works. I don't believe climate change is true or a hoax. I believe in science which clearly says "maybe" we are to blame.

    Brian Harward
    Brian Harward subscriber

    However, some researchers happen to be amazing communicators too, and in those cases they should maybe step out a bit more and speak!

    Energetive
    Energetive

    However, some researchers happen to be amazing communicators too, and in those cases they should maybe step out a bit more and speak!

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    Science is full of Piltdowns, so when you look too close at the jawbone and suddenly someone claims your critical thinking is a "psychological phenomenon", it's time to look closer, because trying to get a person to accept a conclusion based on either questioning your sanity or based on a "festival" they have stepped outside of science. Science is repeatable in the open, fully sourced, baselined, and doesn't have to have motivational speakers as its front man because data and reason are enough.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    Science is full of Piltdowns, so when you look too close at the jawbone and suddenly someone claims your critical thinking is a "psychological phenomenon", it's time to look closer, because trying to get a person to accept a conclusion based on either questioning your sanity or based on a "festival" they have stepped outside of science. Science is repeatable in the open, fully sourced, baselined, and doesn't have to have motivational speakers as its front man because data and reason are enough.

    Rick Brooks
    Rick Brooks subscribermember

    I wonder if this applies to the Flouridation conspiracy theories, too?

    Rb-Socal
    Rb-Socal

    I wonder if this applies to the Flouridation conspiracy theories, too?

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    To question and look for the bias in any presented results. Are they valid and more importantly are they reliable.

    mgland
    mgland

    To question and look for the bias in any presented results. Are they valid and more importantly are they reliable.

    Steven Dobbs
    Steven Dobbs subscriber

    Because these scientists also happen to be mostly radical leftists who have publicly and privately expressed their hatred for capitalism, it should come as no surprise that many believe they're nothing more than...well...a bunch of hot air.

    StevieD
    StevieD

    Because these scientists also happen to be mostly radical leftists who have publicly and privately expressed their hatred for capitalism, it should come as no surprise that many believe they're nothing more than...well...a bunch of hot air.

    Jon Osborn
    Jon Osborn subscriber

    There is also a psychological phenomenon which describes how sufferers, when present with evidence contrary to a belief, cling ever more tenaciously to that belief.

    Jon Osborn
    Jon Osborn

    There is also a psychological phenomenon which describes how sufferers, when present with evidence contrary to a belief, cling ever more tenaciously to that belief.

    Alice Robertson
    Alice Robertson subscriber

    Anyhow.....based on your point about science...true science needs real research. With BigPharma's money paying for tainted ....almost pre ordained results...it is not real science. While smaller movements lack financial incentives for research...they are more able to think outside the BigPharma box and will, ultimately, help more.

    Alice
    Alice

    Anyhow.....based on your point about science...true science needs real research. With BigPharma's money paying for tainted ....almost pre ordained results...it is not real science. While smaller movements lack financial incentives for research...they are more able to think outside the BigPharma box and will, ultimately, help more.

    Jon Osborn
    Jon Osborn subscriber

    Michael Specter's book "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives" is right on point.

    Jon Osborn
    Jon Osborn

    Michael Specter's book "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives" is right on point.