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Our age is marked by the proliferation of information, and yet we can’t agree. Science is supposed to be neutral, and yet it has generated some of the deepest societal divides. Why? Our response to scientific information depends on psychology, emotion, peer pressure, politics, and cultural influences. How can we navigate these differences and implement smart policy in a contentious society? Join a vibrant and important global discussion examining the interface between the scientific process and the sometimes unscientific public, as we hurtle headlong into an uncertain future.
This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.
John Donvan was just named a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his bestselling book, In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, published in 2016 by Crown Books. He is also host of the Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates, which are heard on public radio and by podcast.Read More
France A. Córdova is an astrophysicist and the 14th director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the only government agency charged with advancing all fields of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.Read More
Brian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, and is recognized for a number of groundbreaking discoveries in his field of superstring theory. His books, The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality, have collectively spent 65 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.Read More
WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL – Science In A Polarized World: A Global Town Hall Meeting
NARRATOR: There’s scientific consensus on a lot of things; on climate change…
OBAMA: The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate.
NARRATOR: …on HPV vaccine…
VOICE-OVER: The majority of cervical cancer cases are avoidable if we vaccinate against HPV.
(Video Clip End)
NARRATOR: …and that deeply burying nuclear waste is a good long term solution. So you would think that the public could agree on these issues.
DIETRAM SCHEUFELE, Professor: In many ways, one would hope that that’s true, right? The information that we learn about science ends up getting filtered through our prior beliefs, through our prior values, through our religious views, our ideologies. And as a result, the exact same piece of scientific information means very different things to different people.
NARRATOR: Compliance for mandatory vaccinations is about 90 percent in the U.S. But the HPV vaccine, that protects against cancer from a sexually transmitted virus, is only mandatory in three places.
SCHEUFELE: You can frame HPV in two ways. You can either see this as a vaccine against cancer and leave it at that. Or you can see it as a vaccine that, as some people saw it as it was rolled out in Texas and elsewhere, that would lead to promiscuity.
NARRATOR: So why do we disagree on scientific consensus?
SCHEUFELE: What’s important to keep in mind here: when we process new information, the way we as human beings do that, we put them on mental shelves. I don’t look at every piece of information as if it’s the first thing I’ve ever seen. I basically have in my head a number of mental shelves that allow me to quickly categorize new information. So HPV vaccine— the HPV vaccine is a great example because I can either put that on a curing-cancer shelf or I can put that on a sexual-intercourse-among-minors or among-people-who-we-think-shouldn’t-have-that-yet shelf.
NARRATOR: Let’s see how that works. We’re going to introduce you to two composite characters. We’re calling them Marcia and Marie and they are proxies for a whole bunch of studies that have looked at this issue. First meet Marcia.
MARCIA, ACTRESS: Hi, everyone.
NARRATOR: She’s a working professional, college-educated, she has two children, and she’s scientifically literate. Now meet Marie.
MARIE, ACTRESS: Hi, everyone.
NARRATOR: She’s a working professional, college-educated, she has two children and she’s also scientifically literate. They are alike but so different.
MARCIA: The government should stop telling people how to live their lives.
MARIE:The government should put limits on the choices of individuals so they don’t get in the way of what’s good for society.
MARCIA: It’s not the government’s business to make laws that keep people from hurting themselves.
MARIE: The government should do more to advance society’s goals, even if that means limiting the freedom and choices of individuals.
NARRATOR: Their cultural and political outlooks on the world differ, and researchers have labels to describe that. Marcia has a hierarchical and individualist view of the world. On climate change:
MARCIA: I really don’t think there’s a climate problem and certainly not man-made.
NARRATOR: The HPV vaccine:
MARCIA: I mean, I don’t know why my daughter has to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus when she’s only 12.
NARRATOR: And she thinks it’s safe to bury nuclear waste.
MARCIA: It’s going to be buried very deep underground. I don’t see why that’s a problem.
NARRATOR: Marie’s worldview is egalitarian and communitarian. On climate change:
MARIE: Of course climate change is happening, and we humans are making it worse.
NARRATOR: On the HPV vaccine:
MARIE: As soon as I can protect my child from diseases, the better.
NARRATOR: And on burying nuclear waste:
MARIE: I’m really skeptical about burying it. There are earthquakes happening in places we never thought.
NARRATOR: Their worldview affects how they assess risk.
SCHEUFELE: So “culture cognition” is a version of what we’ve known in psychology for a long time as “motivated reasoning”. And motivated reasoning says we, as human beings, don’t reason in a perfectly objective or neutral way.
NARRATOR: Scientific information may be fact-based or neutral, but how we interpret that information is not.
SCHEUFELE: We assimilate reality into our biased worldview. We don’t adjust our worldview based on the reality, but we adjust reality based on our worldview.
NARRATOR: In fact, the more scientifically literate, the more you stick to your beliefs.
SCHEUFELE: We protect our identities. It is all about identity protection. If I’m a strong conservative or strong liberal, I don’t want facts to constantly challenge what I really hold deep down to be true.
NARRATOR: In an increasingly politically polarized world, how do we fix this problem?
[00:05:00] JOHN DONVAN, ABC CORRESPONDENT: There’s a consensus in this room that science is good. It’s not just interesting but on the whole it’s good. But at the same time we all know that there’s a conversation about science taking part in our society that also is divisive. That people get angry about science. That some of the divides in society that already exist are enhanced and deepened over questions related to science. And what we want to investigate tonight is why is that? And what can we do about that?
DONVAN: Let’s meet our panelists. Our first participant is a Professor of Law and Psychology at Yale Law School who previously clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He is one of the country’s leading researchers on risk perception and is part of the Cultural Cognition Project where scholars study how a cultural value shapes public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. A bona fide expert in the science of science communication, please welcome Dan Kahan.
DONVAN: Our next guest is a Nobel laureate, geneticist, and cell biologist. He has been president of the Rockefeller University here in New York. He is now president of the Royal Society of London— sorry, he stopped doing that in 2015, but he was. And a member of the U.K. Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Committee. At present, he is the director of the Francis Crick Institute in London. Please welcome Sir Paul Nurse.
DONVAN: Our next guest is responsible for a federal agency that has a budget of $7.5 billion dollars devoted to science. Before that, she was president of Purdue University. She’s been a group leader at Los Alamos National Lab, an astrophysicist, she became NASA’s first female chief scientist. Please welcome the director of the National Science Foundation, France Córdova.
DONVAN: And our final panelist is a Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University. Known for groundbreaking discoveries in the area of superstring theory, he is a bestselling author, has hosted two award-winning series on NOVA, his TED talk, “Making Sense of String Theory”, has been viewed over 4 million times, and a co-founder of the World Science Festival which is now in its tenth year. Please welcome Brian Greene.
DONVAN: So on this question of polarization of science I want to go straight to Sir Paul. You, last year, produced a BBC program called “Science Under Attack”, which I strongly recommend.
VOICE-OVER: Science created our modern world. So I want to understand why science appears to be under such attack, and whether we scientists are partly to blame.
(Video Clip End)
DONVAN: But what are the battlelines of this attack that you were talking about?
PAUL NURSE, GENETICIST: Well, I think we do have an issue that is of significance and that is when science comes up against politics, ideology, and religion, then we can get quite a potent brew. And in certain issues— and we saw them in the introduction, climate change would be one, vaccination, GMOs— these are particularly toxic in the public mind. And really what I wanted to communicate with that program was that we should initially look at the science first, if we can do that. Because obviously, psychologically, we’re looking at everything at the same time. But we should look at the science first rather than first of all take an ideological or political position— and again, we saw that with the two individuals you had up there— and then cherry pick the science data to fit with your ideology, your religion, your politics, or whatever. That is the wrong way to do things and that will lead to a very poor use of science. And I think that’s a critical point that we should try and address, perhaps this evening.
DONVAN: Do you need to be a scientist to know how to do that?
NURSE: You need to be a scientist to produce information, but we need to have a culture that will recognize that that is the right way to do that. And of course, what that means is that we need to have a society which respects the process of science— that’s a little bit abstract and perhaps difficult to win hearts and minds on— and we also need to have a trust in the scientists who are carrying it out. So it’s a trust in a process. It’s a trust in the scientists. But we have to recognize scientists are human beings. They are not perfect and they will make mistakes. Everything isn’t perfect that they do. And sometimes there’s even fraud, for example. We also have to understand that not all science is on a completely secure foundation.
[00:10:15] NURSE: If we look at Newton’s laws of physics they’ve been around for three centuries, have been tested repeatedly, we can tell where a planet will be within centimeters with great accuracy. If, on the other hand, you ask a scientist whether the next Ebola epidemic is going to kill a hundred million people or one million people, that’s a much more difficult question to answer. And science is often, I prefer to use the term “tentative knowledge”, knowledge that is evolving and developing. Now if we have those two things together, that is tentative knowledge and the human frailty that can produce incorrect science, that leaves gaps spaces which can be exploited by those with political and ideological and even religical opinions to cherry pick what they want. And we need to understand all of that process if we’re going to get this right.
DONVAN: France Córdova, I want to…You graduated from Stanford not planning to go into science at all. You graduated with a degree in what?
FRANCE CÓRDOVA, DIRECTOR OF NSF: English. English Literature.
DONVAN: So what happened?
CÓRDOVA: What happened to me is I was inspired by a public television show to become a scientist. I was inspired by the moon landing, of course that was very dramatic and all. But it was really the public television show where they featured scientists talking about these strange new stars they had discovered called “neutron stars”, and it so captivated me and I thought, ‘What would I ultimately like to do and give myself over to growing up?’ And I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be. I want to be a scientist.’ So I just went in to— I just knocked on the doors, actually of some of the people who were featured in that movie at MIT.
DONVAN: So you make this transition from the world of not being a scientist into the world of being a scientist. You were that layperson who became the professional.
CÓRDOVA: That’s right.
DONVAN: What was the thing that you needed to absorb about how science works that you think maybe isn’t so obvious to regular folks?
CÓRDOVA: I always think of science as an exploration, of just going to the next frontier, the next step, and that’s the unknown. And that’s a constantly evolving process so I wouldn’t expect science to yield- I expect it to reveal itself little by little as one explores it just like any new frontier does. But never would you know everything. The universe is so vast and there’s so many things that we have no knowledge of. You’re constantly trying to penetrate and go deeper into that unknown. That’s the part that drives me. I think it drives the public as well. I think they have more curiosity than we give them credit for.
DONVAN: Well, speaking of public, let me take it to Brian. You really are— and I mean this in a very positive way— a popularizer of science with the television programs that you do. But that means that you need to find a language to speak to people who may not understand the subtleties. And it’s sort of the same question to you, and again it’s bouncing off of what Paul said, whether people really grasp what the scientific process is about.
BRIAN GREENE, PHYSICIST/AUTHOR: Yeah. So I’m going to give you two answers: one from the standpoint of the science itself, and the other from communicating the ideas. And I think from the standpoint of the science, I think there is a general resistance to being in a place of uncertainty. And what happens is when there is a glimmer of uncertainty, it turns into a general impression that the scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, and therefore I don’t really need to pay attention to what’s going on right now because they haven’t figured it out and they don’t know what’s going on.
GREENE: I think a good example of that – which takes us a little bit away from the political sphere, which I think makes a nice little laboratory setting— there is an article in Scientific American in February not to do with climate change or vaccines, but having to do with cosmology. And the article is basically challenging the prevailing view of cosmology. And in response to that, a number of scientists who believe strongly in the prevailing view wrote a letter to the editor expressing their view. So this has now come out as a disagreement. And what I expected would happen has happened, because I’ve spoken to a number of people during this festival who have come up to me with the general impression, ‘Ah the cosmology is now falling apart. Nobody knows anything that’s going on when it comes to cosmology.’ And the fact is, the only reason why we’re having this controversy is because we understand things so spectacularly well that now we can ask the kinds of questions that we couldn’t even ask 20 years ago. And it’s in those fine details that certain issues are starting to bubble up and different perspectives are coming to the fore. So it’s a beautiful example of the scientific process. Where now, through observation and experiment, we have a deeper handle on what’s going on, allowing us to go further into ideas. But when you get it out there into the general public— say through Scientific American— the impression that it leaves is radically different from the actual state of the field.
[00:15:40] DONVAN: Dan Kahan— first of all, tell us what you do for a living.
DAN KAHAN, PROFESSOR: I’m not sure I do anything for a living. I haven’t worked since June 30th, 1993, which is the last day before my first academic appointment became operative.
KAHAN: But I guess the work I do is to study science communication and risk perception, but to try to understand the psychological dynamics that account for the kind of political polarization that was featured in our opening. And then to try to come up with mechanisms or strategies that can make that less disruptive of what would otherwise be the great benefit we get from all we know.
DONVAN: So what are the ruling theories on, again, the situation that Paul laid out?
KAHAN: One thing is, I don’t think we should understand this to be a consequence of limitations in people’s ability to understand science and maybe problems they have with uncertainty. One of the most striking things about this research is that the higher people score on any measure of science comprehension and critical thinking, the more intensely they’re processing the information in a way that conforms it to the beliefs that predominate in their group.
DONVAN: Can you repeat that?
KAHAN: So the people who are highest in science literacy, the people who are highest in critical reasoning—they’re the ones who most aggressively construe information about these contested issues in a way that conduces to beliefs that are in line with the ones in their group. So these aren’t people who are just confused about science. I mean it’s actually a tragic thing that they’re using their reason in that way to try to understand the evidence and the facts in ways that confirm what their group believes.
KAHAN: But the problem isn’t any kind of ignorance about science at all. When this happens, people who have very acute reasoning processes – they’re applying their cognitive resources to get the answers that support their group.
DONVAN: I want to come back to the specifics of your research. But does that surprise everybody else?
GREENE: I do find it slightly surprising, although it aligns with certain things. That would make a lot of sense to me when the scientific issues directly impact on things that have relevance to our lives. Because then, as you say, if a certain kind of scientific insight might lead to a policy that goes against how you want the world to be, I can imagine that all sorts of other issues bubble up and cause you to— as we’ve discussed before— cherry pick an order that it won’t yield that kind of an outcome. But have you done studies where people are presented with scientific issues that don’t have that?
KAHAN: Well, and we should be realistic about this. Most issues don’t have this problem. There are many, many more science insights about risk that don’t involve this perverse effect of people with different values forming different views at all, much less people who have different values and the most developed capacity for science comprehension polarizing all the more. These are issues that are pathological, both in the sense of being bad but also being rare. And if you don’t understand the great class of issues that don’t have this feature, you’ll never actually be able to have good hypotheses about what causes it.
KAHAN: And maybe just one quick example on this. This affects science in a really consequential way and we should be concerned about it. But these dynamics are not specific to science. If I took—was it Marie and Marsha?—and I showed them a video of a protest and I told them that the political protest was at an abortion clinic, then they would come out with very different views about what they saw happening. There was somebody blocking somebody, there was somebody hitting somebody else over the head with a sign. If I them it was a military recruitment center protest, then they would flip around and see exactly the opposite. I mean, I don’t know about them as individuals, but groups of people have their values. So when facts become entangled in these group identities so that positions are like badges of identity and vouchers of loyalty to the group, people disagree on the facts. But that’s not limited to science.
[00:20:16] DONVAN: But the implication of what you’re saying is that there is no solution in just giving people the facts. That that’s not going to work.
KAHAN: Well in just giving people the facts, they’re going to selectively credit and discredit the information in the patterns that reinforce their group beliefs. And the better they are at critical reasoning, the more successfully they’re going to do that. That’s not the information that they’re missing.
DONVAN: Are you personally immune from that?
KAHAN: Yes I am, personally. I did a bone marrow transplant from Brian— thank you for that. No, I don’t think I’m immune from it. And I think too if I put it this way, probably most people recognize, ‘this could be happening to me on certain issues.’ But you don’t know when. We say that people are cherry picking, but they’re not doing it consciously. They’re doing it unconsciously.
DONVAN: Paul, again to go back to the documentary that you did— you talked with a couple of activists in the U.K. who have taken the position that climate science is not proven, never established, and in fact is a very dubious proposition. And you sat there— and it’s clear what you think the truth is— and you sat there and you let them tell you that you were wrong. And one of them certainly was not a scientist at all. One of them was a journalist who, when you asked him what studies he read, said, “I don’t read studies. I read reviews of studies that other people do.” And so you had a very, very pleasant exchange in which you allowed it to get across that the two of you had equal standing in that conversation. Well, do you have equal standing in that conversation? And did you have to go outside and scream after you with talked that guy?
NURSE: Well you know, I was rather wicked in that conversation because I realized I was dealing with an individual who did not believe the climate was changing, certainly didn’t believe human activity had any role in it. He came at it through his own politics and ideology, which I’ll talk a little bit about in a moment. And he had supreme self-confidence. And he was so used to people shouting at him— and then he could get into a fight— but, as you saw, I just listened politely until he hung himself.
NURSE: And I think sometimes the consensual position can be criticized when in fact, it is most likely to be the correct position.
MAN: Yep. Um. Should we talk about— should we talk about Climategate? Because I don’t accept your analogy, really. I think it’s uh… [laughs]
(Video Clip End)
DONVAN: What are folks like you scientists supposed to do in the face of people who are not scientists, who perhaps do or do not understand the scientific process? Who simply tell you that you are wrong and that there’s a controversy? Two sides of a story.
NURSE: I do have some thoughts about this. I think the first position that scientists should take is actually to listen to what they have to say and see whether there is a way that you can reason and discuss it. You shouldn’t automatically assume that it isn’t possible to have dialogue and debate. In the issue of climate change, you can understand why there’s a range of views. It’s a very complex subject. It’s one that is very data-ridden. The models are difficult to do. There are all these holes that people can occupy because there are gaps in the science. And what has emerged there in climate change is something that I think is really quite interesting. Because there is some debate about the science. But what I think influences it most is, what do you do if there really is climate change being caused by human intervention?
NURSE: Because what you do is very significant for individuals’ beliefs. Because the only way you can deal with it is something like the Paris Agreement, which requires agreement across countries, top-down, and doesn’t allow the individual or the company or even the state or the country to find their own way. It requires collective action. And that collective action is an anathema to those of a certain political bent and a certain ideology. On the other hand, for another section of society it’s actually the way they think and the way they like to think about issues. That means that the science problem turns into a political problem because the minds are lined up really on politics rather than the science. And then you get all the dirtiness of political discussion being thrown at the science. And I think that, from my amateurish view of this, has been the real problem here. It’s become a political issue and the science is refracted through those politics.
[00:25:44] DONVAN: We are talking about polarization, but there’s actually evidence that there’s almost a sort of vast silent majority of citizens who are behind science. I mean, there were surveys done where the question was whether the U.S. federal government should even fund science. And as you can see, that orange in the graphic is overwhelming support for science on the part of the general public. And then a second question was asked about whether there’s enough money going to science. And again surprisingly, the majority of the public so there’s not enough money being spent on science.
KAHAN: Can I make one point? We should really be cautious not to characterize this kind of disagreement as the people who believe in science and the people who don’t.
DONVAN: How should we?
KAHAN: First of all, everybody— as those graphics were helping us to see— have very positive views of science. They’re just as confused or just as much in a state of polarization over what the majority of scientists say or over scientific consensus, as they are on the facts of whether global warming is happening or whether deep geologic isolation of nuclear waste is a sensible idea. Those are examples that we used in an experiment to test whether people could recognize scientific expertise. And it turns out that people will recognize a scientist as an expert if that person has the same view as their group on an issue like deep geologic isolation of nuclear waste or climate change. So they’re engaged in a kind of biased sampling. But at the end, both sides say that scientific consensus is on their side. This is like nations going to war saying, “God is on our side.” Nobody is out there saying, “Screw the scientists.” Not in the general public, at least.
DONVAN: We have another graph that takes a look— in fact— at public trust, I believe is the topic, in scientists and medical scientists, which may or may not come up—
KAHAN: The GSS, the General Social Survey has been doing this for 40 years. Science is always second out of 13 institutions. Sometimes it’s the military, sometimes it’s the medical profession but it’s always been second and it’s been second for both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans trusted the science community during the Reagan administration more than trusted the executive branch. People who were religious in nature trust science more than they say they trust organized clergy. So we’re not in a society where people are questioning, but they have a hard time figuring out what scientists believe on some of these issues.
DONVAN: Brian, you’re in primarily physics and the physical sciences. Is it a different kind of – do you face these kinds of controversies in the same sort of way? I know you told the story you told before, but does it get as politicized?
GREENE: Well no, I feel that we’re in a fortunate position because most of the people are spending their energy fighting against these folks in the biology and climate area. They haven’t gotten to physics yet. Maybe that happens in the future. And it’s largely because what we’re doing doesn’t have a direct impact on policy, that has something where one can tangibly see it’ll affect their lives in one way or another. And aligned with that, relevant to the question you asked before, again, in terms of quantum mechanics and general relativity, say— these are complex and rich and deep subjects. But in a way, they’re very simple in that there aren’t a lot of moving parts.
GREENE: It comes to climate change, goodness gracious. Let me give you an example. I’ve been asked to be on programs to talk about climate change. I don’t do it. You know why don’t do it? I don’t feel like I have a grasp of the science at a deep enough level where if there’s somebody really good from the other side, that they won’t be able to destroy me. Whereas I know with almost certainty that that will not happen if it’s a discussion about quantum mechanics or unified theory or general relativity. So I feel completely comfortable discussing that with anybody regardless of how skeptical they might be. But climate is such a complex subject that even for a scientist, it’s difficult. I actually tried to start to read the literature. I said, “Let me educate myself once and for all so I can just handle all of these climate issues straight out.” And I start to read the papers, and a week or two in, I’m like, “I can’t do this. This is going to take up my entire life because it is so complicated.” Now again, that’s not to say that I am a skeptic. It’s to say that there’s so many moving parts that to be able to rebut any argument that comes at you requires a level of understanding and a depth of understanding that’s difficult to achieve. Whereas in the physical sciences, go through graduate school and you’re there. So that’s the difference.
[00:30:41] DONVAN: Paul, take climate change then. If it is so complicated that even the brilliant Brian Greene stopped after a couple of weeks, what is everybody else supposed to do in figuring out what their position is?
NURSE: Well as I was saying about climate change because I’m with Brian, I mean it’s a complex subject. There’s many holes and it takes a lot of navigation. I think what we have to do if we can is to have, if we can, a more mature discussion about science in society and with our political leaders. We have to somehow communicate the strengths of science, the weaknesses of science, this tentative knowledge point that I was saying, that we cannot always say things with certainty. I think one problem in school is that science is often taught with complete certainty. And that is a real difficulty. Another problem with school is that we don’t focus enough on the process of science and how you do good science. And so I think we have to start there in education.
DONVAN: Give us the 45 second process of science— bottom line— that people can take home.
NURSE: I think I prefer to answer the question in terms of, what are the attributes of good science? And the attributes of good science are respect for good data observation and reproducible results. We are an empirical activity. We have to look at the evidence, so we’re relying on good observation. The second is rational argument – simply applying the logic, trying to be as objective as you can having recognized that we are human beings pushed around by our feelings and by our other beliefs. So rational argument is the second. The third is skepticism, particularly of your own ideas. So you attack your own ideas. And finally you go through a process that, with those observations, you come up with a hypothesis, an idea to explain the phenomena of interest and then you attack it. You don’t actually try to defend it, you attack it. And if it survives sufficient attacks, then you can start thinking this could represent it.
GREENE: Do you realize how vital that is? Scientists are the most skeptical people around, and yet there is a line that’s out there in the public that somehow they’ll defend a perspective to the death. No, we try to kill it every step of the way and only if it survives every sledgehammer that we throw at it, are we willing to believe it or have confidence in it. That’s a very different process.
KAHAN: But here’s one thing: I think that the analogy, Brian, between you and the member of the public breaks down. They’re not going to understand anything on their own by pouring over it. And they’re going to have to accept much more is known by science then they could possibly understand. They don’t become experts in any area of science inable to do that. They become experts at figuring out who knows what about what. And they’re not even hearing from scientists, they’re immersed in social networks. And those do, generally speaking, a very good job of leading them to what the truth is. But when they’re in social groups that are at odds with each other, they’re just doing the same thing that they ordinarily do to figure out what science knows and really, there’s no alternative to it.
NURSE: I think that we perhaps don’t use enough is “trust”. When I say we need to have a more mature discussion— with society and politics— of course they cannot understand the science, of course they can’t understand what Brian does. But they can trust Brian, and they can trust the process. And I think we need to do the following things: we need to focus on developing trust in science and trust in scientists, and I think in practical terms we need to work with our politicians. When they disagree, you need to have courteous debate. I don’t mean lobbying, which actually I think is perhaps too prevalent, particularly in the U.S. Because what do scientists do? They go and see their politicians when they want more money. Otherwise they take no notice of them. What we need to do is to make friends with the politicians and get the politicians working with scientists to provide leadership in these sorts of issues.
[00:35:12] DONVAN: Do you see a change in this trust issue over the course of your career? I want to take that to France.
CÓRDOVA: Well there’s a lot more social media now. And as Dan was saying, there’s a lot more places to get one’s information and there’s a lot more so-called “experts” around. So that’s certainly— people can always pull up or grab on to something to affirm their beliefs.
CÓRDOVA: But there’s a vast number of people in the middle—the bulk of of humanity— that is curious. Even if you have a belief, if you’re Marie or Marcia in the video, if you’re a curious Maria or Marcia, you will be open to having your thinking changed with the right narratives and stories about the research that’s being done and so on. And those are the people that I want to address.
CÓRDOVA: I’d like to give you an example of something that I did about a week ago. I accompanied nine congressmen and their staff to Greenland—to see the Arctic ice sheet in Greenland. And I think everybody here can appreciate that since it’s covered by ice, the whole thing, that we’re talking about glaciers receding and the sea ice melting and environmental change on a very big scale that is noticeable over the period of just years and the decade. And are— I think the approach was very much just to go and see and show them our facilities there, the kind of research we’re doing, and also with other agencies.
CÓRDOVA: And when people can see for themselves— and these were congressmen that cross the spectrum of belief about certain things, and from both sides of the aisle. And I think it was really revealing, without being at all heavy-handed. Just going to the different sites and showing the ice core bore down more than a mile deep and taking samples of emissions of gases down 150,000 years ago, to the research on the ice and the glaciers and so forth. They all asked a lot of very, very good questions. And I think that’s kind of the approach that I think of scientists just doing more of, is inviting elected officials to universities to see their laboratories, meet their students, see the kind of research they’re doing, have them ask the questions instead of putting things and ideas in front of them and feeding them, is let them feed themselves by being exposed more.
DONVAN: Do you think any minds changed on that trip?
CÓRDOVA: It’s an excellent question and I don’t know. Sometimes one prepares one’s mind to change. I’m not sure that we saw somebody jump up and have an aha moment. Although people did say, “I need to go back and read more about this. I need to learn more.”
DONVAN: An interesting distinction between the climate change discussion here and the discussion over genetically modified food in the U.K. is that here, the challenge to the consensus tends to come from the right. But Paul, tell us what’s happening with the question of GMO food in the U.K.
NURSE: Well it’s exactly as you said. In the U.K., climate change and the man-made cause is more or less accepted. But there’s been much greater resistance with GM crops compared with the U.S. And this is really quite interesting and I’m not sure I can answer it in the general way that you’re asking, I can only describe what sort of happened. The first thing that happened is that Monsanto—that’s the company who first marketed engineered tomatoes—was inept and put these adverts up about how wonderful this all was. And the consumer saw nothing for them, they just saw something for Monsanto. Secondly the scientists like me were inept, because when we tried to explain it, we didn’t take the rather obvious route of asking some of the public what they thought about this issue. We simply lectured them about how this was all wonderful. In studies that I was involved in a year later, we did ask that question. Do you know what the most common reply was? I was really astonished. The most common reply was that they didn’t want to eat food with genes in it.
[00:40:16] NURSE: And if it’s funny of course, but they didn’t fully appreciate that all food has genes in it.
DONVAN: That was a good, hearty American laugh.
NURSE: And we had never asked them that question. So we weren’t even beginning to be on the same table. What’s the answer there? You have to talk to the public to find out what it is you have to deal with.
DONVAN: Can you clarify, what is the scientific consensus on GM food?
NURSE: In the U.K.? In Europe? Oh, in the world. The scientific consensus is that GM is a technology that can produce different outcomes. And just like conventional breeding. But what you should be testing is the final product to see if it’s safe and can be eaten and used safely in the environment.
GREENE: I mean we are GMOs.
NURSE: We are GMOs ourselves.
GREENE: A human being is, right? I mean how do we get here? It’s just by a slightly different process.
NURSE: Yes, but we don’t eat ourselves. Or at least most of us don’t. Maybe in New York of course.
NURSE: But the point is that the GM modifications, where they’re produced by normal breeding, often involving, by the way, hitting those plants with heavy mutagenesis. So you have no idea what you’ve done with them. Versus a GM modification. So that’s the consensus. But the resistance is, partly we’re playing God— manipulating things—, partly anti-corporate and big companies—because they’re making it—and once again we’re seeing the politics bleeding into this. And partly—and this was a tipping point in the discussion—when the media, the newspapers in this case, looking for a good headline so they could sell another 100,000. We had this headline in The Daily Mail—if it is a newspaper, that’s one of these rags that we have in the U.K.—calling “Frankenstein foods”. It killed the debate for 15 years. It’s only now being resurrected and it is being resurrected now. I’m on the Scientific Advice Mechanism for the European Union. We have just produced a report on GMOs at the request of the commission, because they are going to now re-approach this. But it took 15 more years to go by before it could be re-addressed.
DONVAN: Brian, what do you hear in that story? That in the U.K., —something that here we’re incredibly blasé about GM foods— that over there, that’s in a sense their climate change in the sense that much of the general public does not trust the scientists.
GREENE: Yeah. It’s perhaps hard to predict which issues are going to raise what sort of thought process that’s going to create resistance. And I guess I don’t know. Dan, is there a cultural difference where you can put your finger on where that is the cause of it?
KAHAN: I mean, one thing it makes you conscious of is that there’s a great deal of accident and fortuity that creates these kinds of associations between positions on facts that, amid scientific inquiry, over space and across time, you see just lots of changes. Which ought to make us realize too that no technology is destined to have the kind of resistance that GM foods have in Europe. We should get on top of all the influences that do steer technologies down one track or another. Doing survey work in case studies to understand why that happened there and why it hasn’t happened here ultimately will make us smarter about how to prevent it from happening as often as it does.
GREENE: But do you advocate actually looking at a particular constituency, taking a given scientific idea, and packaging in a way that somehow will avoid some of the pitfalls that you think are the cause of why—
KAHAN: The HPV vaccine is a great example. Because at the very time that we were in the midst of this very contentious political debate about whether schools should adopt it as a mandate for—
DONVAN: Stop again and remind us what the HPV vaccine is.
KAHAN: So the HPV vaccine is a vaccine that protects women, but also men. There’s no test for determining whether men have HPV, but they clearly do contract it and disseminate it. It is an extremely common sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer. It’s the only vaccine that was proposed by the CDC for universal administration that’s not on the list across the states for mandatory school enrollment.
[00:45:13] KAHAN: But at the time that we were having a very bitter contentious fight about that, we also had the HBV vaccine for Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is also a sexually transmitted disease and it causes actually more cancers than HPV. At the time it was being administered to adolescents. Now it’s administered to infants, but there was a catch up regime. There was no dispute about that. You could look at HPV and say, “Well, it was bound to have conflict because you’re talking about parental autonomy and about sex.” Same thing with the HBV vaccine. The difference was that people learned about the HBV vaccine from their doctors. They learned about HPV from watching Fox and MSNBC go at each other because there was a legislative proposal to do this. Usually it’s done by non-political health administrators. And so we knew that was going to happen, it’s not like the evidence was rejected. But we don’t have any process for assessing how these kinds of advances in knowledge will be presented to the general public.
DONVAN: So to Brian’s question, you need to know where are the accident’s going to happen?
KAHAN: You should be trying to simulate the conditions under which people are going learn about these new technologies from a medical advance like the HPV vaccine to other kinds of things like nanotechnology and the NSF— that’s clearly their philosophy. Let’s learn as much as we can about the kinds of ways of educating people that are likely to provoke this kind of polarization and the ones that won’t.
GREENE: John, could I just ask one more question? I don’t mean to take the role, but just one question that comes to mind here. So if we were to have a better educational process early on, that kids really understood what science is about— I know that they don’t. There are fantastic teachers around the country, do not get me wrong, this is not fully general. But I’ve spoken to so many kids around the country whose perspective on what science is, is memorization, get the facts, know the equation— that’s all that it is. If the process that Paul was talking about was somehow ingrained really early on, could you see that bubbling up in a way that would mitigate the issues that you see?
KAHAN: Actually what we do see, as I said, is that when an issue has taken on this kind of status where the positions are badges of membership, the people who are the most divided culturally are the ones who are highest in all of the kinds of critical reasoning faculties that you were talking about.
GREENE: But does that really capture an understanding of what science is and they know that in their bones? Do you test that in a way that really captures that?
KAHAN: Oh they know what science is. Oh sure, you have critical reasoning problems about covariance detection and conditional probability, all kinds of things that people—
GREENE: Nah, c’mon.
KAHAN: Yeah, c’mon. I’ll administer the test to you.
DONVAN: I want to bring in the audience for some questions.
KAHAN: But now you see you won’t—is it your cultural view that’s causing you to dismiss this? Is it the culture of being a scientist?
KAHAN: There’s a science—and we need a science of science communication if we’re going to address these problems. And we need to have institutions that will use it.
DONVAN: We’re going to put some microphones up for you to line up and ask them questions, but we did ask you the questions when you came in. And here are the results. On the question of whether climate change is man-made, 93.4% of you said yes. On the question of whether there is something wrong with GMO food, 39.1% said yes. And whether you support the burial of nuclear waste, 46% said yes. I’m curious in light of the—
KAHAN: The burying nuclear waste? There’s scientific consensus that that’s OK. The National Academy of Sciences was tearing its hair out about why the public didn’t accept that long before climate change. I mean it’s kind of revealing that this audience, only 46% think that that’s safe.
DONVAN: But you’re telling them that’s OK. So we can poll them again and see how influential you are.
KAHAN: I’m telling you that the same groups that don’t believe— that make a mistake about scientific consensus on climate change make a mistake on the scientific consensus on deep geologic isolation of nuclear waste.
GREENE: If you were to phrase the nuclear burial question in terms of, “Do you feel really strongly about your position?” I really wonder if the data would have been different. Can we just quickly do that? Only answer if you feel really strongly about the issue. How many people think that it’s OK to deeply bury nuclear waste? And how many people think it’s not OK? It’s about the same I guess.
DONVAN: Do we have any questions yet? Because we have some coming in from online, from YouTube from Laurie Brummett. She is asking, “What are ways in which these panelists are working to change the public perceptions of science? Or should people with influence and power be doing something to change the perceptions?” Why don’t we take that to you, Brian.
[00:50:08] GREENE: Uh, we’re not doing anything.
DONVAN: No? Yeah, just the World Science Festival.
GREENE: No, that’s what this festival is! It’s not that every scientist should be out there talking to the public. I think there are some whose time is better spent just in the laboratory doing their work. But those who are interested in doing it and those who feel called to do it, I think many are going out and speaking to the public. Look, when we started this festival there was definitely—that was 10 years ago—there was definitely some uncertainty on the part of some scientists about, “Do I want to be part of this? Do I want to be out there in the public?” Now we have scientists all year round lobbying to be part of the festival. So there’s a change in perspective that getting out there and talking to the public is important and really matters. And I think culturally, we even see it right now.
GREENE: I mean again, let me just be personal about it. A couple of years ago, I would not be on this panel. The only thing I’d ever talk about is the subject that I work on as a scientist. And now I feel moved to be a little bit more broad because we see what’s happening in the world and we have to step up and do something about it. We even see scientists— now there’s a new group of scientists who are pledging to run for public office. It used to be “No, no, we stay away from that.” But now we’re going forward.
DONVAN: France, I see a lot of nodding from you on that part. I see a lot of nodding from you on Brian’s point.
CÓRDOVA: I mean we are embracing uncertainty a lot more and being in uncomfortable and challenging situations. My agency spends over $60 million a year funding what we call “advancing informal science learning”. And that’s money that goes to public broadcasting stations, it goes to museums, it goes to science festivals. And that’s all to try to do better about the public communication of science. And these events are widely, widely attended. I mean some of our museums in this country have millions of visitors a year that want to do hands-on science.
DONVAN: Let’s go to a question. Ma’am?
WOMAN: Hi there. We have a problem with the global warming and oil producers and people like that that are making that a big problem. But we also have nuclear weapons and that’s the other big thing that can annihilate the planet and civilization, and we wouldn’t have them if it weren’t for scientists. The question is what are scientists doing about it? How are the able—we don’t have Linus Pauling anymore, or Joseph Rotblat. Who are the scientists that will speak up or say something about their colleagues who are making these things? I think that’s a really important thing if you want trust.
DONVAN: That’s a good question. Let’s take it first to Paul. You’re on the spot.
NURSE: Well I was a member of CND, who actually—
DONVAN: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
NURSE: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Scientists do speak out against the use of nuclear arms. It is, of course, a personal opinion. So it’s not actually to do with science, it’s to do with the use of them and it’s just like any other member of the public. Some will speak against them and some not. If the question was—which it sort of got close to saying— without scientific understanding, we wouldn’t have nuclear weapons. And so, is that an attack on scientific understanding? Well I would say, without science we wouldn’t have many, many other things and I think that isn’t the right way to think about it.
DONVAN: So you’re including nuclear power?
NURSE: Science gives you the knowledge, it’s the use of the knowledge… you wouldn’t have nuclear power— well some don’t like that either. But science produces the knowledge, society has to determine how the knowledge is used.
DONVAN: Thank you for that question, very provocative.
DONVAN: A question from over here.
MAN #2: Hi. You guys earlier talked a little bit about uncertainties that are inherent to— and perhaps well understood by—scientific consensus, things like uncertainties and confidence intervals. But there have been plenty of cases in the past where science has been just flat out wrong, whether that’s because there is some element we didn’t understand or perhaps there’s some methodology that we’re picking up some sort of noise. So to play devil’s advocate a little bit, I was wondering what you guys think the probability is that we’re wrong about something like climate change and whether or not we should accept some amount of humility about that.
NURSE: Well I emphasise that we should look upon science as a spectrum. There is tentative knowledge and there’s firmer knowledge. And I think that’s really where it is. And there’s different areas that you can put different probabilities to. And our responsibility is really to communicate that uncertainty and that probability.
[00:55:03] NURSE: I think we should be wary of thinking when a piece of research or an idea turns out to be wrong, as if that is just entirely negative. Because it isn’t, as we touched on before. Science moves by this process of being wrong about things, which then cleans out certain ideas. So I do think that we have to be a little more open about the fact that there will be mistakes made in science and that’s part of the process. And I’m not talking about fraud or anything like that. It’s just that we make observations, they may not be accurate in certain ways. We may have an idea and they don’t take everything on. But that is just the process of science.
DONVAN: Sir, before you leave the mic, I’m curious to know whether you found that answer satisfying.
MAN #2: I think so. I mean I was thinking more of results such as the recent BICEP results, which we all know were about primordial gravitational waves, but they’re very certain—
GREENE: Let’s take that as an example because it’s much easier to speak of since it takes it out of the political realm. So here is a result that was announced. Incredibly exciting that we might have detected gravitational waves.
DONVAN: Brian, can you catch everybody up?
GREENE: So a few years ago, before the recent discovery that was announced February 11th of 2016 that we had finally discovered gravitational waves, there was a previous announcement by a team at the South Pole that they thought they found indirect evidence for the existence of gravitational waves.
GREENE: It got the world of science incredibly excited and the data looked kind of strong. But over the course of just a few days to weeks, scientists converged on this and began to raise issues. At Columbia, within a few days, we had a group meeting where experts say, “Well, we don’t know, it may be dust in the foreground. They didn’t talk about foregrounds in the paper.” And so the community came together and within a year, it was determined that the interpretation of the data was incorrect, that it wasn’t gravitational waves. That’s beautiful! That’s not something bad. That’s the ability of science to self-correct. That’s the beauty of it all.
CÓRDOVA: And just to emphasize that, when that result came out I made a big poster picture—and dry mounted it—of the B-polarization background map, the famous one that then turned out to be incorrect or was actually mapping dust in our own galaxy. And I take that out and show it to visitors every once in a while. That is one of my favorite, favorite stories of the progress of science.
GREENE: Now the people that wrote the paper may feel exactly that way, but we’re talking collectively, the community we’re talking about here.
DONVAN: Over here.
WOMAN #2: So recently, there was a book and also several articles which dealt with the reproducibility crisis in biomedical research and I’m wondering whether you, the panel, think that that is something which is going to hurt science in the public perception generally? And what we should do about that?
NURSE: I think I’ve got to catch that one, haven’t I? Yes, reproducibility, particularly in medical science actually. I got a few comments to make. The first thing is that biological research is made with biological material. Biological material is often very variable and some of this reproducibility issue is around the fact that you’re not always working with exactly the same things because of their biological variability. A second aspect to this is that some of the the techniques being used are very sophisticated and complicated, and can be difficult to actually reproduce.
NURSE: There is something that’s growing up, that if somebody says ‘this’ and then somebody doesn’t get the same result, this person is always wrong. That isn’t actually necessarily the case. This person might be wrong. It is part of actually the process. Then there’s a third aspect of it, which is the one that is spoken about most, which is that people are just making it up and it’s fake science and they’re trying to make money and they’re driving things through. And there is no question in my mind that there is some pressures in this direction: pressures for people’s careers, to get interesting results, to get interesting papers, sometimes just commercial interests. And my view about that is that we simply have to have a good culture in scientific research where that is simply not acceptable. It’s acceptable to make genuine mistakes because that will happen sometimes. It is not acceptable to be sloppy in the work. It’s not acceptable to be fraudulent. I sum it up: science is a high calling, and I’m not sure we emphasize enough, it is a high calling and we have to hold ourselves to high standards.
[01:00:20] DONVAN: Thank you very much everybody. Goodnight!