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September 5, 2017

Americans don't believe in science - and that's okay

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles

Hurricane Harvey last week demonstrated not just the power of nature, but also the power of scientists to forecast it. So why doesn't everyone trust scientists when it comes to important issues such as climate change?

Okay, I'm going to be a lazy writer and answer my own question here. Many Americans don't trust scientists because when it comes to issues that directly affect people's lives, science hasn't always been right. In fact, some claims made in the name of science actually have made millions of Americans' lives worse over the past few decades. That has made many Americans easy targets for industries and politicians who profit when the public rejects science on other issues.

If the science community wants to build support for its (well established) findings about climate change, it needs to acknowledge and confront the public's skepticism about science, rather than berating people for not believing everything that scientists tell them.

So what's science screwed up so badly? Nutrition. When it comes to advising people on the healthiest stuff to eat and drink, claims made in the name of science over the past generation have left too many Americans fatter and less healthy than before.

I'm not talking about the non-stop hype for miracle cures and wonder drugs that will fix this, that, and the other. As much as we'd all love an easy, one-step solution to becoming fit, thin, and healthy, I think we all pretty much know that's a fantasy. We just want some basic advice on what to eat to keep us healthy, even if that advice is not always easy to follow.

Yet science hasn't even gotten that right for us over the past generation. Doctors, nutritionists, government, and the media that cover them have waged a war on fat and cholesterol that has led more Americans to eat more carbohydrate-heavy food in their diet, despite emerging research that it's carbs — not fat — that most endangers our hearts and our health.

When Americans follow what they believe to be science's advice to cut the fat and cholesterol, only to see their weight balloon, the blood cholesterol levels soar, and their heath deteriorate, you can't blame people for deciding that maybe science might not always have the right answers.

You know what? I think that's a good thing. Because, ultimately, science isn't about conclusions. It's about showing us the way to find to them. Science never should tell us what to believe. It should show us how to decide that, instead. Science is not a result, it's a process.

Science needs to embrace the public's skepticism and show the public how to use that to its advantage. Science never ought to demand belief from the public, because inspiring belief is a game that science can never win. If you knew nothing about how science actually worked, whom would you believe: a scientist who speaks on behalf of a human process you don't understand, or, for an example, a preacher who speaks on behalf of the almighty God?

Guess what? The vast majority of Americans aren't picking the scientist. They're going to go with the trusted figure who takes the time to minister to them, to comfort them, and to inspire them for at least one hour every Sunday, if not for even more time throughout the week. We are social animals. We trust the people we know — not some impersonal process.

Making things worse for science, the process that led so many people to hear that they should cut fat from their diets was more about buying political influence than researching the truth. It was bad science.

The good science happens when people track precisely what they eat, note the results, and then compare that with other people doing the same. That's how many Americans discovered that they were losing weight and improving their health by ignoring what nutritionists were telling them to do. And now scientists — actual scientists, not industry-funded hacks — are confirming what they found.

So, ultimately, science works. But how can the public tell the good science from the junk passed off in science's name? The same way that scientists do. You test it, when you have the time and ability to do so. And you look back at how other people got their results.

To learn that, though, the public needs better reporting about science and its research. How would Americans have viewed the advice to cut fat from their diets differently if they knew that research had been paid for by the sugar industry? We need news reporters who can do a little science of their own, too.

Every scientific investigation starts with reviewing the research that has been done before on the same topic. That's what journalists do when they start to report a story, as well. Twenty years ago, I wrote a guide for journalists about using scientific research in their news stories. The questions I asked reporters to include in their stories remain relevant today: Where did the data come from? Have the data been peer-reviewed? How were the data collected?

Asking those questions — and not just regurgitating what a source or a PR agent tells you — is how you discover problems with junk research, such as the witch hunt against fat on behalf of the sugar industry... and the current witch hunt against climate change action on behalf of oil companies and their political allies.

Unfortunately, science — and even just reporting about it — takes time, study, and discipline. It's a lot cheaper for newspapers and cable networks to hire a bunch of young, inexperienced, and pretty reporters to crank out the type of "he-said, she-said, who-ya-gonna-believe?" stories that fail science. So they do.

Where does that leave science? I hope that the people who support science will recognize that nothing sells science like actually practicing it. Whether it's with home improvement projects, cooking, or personal fitness, many of us are always trying new ways to make things better for ourselves. We are experimenting. We are learning. And we're happy to share what we learn — what works and what does not — with other people, too, so they can test if it works for them.

At its most basic, that's science.

Science needs its own ministers. Not preachers telling people what to believe, but practitioners who show people how to try something new, keep close track of changes, and compare notes with each other to find better ways of doing things. We need doctors, trainers, coaches, and even just neighbors to step up into this role. Once people recognize how this "personal science" can help make their own lives better, then they are more likely to be open to how science practiced on a larger scale can help their community, their nation, and their world.

An advertising or Facebook campaign won't do this. Slogans and memes won't help. Like science, this is about doing, not believing, and the only way to do something right is to make the hard effort required.

Scientific discovery doesn't happen overnight. Lasting science advocacy won't, either.

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© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.