Currently, there are many signs of attitudinal gulfs among those with different levels of education. This is a post concerning disagreements about the value of science, as an enterprise that contributes to the common good. There appear to be three features of science that contribute to the balkanization of support.
First, much of priority-setting for science funding, the evaluation of new proposed work, and the assessment of the value of products, depend on the judgments of those in the same field. This notion of “peer review” is a feature of most all research endeavors but is most prominent in science. A critique of this process often labels peer review as “cronyism.” Friends and associates are merely supporting one another. “You support my research, and I’ll support your research.” The obvious fear is that funded research fails to advance the common good in the most efficient way. Instead of a meritocracy, the evaluation process is an elite friends’ network of self-aggrandizement. The importance of the proposed research does not determine its likelihood of support but rather the connections of those proposing it to those reviewing it.
Protections against such cronyism include recusal rules for reviewers, which exclude collaborators, mentors/mentees, and colleagues from the same university. They include transparency of all grants awarded by funding agencies, with descriptions of the work proposed. Increasingly, they include linkage between grants awarded and the research products of the grant.
Second, the ever-changing knowledge set produced by scientific progress confuses the uninitiated. Science constantly creates new hypotheses. Some are supported, and the findings add to currently accepted knowledge. However, few scientists expect that all parts of the currently accepted knowledge will be invariant in the future. Science progresses. What appeared to be true in one era is refined and changed with discoveries in a later era. For those who seek invariant truth, such change can be misunderstood as poor performance, that nothing is believable out of science because its “truth” is dynamic.
Third is the fact that science, like all academic fields, is in constant deliberation. There are always controversies. Different theories explaining target phenomena appear to be attractive to different subgroups. Different approaches to questions are supported by subgroups. Debates are common. Most scientists would say debates are necessary. Opposing viewpoints, orally presented in conferences, printed in journals and books, are the necessary fuel to progress. The debates help identify future research directions and clarify puzzles, all to the benefit of seeking a better approximation to the truth.
From the outside, not knowing these last two features of research, it’s easy to attack research by noting that what the fields are claiming are “findings” are constantly changing. You can’t believe anything they say because in a few months they’ll say something different. You just can’t count on them, so ignore them. Further, when popular media describe the internal debate over theories, methods, and findings, they often do so through the lens of a two-party debate. “They don’t agree within the group. The findings are ‘controversial.’” “There is a lack of consensus even among themselves. There are many who don’t accept the conclusions.”
These three features of science lead one to hypothesize that part of the large educational differences in support of science is due to a failure of science and researchers to describe their work and its culture. How can scientists communicate that current findings will be subject to the similar refinements and changes as prior findings? How can scientists help the media understand that controversies are the engine for advancement in science? Widening the support for science requires that we tackle these questions with the same vigor we use in our research.