Sunday September 25, 2016

'Gaps' in our grasp of science could actually make science better

A new survey reveals what the Ontario Science Centre calls "significant gaps" in Canadian understanding of issues like climate change, vaccinations and genetically modified organisms.

A new survey reveals what the Ontario Science Centre calls "significant gaps" in Canadian understanding of issues like climate change, vaccinations and genetically modified organisms. (Ontario Science Centre/Twitter)

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As part of The 180's series Facts & Values, we delve into a recent survey that suggests Canadians have "significant gaps" in their understanding and acceptance of science.

It comes from the Ontario Science Centre, and reveals what the centre calls "significant gaps" in our understanding of issues like climate change, vaccinations and genetically modified organisms. The survey was based on an online poll by Leger of 1,578 Canadians. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.  

But University of Waterloo professor, Heather Douglas says those gaps often force the scientific community to be more rigorous and innovative. 

Science is not a fixed body of facts - Heather Douglas

Douglas, whose research focuses on the intersection of science and society, concedes that while it's valid to be concerned about gaps in the public understand of science, she says in her opinion it's not clear to what is inherently problematic about the public disagreeing with the scientific community. 

If that seems a bit foggy, Douglas offers the hypothetical example of a newly genetically modified organism coming to market. Now suppose the scientists have been very careful to ensure it's safe for food consumption - but the public is still critical. 

Heather Douglas

Heather Douglas, Waterloo Chair in Science and Society. (Courtesy of Heather Douglas)

"[The concern] is not because of health concerns for human consumption, but because of environmental effects. They might be concerned about genetic drift to similar species that exist in the wild...or they might be concerned about how those organisms create property rights over seeds and affect the economic conditions of farmers" 

Douglas says those concerns are valid, and need to be addressed by the scientific community. 

If we don't pay attention to the concerns the public has, the scientific community will not address them, and the gap between the scientific community and the public could increase - Heather Douglas

In fact Douglas says the definition of science literacy needs to change. 

"it would be more productive for citizen engagement with science if science literacy was understood as the process of science," she says. 

Douglas would prefer for surveys to ask more in-depth questions about literacy, and delve into why people feel concerned about issues like climate change, vaccinations, or gmo-safety. But what about when science seems to have reached consensus? Surely that must be reasonable right?

Douglas disagrees. 

Demanding that everyone outside of the scientific community accept that consensus without questioning is both unhealthy for science and unhealthy for science's relationship to the citizens in the societies in which science functions. - Heather Douglas

Douglas points to the flawed scientific consensus that use to surround intellectual ability and gender.

"It turned out the science was deeply flawed," she says, "[there were] a lot of sexist background assumptions fed into the structure of the science, and now there is no longer a consensus."

So how can anybody move forward if the debate never stops?

Douglas argues for a larger, and more complex view of science and democracy.

"Doubt is always a companion of science," she says. "The doubt manufacturing only works if we think that we need to have certainty before action."

If we're able to get past that notion, Douglas argues citizens and scientists can have more complex discussions about what kind of evidence is needed, and what kinds of policies serve multiple goals that we can agree are valuable.