Cross Country Checkup·CHECKUP EPISODE

Are people losing faith in the ability of science to provide answers?

The world has lost a giant who worked hard to improve scientific understanding. Canadians rate high on scientific literacy. But on certain issues, some are reluctant to go with the science. A new study suggests many believe science is not that important in their lives. What do you think? Does science still matter today?
Physicist Stephen Hawking sits on stage during an announcement of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative with investor Yuri Milner in New York in 2016. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Listen to the full episode1:52:59

Stephen Hawking and science

Stephen Hawking was one of the greatest scientists of our time, his genius on par with Albert Einstein. But it wasn't just his beautiful mind and his staggering discoveries that made the theoretical physicist and cosmologist so remarkable.  
Host of Cross Country Checkup, Duncan McCue. (Kevin Van Paassen)

He also had a knack of using popular culture to his advantage, as an unlikely way to introduce his complex theories into ordinary lives. He enjoyed his celebrity. He had fun with it. How many other geniuses appeared in The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory? But he never forgot his life's purpose: to unravel the mysteries of our universe.  

Stephen Hawking was highly regarded in life, as he is in death. But even he must have seen for himself that there were times when there wasn't always a straight line between scientific facts and trust in those findings.

Billions of dollars go to scientific research, so people are right to feel they have an interest in what our best and brightest scientists turn up. Yet whatever the field — climate change, medicine, vaccinations, genetically modified foods, smart phone technology —  they have long been open to skepticism, mistrust and conspiracy.   

A recent Ipsos global study surveying 14 countries found there's a great deal of mistrust of science among people. In Canada: 46 per cent of people believe science has a "somewhat important" place in their everyday lives. Five per cent says it doesn't matter in their lives at all. Fifty nine per cent said they "somewhat" trust science. So how do we explain that? And where does the fault lie if so many people can hold science in such low esteem? 
 
We would especially like to hear from you if you're part of the science community. Not so long ago, Canada went through a period where government scientists were restricted in publicizing their work. Many said they were "muzzled" by a deliberate government policy. Some say the community has never recovered and reluctance still lingers. If you're a scientist who is working in one of the many government research fields in this country, do you feel connected to or disconnected from the paying public?

Do you feel — as many people argue — that when it comes to medicine and health that sometimes the profits of pharmaceutical companies take precedence over the public's well-being in the name of science? What about the messy world of research funding? 

And when it comes to important public issues such as climate change or vaccinations, is the science that should inform us increasingly lost in a fog of ideological extremes? Is science being used to serve opinion rather than the other way round?    

And back to Stephen Hawking... he was an optimist at heart. But while his unique brand of genius is assured its place in history, his ultimate hope for science to provide us with answers has hit the buffers of our own mistrust.  
   
Our question today: Are people losing trust in the ability of science to provide answers?

Guests

Nicole Mortillariko, Senior writer for CBC News' Science and Technology section

Neil Turok,  Director of The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. Friend and colleague of Stephen Hawking

Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada's Chief Science Advisor. Distinguished medical researcher whose focus has been on the heart, particularly on the mechanisms of heart failure and congenital heart diseases

Samantha Yammine, PhD student in the department of molecular genetics and U of T's Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research. She also has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter, where she talks about own research and science. 

The live online chat: