A Crisis of Faith: What I discovered at the World Science Festival

The fifth annual World Science Festival took place over five days in New York City in June. (You can find my blog posts from the festival here.) I attended four events on a range of fascinating topics, from the “elusive neutrino” to the disruptive technological power of the Internet. What was perhaps most intriguing, though, was one theme that pervaded all of the discussions. The panelists at each forum described how they struggled more with a crisis of public faith in their work than unraveling the mysteries of the universe. The gap between science and public understanding seems to be greater than ever.

The talks represented a fair sampling of the diversity of scientific research today. “How We Bounce Back: The Science of Human Resiliency” brought to light new research in the field of trauma recovery. “The Elusive Neutrino and the Nature of the Cosmos” concerned the science of some of nature’s tiniest, most difficult to detect subatomic particles. The grandiosely-titled “Internet Everywhere: The Future of History’s Most Disruptive Technology” brought tech-savvy thinkers together to discuss how the Internet has impacted society and how it might evolve further in the future. Finally, “Pandemic Fix: Seeking Universal Vaccines” examined the state of vaccine research and immunization today.

The panelists spent as much time talking about perceptions of their work as the work itself. Physicists bemoaned the lack of support from the public, and therefore from Congress, for projects critical to the advancement of fundamental particle physics like the cancelled Superconducting Super Collider. Epidemiologists signaled their alarm and disgust with recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, with thousands of cases of mumps on the east coast and tens of thousands of whooping cough on the west. Social psychologists complained of an entrenched popular psychology that damages victims of trauma, while the architects of the Internet try to counter the abandonment of the net’s foundational, dispersed-computing principles represented by the cloud.

This growing awareness of public skepticism might shock some scientists. After all, advances in our collective knowledge have led to marvels like modern medicine, space travel and mass transportation. When it comes to the scientific facts of anthropogenic global warming or the extensively shown safety of vaccinations, then, one might expect the public to give similar credence to researchers. It does not. Gallup polls indicate that greater numbers of Americans than ever think that the media greatly exaggerate the seriousness of global warming, leaving many scientists bewildered, wondering what causes this too-common ignorance and what to do about it.

Many of these strategies made an appearance at the World Science Festival. Psychologists interested in human resiliency blamed mass media for hindering the uptake of their research. At another session, a noted physicist and atheist, Lawrence Krauss, went out of his way to pillory the faithful for unthinking dogmatism, for disregarding the proper relationship between faith and reason. Both the psychologists and the physicists had seemingly convinced themselves that educating society more effectively could counter the troubling trends in public opinion.

The health experts presented a different perspective. They observed that outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States differed significantly from those in third world countries. In the latter, the citizens’ levels of poverty and education most often impacted whether the vaccine successfully achieved widespread distribution. The United States provided a contrast in that its wealthy and educated populations suffered the worst outbreaks. The panelists admitted that high levels of education and extensive public information campaigns exerted little positive influence on vaccination rates in the States, and they entertained no illusions that further education efforts would yield different results. Some people simply refuse to believe the ample evidence that vaccines do not cause autism.

Seven years ago, Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to designate the subjectification of fact. While used primarily as a critique of the current political atmosphere, it applies equally well to the way many Americans approach science. Truthiness in the sciences takes root in an essential scientific assumption—that everybody, making the same observations, can universalize from them to arrive at the same rule.

Unfortunately, such a belief in the equal potential of each person to draw the same sound conclusions relies on a prior, often-neglected condition. People can only actually do so if they have developed the proper habits of thought and action. An example here might illustrate the point. In their medical training, doctors do not simply study the information available in books. If that were the case, anybody could become a doctor with some intense reading at the local library. After a period of study and classroom education, medical students must continue their formation with hands-on work under the tutelage of active medical professionals. This period trains doctors to think and act with certain habits that enable them to use the knowledge they acquired in the classroom properly. Similarly, interpreting scientific facts well requires a certain amount of practice, something scientists don’t often emphasize to the public.

A further complication arises when well-qualified people disagree among themselves about the interpretation of research. An example from my own undergraduate experience comes to mind. During my study of chemistry, I took a tutorial called “Agents of Global Change.” My professor specialized in geochemistry, having worked for a petrochemical company before entering academia. During our meetings, the two of us argued ad nauseum about whether scientists could currently prove global warming, and if so, whether humans cause it. We two scientists looked at the same data and drew different conclusions. I would argue that my professor’s petrochemical background biased her reasoning—not that she made her case in bad faith, but that her history negatively impacted her ability to see what a more objectively formed scientist would see. Thus, even if a layman defers to scientific expertise, the question of whose expertise to trust poses a legitimately thorny issue.

Finally, the ease of communication brought about by the information age has amplified the above two problems. The free flow of data enabled by the Internet, itself a good thing, has made it easier for people to access scientific research and to think that they can draw their own conclusions from its results. It has also given those same people a far-reaching platform for disseminating their amateur opinions. Compounded with well-heeled support for Web sites advancing bad science, some public confusion should hardly come as a surprise.

To confront the truthiness creeping into its field, the scientific community will indeed need to go beyond simple education of the masses. It will need to find new ways to engage and shape culture, emphasizing the importance of professional opinion and providing accessible, trustworthy sources to that expertise. Organizations like the World Science Festival have started to do exactly that. I am grateful for their work, and hope they will find a larger and more receptive audience over the coming years.

Photos: Greg Kessler / 2012 World Science Festival

Joseph Legan
4 years 6 months ago
Thought provoking article.
Well done

Nathaniel Campbell
4 years 6 months ago

The thing that never seems to occur to Lawrence Krauss, as to other New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens (may he rest in peace) is that their angry denunciations of the ignorance and danger of relgious faith deepens entrenched attitudes of skepticism against science rather than curing them.  When you yell at somebody you disagree with to tell them that they are stupid, they rarely respond by changing their minds to agree with you.  But if you try to work *with* them rather than against, you might find your cause more successful.

Lisa Weber
4 years 6 months ago

I like the concept of "truthiness", but it needs more explanation.  Does truthiness turn facts into factoids?  My understanding of a factoid is that it sounds like a fact, and is presented as a fact, but it isn't.

This is an excellent article on a pervasive and significant problem.

james belna
4 years 6 months ago
I agree with Mr Konzman that scientists are experiencing a crisis of credibility, but it is the scientists themselves who have carelessly squandered their reputation for an open-minded search for the truth. Ironically, Mr Konzman gives us a prime example of this phenomenon. In the past, we would have expected disputes over scientific theories - such as the one that Mr Konzman describes regarding global warming - to be resolved by rigorously objective experiments and calculations. To Mr Konzman, and to a disturbingly large segment of the scientific community, the traditional tools of inquiry are now beside the point - it is much easier to win scientific arguments by invoking bias, such as Mr Konzman leveled against his professor solely on the basis of her prior employment, as if that alone is enough for an undergraduate to discredit the opinion of a highly-educated professional with many years of specialized experience. The "ignorant masses" are not impressed.
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 6 months ago
I like the way the author frames the issue: "... an essential scientific assumption—that everybody, making the same observations, can universalize from them to arrive at the same rule." Unfortunately, he then makes what I must call the elitist's error. "People can only actually do so if they have developed the proper habits of thought and action." If this were the case, the owners of the patent of mental hygiene, so to speak, would be the rulers. It must be true, on the contrary, that mere sincerity suffices to grant a meeting of the minds when people must solve a problem together. Everyday experience confirms this. The learning of protocols, terminology, etc., is after-the-fact, useful either in making records or settling disputes. If, most of the time, we reach across cultural differences like ducks taking to water, only that would explain why, usually, we don't ram our cars into each other on the highway or get in knife fights in the McDonald's serving line. Contrary to the truism that institutions spend all their time protecting their inmates and proprietors, institutions must always work to justify their existence in the eyes of the outside world. "In order to subdue nature, you must obey its laws." (Aquinas) "The judgment of history on error is death." (Holmes) I'll add my own. "People aren't stupid."
Mark Wonsil
4 years 6 months ago

One of the greatest scientists of our time, in my humble opinion, was Richard Feynman - physicist. Here is a short speech he gave in 1956 discussing this "new" problem of science and religion and why it's important to doubt. 


In short, we need to be able to do some experiments to prove anything or help remove doubt. This is not easy to do with things like large economies or global climates. We don't have a spare Earth to use as a control to see what would happen if we did this or that. We do our best to draw conclusions and then do whatever we can to disproved them so we learn more about God's creation. Today's science world is full of bad multi-media science for sure (Popular Pysch, etc.) but scientists have not done themselves any favors by trying to hide unfavorable results (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/science/earth/new-trove-of-stolen-e-mails-from-climate-scientists-is-released.html) or by commiting outright fraud (http://healthland.time.com/2012/01/13/great-science-frauds/). It's important for everyone to accept that we ALL have biases - not just the people who we disagree with. Disagreement is at the heart of science. We should NEVER try to remove it. We cannot ask others to be open-minded if we are not ourselves.

Today's dotMagis Ignatian blog seems exceptionally applicable to this entire discussion: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/13878/a-story-about-disputes/

Stanley Kopacz
4 years 6 months ago
To Jim Belna:
I really don't understand what you are saying. Climate scientists have been doing hard and complex work to get it right. "Right" is now a 98% agreement that the warming is happening and it's caused by humans. Even the Koch-sponsored scientist Richard Muller admitted it in the NYT. Even though funded by the Kochs, I am sure he succumbed to the fear of any scientist that the scientists of the future will think him intellectually dishonest. I also have to say that climate science is based on well-established physics such as infrared spectography of CO2. THey didn't start from zero.

To Christopher Rushlau:

I'm an optical engineer with a BS in Physics and an MS in optical Engineering. I understand the basics of what the climatologists are saying, but I have a job, and it doesn't have anything to do with climate science but relates some of the basics. I know that climate science gets very complex. What I do gets complex. At some point, I have to accept that these people know what they are doing because I will never put in the man-hours required to function at their level. Anyone who wants to has to put in the years of work. Personally, I think we need to have roving shows that demonstrate at least the basics of how these things work. Like a CO2 laser putting infrared radiation through a container of air and then filling that container with CO2 and watching the throughput decline. Having observed extremely dramatic interactions of that sort, maybe it's my actual direct experience that makes it easier for me to accept the truth.
james belna
4 years 6 months ago

Mr Kopacz:

I am sorry if I was obscure. My point is that scientists have gotten into the bad habit of accusing those who disagree with them of bias, typically by reference to a funding source (such as the Koch brothers), instead of relying upon actual experimentation to resolve conflciting claims. Thanks to your post, I can now add the appeal to consensus as another proxy for actual scientific proof. I don't doubt that 98% of some class of scientists are convinced that man-made global warming is an indisputable fact. In the old days, scientists would focus their efforts to address the objections raised by the unconvinced 2%. Now they just dismiss them, irrespective of the merits of their challenges. 

I would also note that the average layman is understandably sceptical of grand claims about global warming, which is now known as "climate change" precisely because the promised warming has failed to show up. We also know that it will be very difficult for scientists to say anything meaningful about long term climate trends, because of the obvious complexity of the ecosystem, the questionable reliability of historic temperature measurements, and the near impossibility of testing climate theories in a controlled laboratory setting. In my opinion, scientists would do a great service to themselves and the global community if they regained some of the humility and respect for criticism that used to be the hallmarks of your profession.

Amy Ho-Ohn
4 years 6 months ago

This opinion that people are not capable or willing to listen to scientific evidence does not accord with my experience at all. I find that the American man in the street (also some women in the street) is very interested in scientific questions, willing to listen to hard experimental evidence and always happy to learn new things.

In line at the post office, riding the subway, at the dog park, I have all sorts of interesting conversations with people: how an engine block behaves like a gyroscope, what the Foucault pendulum at the museum is doing, what all the things on the power lines are, how their cell phone batteries work, what the dog's recent surgery was all about, and everybody is hugely enthusiastic about the new Mars rover. I am always surprised how much I learn in these conversations, how well the average American understands the laws of the universe on an intuitive level from the evidence he encounters in every day life.

It seems to me the examples in this article were deliberately chosen to support a dubious argument. Climate science is notoriously compromised by partisan agenda. Psychology is not a science, it is a pseudo-science, like phrenology and astrology. Vaccinations do not cause autism, but they can put a strain on an infant's immune system, and it is natural for parents to be irrational where their small children are concerned.

When you find that people won't listen to your scientific explanations, you should try listening to them yourself. Probably the problem is (1) you don't really understand your subject very well or (2) you're just really bad at explaining. (In fact, "Agents of Global Change" does not sound like a course one would take in a really serious chemistry program.)

Too many people with scientific degrees have a sloppy understanding of their fields and expect to bully their interlocutors with their titles and credentials, instead of taking the trouble to learn the subject thoroughly. This is where people get the impression that science is politically-motivated dogmatically-formulated mumbo-jumbo (like religion.)

J Cosgrove
4 years 6 months ago

"To confront the truthiness creeping into its field, the scientific community will indeed need to go beyond simple education of the masses. It will need to find new ways to engage and shape culture, emphasizing the importance of professional opinion and providing accessible, trustworthy sources to that expertise."


That is one of the scariest statements I have seen in a long time.  Can I say "1984" and the "Ministry of Truth" as Big Science resembles Big Brother.

Stanley Kopacz
4 years 6 months ago
Mr. Belna, these scientists have been measuring and experimenting to beat the band. That doesn't seem to matter, though. If someone believes in a flat earth in this day and age, I don't see how any more astronomy or satellite information will disabuse them of their opinion, which is now pure opinion and probably invinvible. I think the same thing is becoming unfortunately true of the present crop of deniers. WHen drawn into arguments with these people, appeals to science don't seem to matter. They will go into conspiracy theory mode or economic motivation mode and I then try to argue at their level, which I would rather not. I would rather just discuss science, which is more interesting. But we have run out of time. I'm an engineer. If there's a problem, admit it, and if you can, fix it. Otherwise, engage in wishful thinking, so space shuttles explode and climates become hostile.

And how far can one go with a proof? In the case of climate change, it starts with an indisputible physical mechanism. THe CO2 molecule is able to absorb some of the outward thermal radiation flux from the earth due to its vibrational modes and imhomogeneous electrical charge distribution and re-emit it in all directions, some of it back toward the earth. Is even this basic physics in dispute? Can we start there? At some point, however, it gets very complicated and cannot proceed like a step-by-step proof in geometry. It's more like a picture emerging from looking at a vast range of data from an assortment of various fields.

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