Battle lines in the war on science

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The scientific community and the rest of us enjoy, let’s just say, a complicated relationship.

The rest us of understand, at some basic level, that outside of nature virtually nothing we see, smell, hear, taste or touch has been unaffected by the ingenuity of the human mind. Still, according to a National Science Foundation survey last year, nearly 25 per cent of Americans believe that Copernicus was a dunderhead, or worse.

“To the question ‘Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth,’ 26 per cent of those surveyed answered incorrectly,” a report for National Public Radio in the United States revealed.

Incidentally, “in the same survey, just 39 per cent answered correctly (true) that ‘The universe began with a huge explosion’ and only 48 per cent said ‘Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.’ Just over half understood that antibiotics are not effective against viruses”. (They kill bacteria).

It’s one thing to admit that fantasy is more alluring than fact; it’s quite another to insist that the fantastical is, indeed, factual.

The Flat Earth Society describes itself as “a place for free thinkers and the intellectual exchange of ideas.” Meanwhile, millions apparently still believe that the world, have missed its date with the Apocalypse back in 2012, still has it coming in the not too-distant future.

Yet, talk to many of them about the devastating effects of empirically proven climate change on this orb, and they’re likely to call you barking mad, a gullible fool, or a willing conspirator of the international-scientific-complex, determined to separate poor citizens from their tax dollars to fatten already swollen research banks.

It is, perhaps, not a moment too soon, then, that some scientists in Canada are hitting back with the only weapon they can reliably trust: the truth about what they do for a living.

According to a Globe and Mail piece early last week, Molly Shoichet, a biomedical engineer at the University of Toronto, “is set to officially launch Research2Reality, a $400,000 social-media campaign she is spearheading that is designed to shine a spotlight on the work of academic researchers across the country. It is one of the most ambitious outreach efforts of its kind in Canada to date and it comes at a time when research advocates worldwide are trying to persuade governments of the importance of basic, curiosity-driven research.”

As she says, “We’re not a lobby group. Our focus is on capturing the imagination and the curiosity of the public.”

In fact, government dogma – especially in Canada over the past decade of Conservative rule – has been an even peskier problem than the sure-footed intransigence of the blissfully ignorant John Q. Public.

It is not science that some bureaucrats and their elected masters mistrust, but scientists – particularly those that can’t seem to get it through their eggheads that the work they do must evince some practical applications before their fellow citizens are willing to fund it.

This, of course, misses the point as most false dichotomies do. As Lauren Reinerman-Jones and Stephanie Lackey of Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida noted in 2011, “If no distinct difference or opposition of basic and applied research exists, then it should be assumed that all research conducted has practical application with a theoretical foundation.”

Unfortunately, that proposition makes too much sense to find much purchase outside the halls of academe.

We may hope, however, that Dr. Shoichet will have better luck for the sake of both the scientific community and, of course, the rest of us

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