Ignorance of the masses – should we worry?

This is the second somewhat negative post I’ve written on Open Science. You might say I’ve moved from the Honeymoon phase to the phase where all you can do is judge and criticize and focus on the bad. Let’s hope I move on to the mature, balanced, productive phase soon! In any case, I still highly support the concept of Open Science and want to see it grow, but right now I am using this blog to explore both sides.

There are many issues and questions surrounding Open Science which I have been slowly familiarizing myself with over the last few weeks. Some things, like intellectual property rights, privacy, and scooping, are obvious and comprise the bulk of the debate. I started thinking about a different issue related to Open Science recently, mostly inspired by the escalating battle between evolution and Creationism/ID and the comments of former presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. The following may be more politically charged than appropriate for a blog like this, so consider yourself warned.

It boils down to this: the public is essentially ignorant. What I mean is that most people know a lot about very few topics, and very little about everything else. Most of what they learn about everything else comes from the media. I won’t even go into the problems with our education system or the fact that most Americans have a very strange idea of what science is. The problem is that it doesn’t take much for a study to be misinterpreted, or science to be misrepresented. Mainstream media will go for the most sensational spin. Think about all those “health” and “wellness” magazines that immediately latch on to and exaggerate the latest studies on coffee, supplements, and compounds in food, regardless of where they were published.

If Open Science is fully realized, bleeding edge scientific research will be at everyone’s fingertips. Preliminary results, perhaps before appropriate controls are performed, will be available to people who don’t have the training (or desire) to distinguish between rigorously obtained findings and works in progress. Prior to this, the only science accessible to the world outside went through the filter of a peer-review journal (and presumably is already summarized and interpreted in the way that best describes all the data and findings in the entire study). Without a filter, is there more risk for misinterpretation and misrepresentation by those outside the scientific sphere? If so, what precautions can we take to mitigate it?

4 Responses to Ignorance of the masses – should we worry?

  1. Bill Hooker says:

    “We must protect the people from themselves” is right up there with “stupid people breed faster so the species is degenerating” and the many variations on “kids these days”. If there were anything to it, we’d be extinct by now.

    Relax. :-) The Public can already read vast quantities of crap on Pubmed Central. Most of what they find there is wrong, and if they’re not busily killing themselves with that information then having a few lab notebooks to flip through as well isn’t going to cause an upsurge in Darwin Awards.

  2. Cameron Neylon says:

    I’d agree with Bill on this one. Before we worry too much about the risks of people mistakenly using data that we are generally pretty careful about collecting and intepreting then I would get much more exercised about the amount of complete tripe out there.

    An issue that I worry about a bit more is that the availabily of huge amounts of different sources of information increases the human tendency to tap those sources of information that reinforce our existing predjudices. I don’t take time out to read creationist blogs because I know they are wrong. I suspect there are very few creationists avidly following our directed evolution experiments either.

    Black Knight over at Life of a Lab Rat wrote a good article around some of the issues of ‘Science education’ and ‘Science media’ a few months back. I will try to find the link.

  3. Pedro Beltrão says:

    I agree with Bill and Cameron here. The volume is huge as it is and ONS would only add to that. The availability of raw data and early ideas about this data would only be visible if pointed to by someone with a lot of attention grabbing power. In those few cases were this could be damaging it should be the responsibility of the scientific community to counter the miss interpretations. This is not different from what (should) happen already today. I don’t think that having raw data available would risk would really change significantly the relationship between scientists/media/public.

  4. mndoci says:

    I can only add my voice to the ones above. Like in every situation one has to balance risk with reward and as pointed out, the risk here is minimal.

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