A Rebellion Against Science...

05 May 2004
Posted by Martin Westwell.

My mother-in-law loathes science and loves science. She loathes science because it is used to bulldoze her opinion-making when she is given no choice but to accept an idea because science says it is so. When science forces her to accept something that is unpalatable (evolution for a Catholic woman) or contentious (MMR vaccine) this can lead to a rebellion in which she completely throws out her trust and belief in science and goes her own way. Rebellions come about when beliefs or rules are imposed by one group of people upon another. Those on which the imposition is made are pushed so far until they can no longer bear it and then they rebel. For many years, the scientific establishment has imposed upon society "truths" that have to be accepted and technologies that have to be adopted. For my mother-in-law the alternatives are scant and she is left with a take-it or leave-it decision. Sometimes, she leaves it. If she were some years younger and had toddlers to vaccinate against measles, mumps and rubella I wonder which rout she would take.

The way to prevent a rebellion against science is to get people to buy in to the scientific process and explain why science has come to a particular conclusion including the pros and cons of the resulting position. This gives people more options than take-it or leave-it and so they can disagree with a conclusion based on an informed opinion rather than an article of faith. Without this involvement through communication, people naturally fall back on their gut feeling which is often at odds with science. I said that my mother-in-law loves science and she truly does. Conversations over dinner with her scientist son-in-law consist substantially of questions she has about topical science. She has no formal scientific education but devours science when she can get access to it. She is ready to buy into science.

So why doesn't she buy into science? Why does she worry so much about her grandchildren having the MMR vaccine when their parents do not? Like thousands, if not millions, of other people, she is ready to but no one has asked her. Most people will need to be actively asked to buy into science and communication is the key. Unfortunately, as we all know, mass communication through the media is about attractive stories. Smashing down science and scientists or publicizing a sensational view hat flies in the face of overwhelming evidence makes a good story no matter how much harm it does (or how many children it may kill as in the case of MMR)

Science week and so many other initiatives throughout the year give the chance for scientists to connect with people like my mother-in-law, her children, and grandchildren. All of us scientists, and non-scientists need to take the initiative and prevent my mother-in-law's rebellion!

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