when asked about sciences, people turn to stereotypes, movies, and wild guesses

Another study shows that Americans still don't seem to understand how science works.
lab beakers

How reliable do you think the sciences are? How much leeway do you think there is in a conclusion reached by a crime scene investigator compared to a calculation done by an economist? According to a new paper, people believe the two are worlds apart, that economists are pretty much guessing as they go along while forensic teams are doing high precision, easily replicated and thorough work. But in the real world, forensic science is still a new field and many of its incredible accomplishments cited by the general public exist only on TV or in movies.

It’s such a well known effect, it even has a special name, and criminologists are both frustrated and alarmed that procedural dramas are creating wave after wave of jurors who don’t understand that DNA tests are not always conclusive, evidence is often contaminated, and there might be bugs in the software used to process all this crime scene data. Economics and forensics both offer roughly the same level of precision. They provide a direction and basic guidance for those who use their reports, but they’ll only seldom render an absolute, definitive answer to our questions. Politicians or bankers will study economic models to figure out what impact their actions and policies might have, while investigators will use forensic reports to help hint at possible suspects or test how well their hunches hold up.

But hold on, it gets worse when it comes to public perception. Psychology is rated as the most imprecise of the sciences and with the current problems in reproducing psychological studies being widely publicized, as well as cases of outright fraud in the field getting wide coverage, people are now acutely aware of the limits of this discipline. And this rating actually seems more or less fair to be totally blunt. However, the second most imprecise field as seen by the public is evolution, which is followed by economics, then climate and archeology.

Sure, we covered the shortfalls of economics, and there is quite a bit of educated guesswork required in archeology by the very nature of its basic premise, but evolution and climate research are far from imprecise and use a great deal of math and statistics to come up with results. Evolutionary theory can predict where we’ll find fossils and of what, and climate models, regardless of what denialist cranks and shills who see conspiracies just about everywhere they turn will tell you, have actually been great at predicting the planet’s average temperature over the last decade. Yet for the general public, fields that are by their very nature somewhat fuzzy in their output are put in the same mental bucket as those aiming for high degrees of precision.

Well now, let’s not get too upset. Since evolution and climate research get so much negative press from people whose ideological and financial opposition to them knows few, if any, bounds, may this is just the result of the media’s tendency to entertain manufactroversies and unwittingly participate in anti-science disinformation campaigns? Maybe when we leave those fields, there will be a lot less random guessing? Sorry but that’s sadly not the case either, my imaginary optimist reader. Despite being closely related, pharmacology, medical research, and genetic engineering all received very different scores, and we see the same with the very tightly coupled disciplines of mechanical physics, material sciences, and aerospace engineering. And while you’d think that building spacecraft and launching humans into space, or repairing one’s critically injured brain might seem like feats of precision like no other , or at least one would think so, brain surgery and “rocket science” are hinted to be the most difficult things a person could do in popular expressions, they both fall well short of the esteem reserved for the imprecise, still evolving forensic sciences. Thanks weekly crime dramas for 50-somethings, nicely done.

In short, between poor media coverage, fake science, political vendettas for short term gains, and people taking entertainment way too seriously when it comes to learning about what different scientific fields do, asking the public to rate sciences in any way seems to result in guesswork informed by almost anything but the actual science. And this is exactly why ideas like having the public vote on what scientists get funding for their research are terrible.

You are asking those who know little to nothing about the field to make a crucial decision based on the stereotype the news, which often do without an actual science editor nowadays, and entertainment embedded in them about it. It’s understandable that the public would want to know how their money gets spent in a lab, and maybe it would be a good idea for scientists to learn a bit about public relations and how to interview well, and do public online town halls and updates for the curious taxpayers. But having people vote on what research gets how much money is like letting Joe from accounting and Jane from sales decide what scalpels a neurosurgeon would use, for how long she can run a bone saw, and which nerve tissue she’s allowed to touch. And this study makes it obvious that they would be wildly guessing what to do…

# science // public relations / scientific research / study

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