We depend on scientific advances in our daily lives — in health care, communication, transportation — and yet support for science is capricious. Canadians choose the scientific findings that agree with their beliefs rather than choosing beliefs that correspond with scientific findings.
Many Canadians correctly agree with science that demonstrates global warming is real while erroneously believing that vaccinations cause autism and cell phones lead to cancer, despite scientific evidence that shows the latter to be false.
A recent poll conducted by Nanos Research revealed some of these mixed feelings. When it came to new energy technologies and medicines, a sizable majority of those surveyed said they trusted or somewhat trusted scientists. Respondents were somewhat less certain about climate change and much less so about research into genetically modified crops.
Climate change is an inconvenient truth for some conservatives who think it’s a liberal plot. Genetic modification is an inconvenient truth to non-conservatives who can only think of the corporate greed of Monsanto and not the genetic modifications that have been developed by responsible farmers and scientists for generations.
Science is not a belief. It is a method of discovery.
The scientific method is relatively modern. Only few centuries ago, when science was in its infancy, prayer and mediation were the path to knowledge. And before that, the Greeks used a kind of armchair approach to deduce truths.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines scientific method as “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”
Ascendancy of the scientific method coincided with the rise of democracy. It became a great leveller; a method by which anyone could test a hypothesis. The first scientists were ordinary citizens with a thirst for knowledge.
Charles Darwin, a self-taught naturalist, applied the scientific method to his observations in nature to discover principles that were profound. Isaac Newton, son of an illiterate farmer, discovered the laws of motion.
If the scientific method is so great, why is there any doubt about the findings of scientists? For one, scientists now are seldom amateurs and dedication to the scientific method can wither when jobs are on the line.
In reaction to the ascendancy of science faculties in the 1960s, humanities professors developed post-modernism. They argued that truth is relative. This argument resonated with many feminists and civil-rights activists who saw science as a tool of oppression by Western white men.
The legacy of relativism remains in journalism. While its critical to present both sides of an argument, it doesn’t make sense to present both sides of facts. If someone says that Kamloops is a city in Canada, there is no need to provide balance to the story by finding someone who will claim that Kamloops is in Romania.
Too often, opinions become confused with scientific facts. But corporate and political machinations aside, knowledge acquired by the scientific method is not a matter of opinion.
David Charbonneau is the owner of Thompson Studio.