Professor Mark Pepys says “grossly inadequate” education has left most people “tone deaf” to science.
I fear he’s right. But the problem isn’t confined to schools. There’s a vast number of biases that stop people thinking scientifically.
First, a matter of definition. Science is not merely, or even mainly, a body of facts. If it were, the problem of scientific ignorance would be easily solved.
Instead, the importance of science lies in its method - the way in which theories (stress the plural) are challenged against as much evidence as possible.
In this sense, even scientists often fail to be scientific, as Richard Dawkins and James Watson have recently shown. And many doctors have a notoriously vague grasp of probability.
I reckon there are at least four biases against the scientific method:
1. The power of authority. From infanthood onwards, we’re brought up to believe authority. It’s often sensible to do so. Parents and teachers know more than us. And it’s just impractical to work everything out for ourselves. But the scientific method requires that we believe not people but the evidence - and, indeed, are sceptical even of that.
In this sense, Lord Rees - president of the Royal Society - was encouraging anti-science when he spoke recently of the “scientific consensus.” You don’t reach the truth through opinion polls.
2. The power of anecdote. People believe single, salient stories more than thousands of statistical data points. Take the question: does the MMR vaccine cause autism? The proper way to answer this is to fill in the four boxes (jab/no jab, autism/no autism) to establish correlations, and to ask: what are the possible mechanisms linking the vaccine to autism?
Instead, people preferred the vivid story: “the son of a friend of a friend had the jab, and a few weeks later seemed to have autism.“ Few asked the scientific questions: how representative is this story? What’s the mechanism?
The media perpetuate this bias. Journalists much prefer the human interest story to dry statistical inference. But you don’t necessarily get to the truth through entertainment.
3. The cult of self-expression. Everyone thinks they “have a right to an opinion”, a views fostered by vox pops and phone-in programmes. But opinion doesn’t matter. What matters is evidence and thought. Proper science is democratic in the sense that it considers all evidence, from whomsoever it comes. But it’s not democratic in the sense that it gives weight to the idle opinion of every passer-by.
4. Overconfidence. It’s very easy for our confidence in our opinion to grow faster than the evidence. This is especially likely if our achievements in one field win us prizes and esteem. This, I suspect, is part of the reason for James Watson’s unfortunate utterances.
The message here is that it’s not just schools to blame for scientific illiteracy. Indeed, the scientific method is profoundly unnatural - that’s why it took mankind millennia to stumble upon it.