Science thrives off of dissent. Every time that we discover an error in an idea or theory, we are able to refine our understandings and (hopefully) use this inaccuracy to form a more comprehensive view of our universe. Science is, quite literally, a constant questioning of accepted knowledge and evidence. However, some people seem to think that every idea is equal—they seem to believe that “being impartial” means allowing every individual with an opinion state their beliefs as valid scientific theories. And this is not how science works.
In order for something to be scientific, it has to be more than a belief. It has to follow a specific set of rules. Generally speaking, the idea has to be based on observation (or other forms of acceptable evidence), and the idea must be able to withstand scientific scrutiny (there can’t be any known flaws or contradictions in the data). Anyone who is familiar with science reporting will likely know that far-fetched, unscientific ideas are often placed on level ground with well-establish scientific theories. How many times have we seen “science” programs about the pyramids, and the “experts” interviewed suggest that they were made by aliens (the same with crop circles, or the face on Mars, or any number of things)? As fun as these ideas are, they are not scientifically viable. Science is more than a belief or an untestable hypotheses that is not supported by evidence, sound theoretical physics, etc.
And true scientific literacy is not simply watching news broadcasts and adhering to whatever idea is most inline with your current mode of thought. Scientific literacy is:
The knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making…Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.
Fortunately, last week, the British Broadcasting Corp. disclosed an ongoing effort to try and increase scientific literacy by ensuring accuracy in its science reporting and avoiding giving “undue attention to marginal opinion.” Giving undue weight to unscientific ideas is an issue with the BBC (and a number of other media outlets), as attempts to provide “balance” in coverage sometimes end up with unwarranted validity being given to things that are not based on sound science (some examples given include climate-change deniers, anti-vaccination individuals, anti-GMOs, and young Earth creationists).
Outlets typically defend giving voice to outliers, saying that they want people to be able to make their own decisions. However, the purpose of science reporting should be to spread accurate scientific information, not mislead people into thinking that unsubstantiated personal beliefs are based on actual science. As the report asserts:
A frequent comment received during this review is that elements of the BBC – particularly in the area of news and current affairs – does not fully understand the nature of scientific discourse and, as a result, is often guilty of “false impartiality”; of presenting the views of tiny and unqualified minorities as if they have the same weight as the scientific consensus. That approach has for some (but not all) topics become widespread. Conflictual reporting of this kind has the ability to distort public perception. It arises in part because news and current affairs presenters, who have to think on their feet in a live interview, may have little insight into the topic being discussed and hence find it more difficult to establish balance than when dealing with politics, the media or finance.
This is a notable move for a number of reasons. Of course, a scientific consensus does not necessarily mean that the theory in question is an untouchable pillar. However, when nearly all scientists accept the validity of an idea or theory (as they do with evolution, anthropogenic climate change, and the inaccuracy of the vaccine-autism link) and popular media asserts something else, we have a serious, serious problem. Hopefully, this move by the BBC will help bring scientists and media outlets closer together.
It should be noted that there are a number of other issues that plague science: Scientists who are arrogant and unsympathetic to certain cultures, media outlets that care more about ratings than actual science, etc. But this seems to be a step in the right direction.
What do you think the biggest roadblocks are when it comes to scientific literacy, and what can we do to fix these issues?