Cynical about science

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Some of us do not believe in science in general. I’m not sure why. I know that all of us have had to rely on aspirin at one time or another; and that among thousands of other life-prolonging aids and relief from chronic pain, none of these scientific breakthroughs benefitting our lives appeared out of thin air.

It is an age of anti-science, however. I don’t think it’s the scientists’ fault that so many of us don’t believe them, nor do I think it’s our fault. It’s difficult to figure out who or what’s responsible, but there is a word to define an overall behavior of people at any one period in history – zeitgeist (zite-guyst). It means the spirit of the times, the general cultural, moral and intellectual climate of an era. Like right now, we’re in a period when many people do not believe in climate change or vaccinations or the American Medical Association. In this age of many hostile attitudes, cynicism regarding science is high on the list defining this zeitgeist.

When trying to discover how or where a zeitgeist surfaces, I find no answers. In our case, we might be tired of what we perceive of the changing scientific conclusions — coffee is bad for us this week and next week two cups are okay; and I just learned we are encouraged to increase our consumption of butter and other dairy products for our health. Is the Food and Drug Administration to blame as it okays drugs that eventually prove to cause cancer? Is it the science-based doctors that we think send us to too many tests and give us too many pills?

My answer to this is that the scientific process is just that – a process. What scientists have tested thoroughly that works today may in 20 years be improved upon with new information.
This doesn’t mean that we cannot believe scientists just because new studies change their minds. At their high level of research, they maintain strict standards and endless curiosity.

I believe a group of scientists working on a solution and coming up with something workable that they write about in The New England Journal of Medicine or Psychology Today more than I would credit a Facebook friend who tells me she’s heard that vaccines cause irreparable damage and we’d better not subject our babies to them.

Cite me your sources, I say. And the sources of funding for your argument. If General Mills pays for the research, guess what will be reported about cereals?

And then there is a phenomenon called “health literacy” that could well be contributing to the current zeitgeist. Health literacy means the ability to read, understand and act on science-based healthcare information given to us by our doctors.

Much of the information doctors hand out is written at a sixth-grade level for the U.S. average age of reading competency. Half of us do not understand it even then, and we forget 40 to 80 percent by the time we get home.

It’s human behavior that when we don’t understand something, we want to blame somebody else, often those we think are in charge. We behave cynically to cover up our shame at not being able to understand.

Thank goodness that zeitgeist also can manifest in positive ways. It can come about as did the zeitgeist of impressionist art at the turn of the last century; or the theory of evolution that was seeping out of several scientists’ minds around the time of Darwin; or the zeitgeist of rational thinking in the 17th and 18th centuries that we now call the Enlightenment.

We don’t have to live in an ugly, judgmental or cynical epoch forever. But we do have to live through it once we’re in it.

Caught in this current zeitgeist as we are, there remains a glimmer of hope: nothing lasts forever.

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