What do the following things have in common?: Renewable energy subsidies have been cut. Badger cull trials are being carried out across the country. Shale gas extraction (fracking) has been given the go-ahead. The answer is that these are all recent examples of decisions our government has made that go against what science has to tell us. Yes, I'm over-simplifying complex issues to make a point, but the crux of what I am saying is true: that important science-based evidence is available regarding all of these issues, but it's clearly not leading the way in terms of policy-making or where we invest money in society. So what is?
Let's simplify that question. Where have we gone wrong with this - what's missing between what scientists discover and the wisdom their research has to offer us, and what we do as individuals and as a country - or as a planet?
The answer is: too many people, including politicians and policy-makers, simply don't understand the basics of how science works. They see disagreements between experts but not the bigger picture of the consensus they do hold. Too many of us lack the ability to think critically about research, and the skill - and will - to explain it to others. Scientists themselves tend to remain impartial, which is a good thing in their field of course, but it means that their wisdom doesn't reach the rest of us, and when it does it's either misinterpreted through newspaper journalism or alienating because they've used terminology that goes over non-scientist ears.
There is also the problem of a lack of appreciation of the work that scientists do and the way it shapes the world. People see 'those scientists' as a single breed of humanity intent on controlling the world (I actually received an email claiming precisely this the other day), without understanding the process of how these many varied individuals work on projects individually and together, globally, often building on each other's works. How many times have you heard or read the complaint that 'scientists get things wrong all the time'- an argument used to deny everything from climate change to the need for vaccinations? This simple comment demonstrates a vast divide between what science is and what people believe it to be. In reality scientists work vigorously to prove themselves wrong, as debate is encouraged with all hypotheses and findings, and holes are constantly found and filled in. They deliberately undertake their studies using methods that other scientists are able to replicate so they can build on their research or disprove it, and they know that there's a margin of error with any conclusions they come to, but that simply doesn't end up in the headline - or the content - of your morning paper.
Although there has been a surge of great science writing and communication in recent years, sensationalist newspaper headlines continue to over-simply research findings or provide complete misinterpretations. There is a severe lack of real science communication in the mainstream media. Who wants to read about the complexities of palm oil production over their morning cup of coffee, or the actual details of the study into Alzheimer's? Well, I do, but who else does? Looking at the popularity of specialist science blogs like Ed Yong's, there may be more of us out there than the news world recognises. We are the science enthusiasts: too excitable to pin down to a lab but keen to watch and learn and then tell the world about the beauty of what goes on there. Those of us who read and understand the research know to draw only tentative conclusions from it, and can look at it with a view to the bigger picture, i.e. in the context of the other research that is available on the topic to strengthen or discredit it. We see the potential flaws, the relevance of a small or large sample size (10 participants vs 10,000 makes a big difference), indicators like whether the research was a survey on a blog (yes, this is often called research and sometimes used to make atrocious claims) or a nationwide study covering people from different backgrounds, and so on.
Science does not claim to have all the answers. Nor is it just about stars and labs and planets and things that seem far away from us or far removed from our daily lives: it's also about animal behaviours and how our brain works and how we are connected to the planet and whether or not our species will survive climate change. Unfortunately few of us learn to appreciate science this way, and we aren't generally taught to consider the complexities of issues either, or what we might call 'critical thinking' (and that's a complex issue to do with our education system and what it could be doing better). Therefore, any topic can be argued with any angle by a convincing writer, whether it's about GM foods or biofuel production, and it can sway or mislead even the most proficient reader. That's where we need the answers science can give us to separate the wheat from the chaff.
So, making policies relating to people and planet require evidence-based approaches. Being green or sustainable involves making analyses of complex issues, with science at the helm. At present we are stuck in a rut where we like to have simple answers for complex issues: this is sustainable, this is not. When I'm asked questions on ways to reduce carbon footprints for press interviews or for commissioned blog posts that require simplified answers, I try to avoid advocating a simple approach. Hence this requested article on green living became a conceptual look at the term 'green', and when the Western Morning News asked me why I wrote my book and I explained the problem of people believing pseudoscience over science, the paper reported that I warn people against 'internet scare-mongers' but didn't mention science.
I'm no 'parenting guru' (something a national paper labelled me) because that implies that I'm another self-made 'expert'. I'm not: I'm merely a filter for the information that passes through me, a mere collector of some of the patterns and behaviours that shape the universe. Science gives us the prompts, but it's up to us to make sense of the discussions and to apply the findings to our lives. Carl Sagan said that the pull of pseudoscience for many people is that it reveres magic, but we ought to be treating science this way too - I mean, who can tell the future better than a weather researcher? Certainly not any psychic I've come across.
My hypothesis? Let's start at the beginning: if we can raise our children to be mentally and emotionally healthy human beings, who are encouraged to think for themselves and permitted to continue as the naturally inquisitive scientists they are, then they will be prepared to tackle the complex issues that our world faces. I say 'raise' them and not 'educate' them because there are myriad problems with the way we teach our children in schools - yet another area where we are not listening to experts. Let's also use evidence to sort through the facts and the nonsense when it comes to pressing concerns about the environment. For example, what's the best diet for the climate? Insects, or not insects? Compared to what? Meat? Dairy? Fish? A vegan diet? What about soy? And weaning, and the way a baby is weaned onto any diet, and when? Google any of these questions and you'll find anecdotal advice and pseudoscience galore. So what does science tell us? You'll have to read my book! One thing I will tell you though, is that I think anyone can learn to read, digest and communicate science effectively. It's a fascinating world: science shows us that time and time again. Let's see if we can save it - using the evidence we have to hand.