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Chief Penguin
Musings from the Academy’s Global Ambassador

July 10, 2012

A Study of Public Trust in Science


Earth Day conversation in the piazza

The Academy is based on science. The extent to which the general public trusts science (a word with many meanings) is important to us.

To that point, Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is the author of the paper “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010,” which appeared in the American Sociological Review a few months ago. It stirred up quite a bit of controversy and received a great deal of press. Just Google “Gordon Gauchat” and you can occupy your time for as long as you have the patience.

Scientific study and the conclusions that come from it don’t make for a cozy universe with comforting meaning for all. Where some celebrate the wonder and awe that come from doing science, others may feel a chill and loneliness and instinctively move toward the warm glow of other hearths.

A lot of the challenge in talking about science has to do with the issue of what constitutes “common sense.” Public figures frequently call on us to celebrate the appeal of “common sense,” as if they are reminding their listeners of the obvious value of what their mothers tried to teach them in the kitchen. Appeals to mother are powerful. Father, too, but for many mother has the edge, at least in my experience.

If we take the meaning of “common sense” to be what we experience in our daily lives, then much of what science talks about might as well be on a distant planet. Just think about atoms, molecules, and DNA strands—not to mention muons, neutrinos, and quarks. When is the last time you saw an atom? How about a quark? They may be common, but they sure don’t make sense to everyone. The job is not simple at all when it’s your business to deliberately challenge, in the pursuit of “truth,” what makes common sense to most people and provides them comfort and predictability in their lives. After all, looking out my window, the earth looks pretty flat to me. It’s just common sense.

If we here at the Academy are bound together in the belief that science matters—and that its conclusions matter—then statistics of the sort reported by Gauchat are important. They are helpful in thinking about what we do and how we can do it more effectively.

You might want to read Gauchat’s paper. Here is a link to it. Go ahead and plunge in. I did. http://www.asanet.org/images/journals/docs/pdf/asr/Apr12ASRFeature.pdf

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 6:02 pm

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