One of my most favorite topics of science that integrate society is how public policy is shaped by public opinion of science and education. The reason being is that there are so many ways that a citizen’s opinion of science in their lives can be influenced by the world around them — the public radio, national television, and national politicians constantly broadcast their views on science and education of science to millions of Americans each day, which slowly changes the dynamic understanding of whatever topics are being talked about at the moment.
I like to think of the change in public opinion of science as societal evolution: an influencer’s broadcast implants an ‘allele’ of an idea — it can be an opinion on abortion or a fact about global warming from an anchor on a national news outlet; a bill that a politician is fronting such as Obamacare / ACA, or a full page ad in The New York times from a pharmaceutical company. The idea broadcasts to the rest of society and thus gets its ‘allele’ of an idea is implanted to the reader’s mind. But, it must be believed first, which is the incredibly tricky part. How does one decide to believe a scientific fact or opinion, when they were very likely told a converse opinion or somewhat-contradictory-sounding opinion moments before? Who should they listen to?
To be honest, I really don’t know. That is why the topic is so interesting. How do citizens become so steadfast and interested in public scientific opinions, inspired by politicians, pharmaceutical ads, and talk show hosts, and subsequently develop a discourse amongst other citizens? Or perhaps, how do citizens of a society develop a discourse amongst their family, friends, and peers? When is there an alarming lack of discourse on a topic of science, thus allowing the perpetuance of somewhat questionable views on science, and how does that arise?
When an idea is implanted, it must be evaluated by the brain in order to find it true. How fascinating — the interesting part is that a fact can be true, but still be rejected by the brain, or more, the fact can be believed but its implication or conclusion can be rejected. Take an opinion on global warming for example: say I believed that global warming was fake and a manifestation of China’s conspiracy to weaken the American energy economy via restrictive policy influenced by public opinion (i.e., global warming is real). What facts would I cherry pick in order to believe in such an opinion, but more importantly, how did I go about believing them? One’s consideration of a fact to be true is influenced by not only by their previous scientific knowledge, but also by other members of society, their family, and furthermore, how the conclusion will affect their future standing within society, their family, and how their scientific beliefs align with those significant members of society which influenced them in the first place.
That’s the really interesting part. There is a huge social element to public opinion of science. One might expect a public’s opinion on an agreed upon scientific conclusion to reflect the scientific conclusion which was reached among academics, but that doesn’t happen. There must be not only a scientific reason for one to believe in an opinion of a scientific topic, but also a societal reason. Take Northside, for example. Leaving out any causations of academic success and position along the political spectrum, Northside is a largely liberal school, yet its acceptance of students is politically blind. The influence upon students to maintain such a consistent ratio of political affiliation, at least in my four years, is fascinating, and probably requires many papers on its own to even come close to fully understanding. For now, I hope the reader recognizes that there is a significnat social influence on a Northsider’s understanding of scientific topics and public policy.
Consequently, in a world where information is so abundant, one can easibly be influenced by public figures that have no scientific credentials, and thus steadfastly believe in scientifically false opinions of public policy. Ahem, the Golden Age of Information. It is understood that one’s opinion of facts and scientific topics has a large social element within an individidual, and that the evaluation process for any new fact also considers one’s social impact on a topic. Here’s a hypothetical: Say I steadfastly read The New York Times, who recently underwent a regime change amongst its head executives. Congratulations, its now owned by Viacom, an american media conglomerate, who is paying rather close attention to the ever increasing proportion of scientific skeptics in the United States. Subsequently, Viacom decides to increase the proportion of writers who align with scientific skeptics, in order to generate news and editorials that align with the ever increasing collective pockets of its target audience. The change in ideologies of the writers alters the information presented towards the audience.
Hypothetically, how would I go about believing a new article published to the Times? There is a certain social inertia that will influence how one makes their public and scientific decisions in the future, even if one was taught academically in the months or years prior. This inertia can be seen amongst family members, who influence eachother based on their own small group psychology and collective beliefs of public policy and science, as well as a larger, academic inertia: one’s high school. Should my friends have aligned chiefly with Confederate sympathizers and alt-right politicals, my alignment would slowly be pushed in their political direction, as long as I continue to align with them in other facets. This is a reality for many students and regular citizens alike, and most alarmingly in an extreme case where “Self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer led a large group of demonstrators carrying torches and chanting “You will not replace us” Saturday in Charlottesville, protesting plans to remove a Confederate monument that has played an outsize role in this year’s race for Virginia governor,” via the Washington Post.The influence of society on an individual’s opinion of scientific fact is a concerning and ever increasingly significant topic during the late golden age of information. I hope that I continue to stay sensitive to the ever evolving landscape of political and scientific opinion, and hope that I don’t get caught up in the wrong mix in my future years of living, while I’m at it.
Update: Removed a portion of the post that mentions an actual writer hired to the Times in April, whose first editorial suggested the legitimacy of climate skepticism and related research field. However, the Viacom hypothetical doesn’t exactly justify his hiring. Just food for thought.