Science in Black and White: When Perception is Not Actual Reality

Icebreakers in the Baltic Sea. New sea routes are opening up in the Arctic due to climate change.

Icebreakers in the Baltic Sea. New sea routes are opening in the Arctic due to climate change.

Only by thinking in shades of gray about science can we grasp what’s really at stake.
This is the first blog of the 3-part series, Science in Black and White.

There is something afoot. A self-destructive mentality that has been fermenting, much like rotting fish, for a long time in our society. It’s a reality I’ve only come to know fully in the past 15 years or so. I think it’s important to keep aware of change around us, and I’ve experience a decent amount, having lived in various international locations. Even so, recent ripples in public perception and attitudes toward science are quite striking.

When was it exactly that we as a society became afraid of new knowledge? What is it about complexity that makes us now turn away and pretend a problem isn’t there, rather than pursue solutions for our own benefit or that of the wider community?

When did people start erecting mental barriers to information backed by data, and deny that teams of researchers and other experts—who have collectively dedicated decades of their lives trying to understand—just might better fathom the science of things than some media commentator or blogger who has spent a comparatively meager amount of time looking up information (and often from biased media sources)? And why? Is it because scientists aren’t cool or snarky with their message? Or is our intellectual capacity running on cruise control with background music to the tune of, ‘don’t think too much, it might hurt your brain’?

Granted, scientists do not have all the answers, but the majority don’t claim to. Instead they rely on scientific methods to keep testing and searching for still more complete and accurate answers. Any science expert that claims to hold the magic crystal ball should, in fact, set off our internal warning bells. Might they just be out to sell you something? I just (don’t) wonder.

If humanity is going to progress by force of will rather than happenstance, a major change has to come in the way we reflect on science issues. The details matter. We need to become comfortable with the shades of gray in the answers that science provides, and with what we do not yet fully understand. The answers that science gives us are not gift wrapped as absolute, irrefutable truths. Instead, they encourage broader understanding.

Regarding human behavior, I recently watched a great book trailer from Per Espen Stoknes’ new book about psychological barriers that people must overcome in order to process and accept new scientific information, especially if it threatens to override their long-held ideas. To distill how the world works through our own filter of context and personal story takes time, so for some it feels better (read: safer) to clutch onto previous information, however invalid today.

Up next I discuss how some politicians weigh in on science topics.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of her clients, partners, collaborators or any third parties.