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The prevalent distrust of science

An account of the now common distrust of science, an explanation of its origins and a suggestion of what may,and indeed, should be done about it.

John Maddox

Distrust of science is still alarmingly prevalent, which conflicts with reasonable expectation. Is not the century now drawing to a close most of all remarkable for the technology that now fills our world and for the understanding of that world that has been won since, say, the discovery of the electron in 1897?

During that long period, the improvements in the human condition have been immense. People will make their own list of the innovations that stand out in their minds - aircraft, radio communications,computers, drugs and antibiotics, now computers. In general, science and technology have helped to make us healthy,wealthy and wise in a manner and to a degree not foreseen except by a few visionaries such as H.G. Wells.

The assertion about health is evident in the now standard expectation of life in the rich countries of the world : three score years and ten has become the benchmark of performance. Another sign of the improvement is the large proportion of the national wealth spent on health care in the rich countries - 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) is the standard figure. Another sadder indicator is the continuing disparity between the rich countries of the world and the poor ones,which spend much less and where people live less long.

The wealth that we enjoy is equally apparent. The standard measure is the number of US dollars of GDP per head of population. But we often forget that these numbers have a qualitative dimension.We eat well, almost all of us are comfortably housed, we travel the world, use the telephone frequently and look forward to increasing use of a whole new range of communications services. The benefits that flow from these developments are not just material; they are the source of the civility to which advanced societies aspire. They are also the source of the common conviction that we belong intimately to an increasingly interconnected world.

We are also wiser. Nobody disputes that we are smarter than were our forebears at the turn of the century. For example, despite the poor reputation of the economists, we now understand how industrial economies function. We are also smart enough to anticipate problems that lie ahead, global warming for example.

( *Based on the text of the Voltaire lecture to the British Humanist Association 18 November 1995)

But are we wiser in a deeper sense? The understanding of the world won in the past century has given us a much better opportunity than before to understand our place in nature, and to understand ourselves.

Take, for example, the question of where the ingredients of our world came from. It's now just 40 years since Hoyle,Fowler and the two Burbidges showed that the elements of which the world (and we) are made are synthesized in stars essentially like the Sun. We understand why some elements, aluminium for example, are abundant and others such as uranium are not. That's no longer magic, but nuclear physics.

Similarly with the phenomenon of life.Watson and Crick's structure of DNA,published in 1953, is not just self-evidently a recipe for genetic inheritance (because of its double-stranded nature) but is also the means by which the chemical processes in every cell in every living thing function as they do. So the old question of whether there is something distinctive about living matter has become unfashionable. Life is chemistry. And vitalism is dead.

That's wisdom in a true sense, and it's invaluable. The better we understand the world and ourselves, the better we are able to look out for our survival. What is now being learned of human genetics (a product of what is known of DNA) will be dramatically reflected in the health of our populations in the decades ahead. But we have also been helped to understand that there is nothing magical about the ingredients of our world or about life.

It must have been the same when neolithic people first built those stone circles - Stonehenge is the best example in Britain, perhaps anywhere - whose purpose was evidently to construct a kind of calendar of the seasons. For one thing, they knew when to plant their crops, so that their survival was better assured. But they would also have learned something about the regularity of the Sun's movement across the sky, year on year, that would have dispelled at least some of the superstition surrounding that important question.

So why, given all these benefits of health, wealth and wisdom, to which science has made such important contributions, does there persist the deep distrust of science we see around us?


The standard answer is that science and scientists have in the past made exaggerated claims of what innovation will do for the world at large, so that scientists are no longer trusted. There is something in that charge, but what are called the "false promise" do not account for the continuing distrust of science.

Nuclear power is an illustration. There was great excitement about the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in the late 1950s and early 1960s, shared by both the technical community and others. We were told that energy shortages would be abolished for good. Astonishingly, in the autumn of 1955, the British government adopted a plan to build no fewer than four different types of nuclear reactors in the succeeding decade, culminating in the fast reactor that would generate, or "breed" , more nuclear fuel than it consumed. Then, when the dream of nuclear fusion came along, people worried aloud whether the cost of electricity would be determined by nothing more substantial than the cost of installing electricity meters to tell how much power individuals had consumed.

In that heady period, the promise of nuclear power was not exaggerated, but the technical difficulties of making use of it were made light of. The difficulties -safety, waste disposal, the exposure of people to radiation during the reprocessing operation - were all clearly identified. But when so many apparently insuperable problems in the building of reactors had been successfully solved,hardly anybody stopped to think that the technical difficulties of the fuel cycle, or the cost of solving them, would be a brake on the exploitation of nuclear energy.

Then, nearly ten years ago, there was the accident at Chernobyl.

I belong to that now-small group of people who believe that nuclear power stations can be built and operated safely , that the disposal of radioactive waste is a soluble (indeed, a solved) problem, and that it would be prudent to plan for the building of nuclear power plants in large numbers if, in the years ahead, we discover that global warming is a serious threat.

But that is some decades ahead.

What went wrong with nuclear power was not the promise but the business plan. Especially in Britain since the Second World War, we've had ample proof that turning a bright idea into a practical application is usually more difficult than is believed at first. Take the Comet aircraft, caught out by metal-fatigue, and the military aircraft called the TSR2, which was designed to follow ground-contours when travelling at very high speed, but which never succeeded in doing so. But not every project has been a disappointment. The jet engine in the end made new kinds of air travel possible, from the microchip has sprung the computers and the telecommunications services now changing our lives, and there has been a torrent of useful pharmaceuticals in the past few decades. For most people, the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

Technical people nevertheless have three lessons to learn from the recent history of innovation. First, they must be ready to moderate their enthusiasm for new ideas with an awareness of the difficulties of turning them into reality. Second, the difficulties may not be technical at all, but social; the brightest ideas (thermonuclear fusion, perhaps) may prove to be uneconomic, others may be practicable but unacceptable for other reasons. Finally , the enthusiasm of researchers for their discoveries can easily appear as a kind of triumphalism. The nuclear power saga of the 1950s may be one illustration, molecular genetics is at risk of becoming another.

But none of that is a sufficient explanation of the distrust of science among people whose backgrounds and education would suggest that they should know better. In the grown-up world, after all,people know that well-intentioned projects repeatedly come to nothing in all kinds of circumstances. Look at the attention lavished on the plight of the developing world, and the present condition of much of Africa. There's also the British government's failure to solve its problems in Northern Ireland. It's not just in science that high promise is denied by cruel circumstance.


The general distrust of science has other and more primitive roots. To the extent that science and its applications bring improvements in our lot, they also imply change, and change is never welcomed for its own sake. Then this knowledge whose benefits I've been extolling is often unwelcome; it shifts responsibility from nature onto people's own shoulders and is often an uncomfortable challenge to deeply held beliefs. A further complication is that science as often presents people not with the dogmatic opinions for which it is often blamed but with uncertainties.

Uncertainty has become a great bug- bear; it turns up all the time. There's the global warming issue, for example. It is a fair statement that there's an x per cent chance that the temperature on the surface of the Earth will increase by 1 degree centigrade in about 50 years. In my opinion, x is about 80 per cent. Quite properly,there's still a vigorous debate about the accuracy of the prediction; there are even some researchers who believe that mechanisms that offset the simple greenhouse effect will eventually prove the prediction wrong. But that does not diminish the force of the conclusion that there's a high risk of a serious crisis in the next half-century.

That is why governments were persuaded to sign the Rio Treaty in 1990. There are many valid criticisms of the manner in which that was done, and of the adequacy of the steps since taken, but there can be no dissent from the view that these arrangements are a step in the right direction. But that is not the impression one gets by talking to civil servants or business-people, many of whom are engaged in planning projects likely to come to fruition only over several decades. They prefer to deny what probably lies in store,at least "for the time being", saying that they would prefer to wait for a scientific consensus. By then it may be too late.


The character of the intelligent person's distrust of science is typified for me by something that happened soon after I first became editor of Nature in 1966. At dinner one night, I met a woman who was one of Britain's most distinguished architects (sadly, she's now dead) who, hearing of my new job, said laconically, "I suppose that you must be one of those frightful darwinists, then!" What she meant, it turned out, was that the theory of evolution had no place in her work and that the programme to understand how people and other species had evolved from earlier life-forms could only undermine people's sense of their own dignity and self-respect, and sap their will to aspire to better things. I never found out whether my acquaintance was a religious person.

Nearly 30 years later, I would have made a more robust defence of the "frightful darwinists". I would have argued that the comparison of the genome of human beings with those of the Great Apes and other primates may soon make it possible for us to understand the evolutionary history of the human race. Which came first, bipedalism or language? Exactly what were the adaptations that brought about the transition from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens? And when that history has been reconstructed,we shall, I suspect, be even more conscious than we are now of the natural accidents that shaped our evolutionary history, of our continuing fragility as a species and of the need that we should act responsibly in what Adlai Stevenson once called "the care and maintenance of a small planet".

That is anti-science by denial- or cultivated ignorance. As anti-science goes, it may even seem a benign manifestation of the phenomenon. The trouble is that there is a lot of it about. And while people may properly choose not to encumber their heads with information and insight that they consider to be irrelevant to their lives, the process of deciding what is relevant is evidently an opportunity for bias.People can and do elect to hide from the unpalatable, the uncomfortable and the subversive. In the process, they cheerfully misrepresent what science or scientists are saying. The distrust of science is really intentional obfuscation of what science is about.

The threat of global warming is an unpalatable piece of science from which people readily seek escape. So too is the need for sympathetic and constructive action to contain the growth of the world's population; the carrying capacity of the Earth is probably much greater than the present population, but the economic and social costs of letting it grow without restraint are much greater than we or our descendants can afford to pay.Neither of these forms of denial is all that benign.

Those are examples of passive denial,when people prefer to sit on their hands than to respond. There is also active denial. That is where the creationists, latterly calling themselves "creation scientists", come from. They have two lines of argument: there are gaps in the fossil record (which everybody knows and most people expect), meaning that evolution is not proven; and they have come across phenomena, ancient zircons perhaps, in which the distribution of isotopes is more consistent with a recent than a distant age. (There is also the claim that the Universe was created 6,000 years ago in such a way that we have the illusion that it is really very old, but even the creationists seem unconvinced by that.)

In the second line of argument, their denial consists in denying the validity of all the evidence supporting an age of the Universe of about 10 billion years. The grounds are that their few alleged exceptions must be accorded at least equal validity. The opponents who take them seriously engage in endless arguments on the theme that the observations the creationists plead in their aid may be exceptional because the phenomena or objects observed may have had an exceptional history.

It is true, of course, that there are some fields of science in which a single discordant datum can bring a whole theory crashing down. If somebody could find a single exception to the assertion of Fermat's last theorem, for example, the business of trying to prove the theorem, which has occupied mathematicians for two centuries, would grind to a halt. But the observational sciences are not like that.

Discordant evidence is usually found to have an explanation.In that sense, scientific creationism is not only a denial of the evidence but a misrepresentation of the scientific process. There are, of course, frequently occasions when people disagree about the explanation of the same set of data. Then,the argument turns on the endeavours of people honestly trying to make sense of it.In Britain, creationism is no longer a big issue. Even in the United States, it seems to be making little headway except in the southern states. But it remains a disturbing precedent.

Here is an illustration. A few weeks ago,at a meeting of Unesco's Commission on Ethics in Biomedicine, there was a panel of parliamentarians gathered to discuss the legislative position on genetics and genetic manipulation in their countries. A woman member of the German Bundestag, and a representative of the Green Party, spoke clearly and intelligently and said this: "You must understand that we Greens believe that to represent the nature of human beings by a description of their genes undermines their dignity as human beings. We shall oppose in the Bundestag any legislation that condones research in human genetics."

This implacable position is arresting. It also succeeds in misrepresenting the position of the research community. Broadly speaking, geneticists themselves are deeply suspicious of genetic determinism assertion that a person is determined almost exclusively by the genes there happen to be in his or her genome.

To their credit, geneticists have also been among the first to draw attention to the respects in which the rapid development of their field is likely to create social problems,chiefly by the use of genetic diagnosis for discrimination between,individuals, mainly in employment and insurance. But evidently the geneticists will win no credit from the German Greens for their perceptiveness. The danger for the wider community, is that sensible legislation will be held up and those who might benefit from it have to wait a little longer.

There are more subtle ways of misrepresenting science. We have all heard people in general proclaim that, while they "do not understand" quantum mechanics,they do know that quantum mechanics shows that mechanical processes are not as well defined as Newton would have had us believe. Heisenberg has a lot to answer for.The same goes for the concept of chaos,often taken as a licence for the belief that nothing is certain any longer. But both sets of phenomena are deterministic in the philosophical sense. The state of a quantum or a chaotic system at a particular time depends only on its state at an earlier instant and the laws of physics.

That the outcome of such an evolution may not be a single state but, rather, may be one of several does not mean that the Universe is unpredictable, but simply that, within restrictions such as that the total amount of energy is conserved, some of its elements behave like that.

The reason why this line of speculation is now so fashionable is not far to seek. Since the time of Descartes, the world at large has been uneasy with the notion of the Universe as a machine whose fate may eventually be determined by calculation.

People do not like the thought that there may be elements of our fate over which we have literally no control. Yet there is nothing in quantum mechanics or chaos theory that puts God back into mechanics. The laws of mechanics, which have been amended once since Newton's time,may have to be amended yet again if people manage to make a bridge between gravitation and quantum mechanics, but there is nothing to suggest they are other than deterministic, one state of affairs following from its precursors.


So what is to be done about the prevalence of distrust in science? Although the 'false promises' charge may not be the wellspring of distrust, giving hostages to fortune by over-optimism must be avoided at all costs. Perhaps science should be more aware that technical developments rarely become fully fledged technology without the intervention of other fields of  learning. The social sciences just now may be under a cloud, but they are potentially a brake on harmful triumphalism.

For the rest, it seems important that people at large should be helped to a deeper understanding of what the scientific process is like. It's not a matter of education in the simple sense - knowing the structure of DNA, for example -but of understanding the necessarily tentative character of scientific conclusions,or theories, which all begin life as hypotheses.

One of the signs that distrust springs from people's differing perceptions of the world could be nicely illustrated by this experiment. It's a conceptual experiment, and it takes the form of a public opinion poll. It has to do with the way the human brain acquires its distinctive faculties. Two years ago, Francis Crick published a book with the title The Astonishing Hypothesis. The idea is that each human brain begins as a 'bag of neurons' , or nerve cells, that spontaneously, in the heads of prenatal persons and young infants, form the interconnections that allow our brains to be the thinking machines they are. Presumably the hard-wired parts of the nervous system, the retina for example, form connections that are genetically determined, although it's only now that a start has been made on the working of the genes involved in the embryonic development of the nervous system. What is still unclear is the degree to which the formation of the crucial interconnections between neurons is determined not only genetically but also by environmental and even random processes.

The experiment I recommend is simple: ask a group of scientists and a similar group of other people what they think of the proposal. My guess is that the scientists will not think Crick's hypothesis all that astonishing; in many ways it seems plain that this is indeed what happens. But the matching group of non-scientists will have a different reaction. Knowing that the brain is a physical synonym for "mind", they will instinctively [Using their emotions rather than their intelligence -LB] react against the hypothesis. Yet, when you think of it, this is the experimental ground on which the old question of the relative importance of nature and nurture will eventually be decided.

The research community, in its own interests, should be more ready than it is to acknowledge that issues like these are an essential part of the origin of distrust,that it should do what it can to anticipate them and that it should talk about them openly in the hope of making them go away. It simply amounts to a recognition that much of science seems to people at large to be a challenge to cherished beliefs. The need is not some kind of political correctness, as for example by pretending that quantum mechanics is not deterministic when it is, but for an open recognition by both sides that science does often challenge cherished beliefs, which are usually (but not always)religious beliefs.

If there is ever to be a rapprochement between science and those whose distrust springs from the fear that they will be made uncomfortable by whatever discoveries lie ahead, the chief responsibility for bringing it about must surely rest with those who are both scientists and religious people. By all accounts, there are many such people, many of whom who are prominent in public affairs.

The task should not be impossible. The record shows that the occasions in the past when a mechanistic explanation has been provided and accepted for phenomena previously regarded as somehow magical have not proved to be the death of what is called faith. The Stonehenge calendar is one example, the self-sustaining Expanding Universe has even been welcomed by religious people (because of the initial Big Bang), the origin of the elements (in stars like the Sun) has hardly caused a ripple in the world's pulpits and, although what is now known of the mechanism of life may eventually prove to be more subversive of contentment, there are still molecular biologists who go to church.


The enemy of Science is within

SIR - John Maddox's puzzlement (Nature 378, 435-437. 1995) at the generalized public distrust of science should be pursued. If Democritus's assertion (a cornerstone of Baconian science), that all things occur according to natural law or by chance were to permeate the public understanding, some interesting things might happen. For example, the trivial television series Star Trek would fail to appeal to a public forearmed with a belief in the tidiness of thermodynamics. The myth of miracles and the almost universal doctrine of supernatural intervention would be recognized as intoxicating folklore, and limiting population in the interests of the environment might become possible. The resurgence of vitalism in the 'natural' food industry, where much of society believes that a radish nourished on manure is preferable to one treated to ammonium nitrate, would also be due for an overhaul.

It seems to me that the public distrust of science is mostly due to the abject failure of scientists to make the case that we live in a material Universe. Scientists have engaged in a peculiar apostasy in dividing their beliefs of science on the one hand and succumbing to ethnic and cultural fantasies or, to paraphrase some popular wisdom, (1) if science has an enemy, it is us,and (2) if we are not part of the solution,we are the problem.

Cecil H. Fox,
Molecular Histology Inc.,
18536 Office Park Drive,
Gaithersburg, MaryIand 20879, USA

SIR - I am in sympathy with Maddox's comments about " the prevalent distrust of science". To me the centrepiece of the article is the phrase that "to represent the nature of human beings by a description of their genes undermines their dignity as human beings" and that "research in human genetics" is therefore to be opposed.

Despite its brevity, this statement glows with misapprehensions and unreflected prejudices, and it is this cocktail of stupidity that is the actual poison. To evoke as an antidote, as it were, the benefits that people enjoy as the results of scientific endeavour is useless labour, because these benefits constitute a category different from, and so irrelevant to, the categories of misapprehension and prejudice.

Hope, if there is any, rests with enlightenment alone. But does Maddox really believe that church (in fact, and so to speak, his Commentary's last word) is the place where the light will eventually shine? To me it appears to be the place where people are indoctrinated with preconceptions about "the nature of human beings" that are ultimately baseless and consequently do not help us at all when it comes to solving the problems of our time.

Helmut Grunewald
Hauptstrasse 58,
D 95369 Untersteinach,

SIR - Maddox provides an example of why distrust of science persists. If the contribution of science were as one-sided and positive as he suggests, such distrust might be hard to understand. However, given that science is done by humans within a cultural and historical context and usually reflects the values of the culture, the argument that only the positive results count is naive. A glance at the history book should provide sobering detail of science in the service of death and destruction. The rosy misrepresentations Maddox provides are worthy of our distrust.

Stephen Keast
Cornell University,
New York14853, USA ,

SIR - Maddox makes several suggestions as to how the worrying trend towards public distrust of science can be reversed. He rightly stressed the importance of scientists not overstating the implications and value of their work and of the need to make the public more aware of how the scientific process works. He also recognized how science can appear to be a threat to those with deeply held religious beliefs, and challenged those of us who are both scientists and "religious" to play our part in showing the fallacy of such fears.

The point is well taken, and there are many of us who find opportunities within the church and other religious communities to do just this. But there is an equal responsibility for scientists to avoid making unnecessary and intolerant attacks on religious belief. If the impression is given by some scientists that religious belief must conflict with the scientific view of the world, it should be no surprise that many in the population, for whom religious belief is a real and vital experience,distrust science and scientists. Those who seek to preach a "gospel of science" that opposes religious belief are more likely to, accentuate any distrust of science in the majority of the population than they are to convert others to atheism.

Andrew P. Halestrap
Department of Biochemistry,
School of Medical Sciences,
University Walk,
Bristol BS81TD, UK

Further reading

The Two Cultures - Polly Toynbee
Black and White magic - Jacob Bronowski





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NATURE . VOL 378 30 NOVEMBER 1995  File Info: Created Updated 29/1/2016 Page Address: