Science Under Attack
Public Trust in Key Scientific Theories has been Eroded

Science Under Attack
Public Trust in Key Scientific Theories has been Eroded

 Public trust in some of the key scientific theories has been eroded. Some individuals and groups believe that science may be misleading people about certain topics and problems within our world.

Others believe that certain keynote speakers within the scientific community are too closed-minded or ignorant to speak for science.

Is there any truth to this issue? Is it denial or mistrust? Or, is there something much bigger going on?

A scientific method seeks to explain the events of nature in a reproducible way, and to use these findings to make useful predictions.

This is done partly through observation of natural phenomena, but also through experimentation that tries to simulate natural events under controlled conditions.

Taken in its entirety, a scientific method allows for highly creative problem solving whilst minimizing any effects of subjective bias on the part of its users.

Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse examines why science appears to be under attack, and why public trust in key scientific theories has been eroded - from the theory that man-made climate change is warming our planet, to the safety of genetically modified food, or that HIV causes AIDS.

He interviews scientists and campaigners from both sides of the climate change debate, and travels to New York to meet Tony, who has HIV but doesn't believe that that the virus is responsible for AIDS.

This is a passionate defence of the importance of scientific evidence and the power of experiment, and a look at what scientists themselves need to do to earn trust in controversial areas of science in the 21st century.

Evidence is information, such as facts, coupled with principles of inference, that make information relevant to the support or negation of a hypothesis.

Scientific evidence is evidence where the dependence of the evidence on principles of inference is not conceded, enabling others to examine the background beliefs or assumptions employed to determine if facts are relevant to the support of or falsification of a hypothesis.

A person’s assumptions or beliefs about the relationship between alleged facts and a hypothesis will determine whether that person takes the facts as evidence.

Consider, for example alternative uses of the observation that day and night alternate at a steady rate. In an environment where the observer makes a causal connection between exposure to the sun and day, the observer may take the observation of day and night as evidence for a theory of cosmology.

Without an assumption or belief that a causal connection exists between exposure to the sun and the observance of day, the observation of day will be discounted as evidence of a cosmological theory.

"The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has limits."
  –– Albert Einstein

A person’s assumptions or beliefs about the relationship between alleged facts and a hypothesis will also determine how a person utilizes the facts as evidence.

Continuing with the same example, in an environment where geocentric cosmology is prevalent, the observation of day and night may be taken as evidence that the sun moves about the earth.

Alternatively, in an environment where heliocentric cosmology is prevalent, the same observation may be taken as evidence that the earth is spinning about an axis.

True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that therefore is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known as."

–– William James

In summary, beliefs or assumptions about causal relationships are utilized to determine whether facts are evidence of a hypothesis. Background beliefs differ. As a result, where observers operate under different paradigms, rational observers may find different meaning in scientific evidence from the same event.

For example, Priestley, working with phlogiston theory, took his observations about the decomposition of what we know today as mercuric oxide as evidence of the phlogiston.

In contrast, Lavoisier, developing the theory of elements, took the same facts as evidence for oxygen. Note that a causal relationship between the facts and hypothesis does not exist to cause the facts to be taken as evidence, but rather the causal relationship is provided by the person seeking to establish facts as evidence.

Climate Change

Climate change is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years.

It may be a change in average weather conditions or the distribution of events around that average. Climate change may be limited to a specific region or may occur across the whole Earth.

Scientific opinion on climate change is given by synthesis reports, scientific bodies of national or international standing, and surveys of opinion among climate scientists.

Individual scientists, universities, and laboratories contribute to the overall scientific opinion via their peer reviewed publications, and the areas of collective agreement and relative certainty are summarised in these high level reports and surveys.

Self-selected lists of individuals' opinions, such as petitions, are not normally considered to be part of the scientific process. National and international science academies and scientific societies have assessed the current scientific opinion, in particular on recent global warming.

These assessments have largely followed or endorsed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) position of January 2001 which states:

An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system... There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.

No scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion; the last was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which in 2007 updated its 1999 statement rejecting the likelihood of human influence on recent climate with its current non-committal position. Some other organizations, primarily those focusing on geology, also hold non-committal positions.

Genetically Modified Foods

Genetically modified foods are foods derived from genetically modified organisms.

Genetically modified organisms have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques.

These techniques are much more precise than mutagenesis (mutation breeding) where an organism is exposed to radiation or chemicals to create a non-specific but stable change.

Other techniques by which humans modify food organisms include selective breeding; plant breeding, and animal breeding, and somaclonal variation.

GM foods were first put on the market in the early 1990s. Typically, genetically modified foods are transgenic plant products: soybean, corn, canola, and cotton seed oil. Animal products have also been developed, although as of July 2010 none are currently on the market.

In 2006 a pig was controversially engineered to produce omega-3 fatty acids through the expression of a roundworm gene.

Researchers have also developed a genetically-modified breed of pigs that are able to absorb plant phosphorus more efficiently, and as a consequence the phosphorus content of their manure is reduced by as much as 60%.

Critics have objected to GM foods on several grounds, including safety issues, ecological concerns, and economic concerns raised by the fact that these organisms are subject to intellectual property law.

AIDS Denialism

AIDS denialism is the view held by a loosely connected group of people and organizations who deny that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Some denialists reject the existence of HIV, while others accept that HIV exists but say that it is a harmless passenger virus and not the cause of AIDS.

Insofar as denialists acknowledge AIDS as a real disease, they attribute it to some combination of sexual behavior, recreational drugs, malnutrition, poor sanitation, hemophilia, or the effects of the drugs used to treat HIV infection.

The scientific community considers the evidence that HIV causes AIDS to be conclusive and rejects AIDS-denialist claims as pseudoscience based on conspiracy theories, faulty reasoning, cherry picking, and misrepresentation of mainly outdated scientific data.

With the rejection of these arguments by the scientific community, AIDS-denialist material is now spread mainly through the Internet. Despite its lack of scientific acceptance, AIDS denialism has had a significant political impact, especially in South Africa under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki.

Scientists and physicians have raised alarm at the human cost of AIDS denialism, which discourages HIV-positive people from using proven treatments. Public health researchers have attributed 330,000 to 340,000 AIDS deaths, along with 171,000 other HIV infections and 35,000 infant HIV infections, to the South African government's former embrace of AIDS denialism.

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