I work at MIT, and I write about science and technology for a living, which means I’m steeped in a worldview that says evidence and experimentation are the keys to solving society’s big problems. But many of my fellow citizens seem to live in a different reality.
This can be endlessly frustrating. We could be figuring out ways to slow climate change and adapt to its effects, but instead it feels like we’re still wasting time arguing about whether it’s real and what’s behind it. We could be boosting our herd immunity against illnesses like measles and polio, but instead we’re still arguing about whether vaccines cause autism.
On bad days, it all leaves me feeling gloomy about the future of our country — and, indeed, our planet. But what if my frustrations are misplaced?
It’s true that we aren’t making enough progress to curb carbon emissions, but it’s a distraction to frame the impasse as a disagreement about the science of climate change.
For people like me who embrace the scientific way of thinking, there’s a tendency to interpret all instances of public push-back against technological progress or the scientific consensus as manifestations of fear, irrationality or denial. But perhaps the real sources of resistance aren’t what scientists and their proponents think they are. Maybe the problem is that people on the opposing sides of the “science wars” aren’t telling each other the right stories — or having the right conversations.
After all, it’s not as if billions of people deny the reality and the power of science. Yes, many creationists cling to the belief that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, in contrast to the 4.5 billion years verified by science. But no one really disputes the idea that matter is made of atoms, or that our genetic information resides in our DNA, or that it’s dangerous to drink bacteria-laden water.
The fact is that most people, most of the time, do buy into the premises behind our science- and technology-driven civilization. They pay hard-earned money for conveniences like electricity, refrigeration, plane travel, smartphones and the Internet, and they value the huge gains in health and longevity brought about by modern medicine.
To be sure, we live in an age when misinformation has been weaponized. It’s in the interest of fossil fuel companies and their investors, for example, to perpetuate the myth that there is serious scientific disagreement about the causes of climate change. So media outlets will always need fact-checkers, especially when people like Donald Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, pick up the microphone.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
But I’d like to suggest that the gridlock in many areas of science and technology policy is not a sign that we disagree about the fundamental nature of reality. Mostly, I think we’re just avoiding difficult conversations about our core values.
It’s true that we aren’t making enough progress to curb carbon emissions, but it’s a distraction to frame the impasse as a disagreement about the science of climate change. The real problem may be that we haven’t been willing, so far, to engage in a frank debate about high-impact issues like the role of the federal government in regulating energy production, and how we’ll share the enormous costs of weaning ourselves off oil and gas and protecting coastal residents from sea-level rise.
Many parents still hesitate to get their children vaccinated at the appropriate time. And maybe some of these parents are flat-out irrational. Or maybe, as science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker points out, we simply haven’t invited them into an honest discussion about the risks of vaccination, or why the state should have the power to require it. (These risks are tiny, but they may feel more real to many parents than the danger of sacrificing herd immunity.)
If we can spur debate about hot-button topics in a way that respects both evidence and emotion ... I suspect we’ll find that there’s only one reality...
These are just hypotheses. But they’re also the kinds of questions that don’t tend to get raised in mainstream media reports and public discourse.
How can we uncover the real areas of contention? As a journalist and a historian, I believe that narrative in all its forms is one of the most powerful methods for understanding the world and seeding two-way conversations. I've spent the last six months thinking about these issues as a research associate in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and I believe that there is an opportunity and a need to support a new wave of experiments in science and technology storytelling, not just by journalists but by scientists, engineers, students and communicators of all stripes, including filmmakers, animators, graphic artists and game developers. By carefully measuring the outcomes of these experiments, we could discover and model new ways to spark broad public conversations about science and technology and their impacts.
If we can spur debate about hot-button topics in a way that respects both evidence and emotion, and both the benefits and the costs of advances in technology and science, I suspect we’ll find that there’s only one reality — and that there’s room in it for all of us to thrive.