What Scientists Really Do by Priyamvada Natarajan _ the New York Review of Books

What Scientists Really Do by Priyamvada
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  10/9/2014What Scientists Really Do by Priyamvada Natarajan | The New York Review of Books What Scientists Really Do Priyamvada Natarajan OCTOBER 23, 2014 ISSUE                                                                                                                Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything   by Philip BallUniversity of Chicago Press, 465 pp., $35.00  Ignorance: How It Drives Science  by Stuart FiresteinOxford University Press, 195 pp., $21.95 Font Size: A   A   A  10/9/2014What Scientists Really Do by Priyamvada Natarajan | The New York Review of Books   Bonestell LLC    Chesley Bonestell: Saturn as Seen from Titan [Its Moon]  , 1944; from Michael Benson’s Cosmigraphics: Picturing SpaceThrough Time  , to be published by Abrams in November. ‘Along with French illustrator and astronomer Lucien Rudaux,’   Benson writes, Bonestell ‘pioneered a genre of speculative solar system landscapes sometimes called “space art”…Wenow know that Titan’s atmosphere is so thick, a view like this would be impossible, which takes nothing away from the         power of Bonestell’s achievement.’    Rien ne dure que le provisoire.  —French proverbThe current misuse of scientific findings can be tragic. At 3:32 AM on April 6,2009, a devastating earthquake that measured 6.3 on the Richter scale rocked themedieval Italian town of L’Aquila, killing about three hundred people andleveling many buildings. Residents had experienced about thirty small tremors inthe preceding three months and had become very apprehensive. A week before thequake, a meeting that included leading seismologists and public officials was heldto evaluate the situation. According to seismologists, it is impossible to know withcertainty whether small quakes are foreshocks of a larger tremor.One of the expert geologists at the assessment meeting, Enzo Boschi, drew  10/9/2014What Scientists Really Do by Priyamvada Natarajan | The New York Review of Books attention to this scientific uncertainty and noted that while a large earthquake was“unlikely,” the possibility could not be excluded. Despite this, when the vice-director of Italy’s civil protection agency, Bernardo De Bernardinis, emerged fromthe meeting, he assured locals that the tremors were routine and simplysymptomatic of the earth releasing pent-up energy.When the jolt of a quake woke up his two teenage children, a local resident,Giustino Parisse, trusting the report he had heard earlier on TV, calmed themdown and put them back to sleep. Later that night, his house was leveled, killing both his children. Parisse and a group of residents sued the scientists and the local public officials for failing to warn them. The failure of these estimates of risk bythe National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks led tothose expert scientists being convicted of providing “inexact, incomplete andcontradictory” information about the danger; they were each given six-year jailterms in October 2012.Closer to home, on June 12, 2012, the North Carolina Senate passed a law thateffectively prohibited the use of any data about sea-level changes in determiningcoastal policy in the state. The law was drafted in response to a report from thestate-appointed North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s expert scientists,who advised that sea-level rises of about thirty-nine inches could be expected inthe next hundred years, putting coastal communities in the Outer Banks region atgrave risk. The law, formulated to regulate development permits, discounts these projections and prescribes a new method—rejected by most qualified scientists— for calculating sea-level rises.There is, on the contrary, near-universal agreement among climate scientists thatthe sea will probably rise a good meter or more within the next hundred years, potentially submerging all low-lying coastal areas around the globe. Butsupporters of the legislation, developers concerned about the economicconsequences of basing regulations on the predicted sea-level rise, found a novelway to circumvent the scientific assessment: by simply making the use of currentmeasurements illegal.The law now forbids the use of any new data and allows only historical data inmaking estimates of the sea-level rise in awarding permits for the next four years.According to the law, measurements taken in 1900 will form the baseline fromwhich only linear extrapolations to the present day will be allowed. Nature,though, appears to be mocking North Carolina lawmakers. Two weeks after thelaw’s passage, a new study of measurements from tide gauge records revealed that  10/9/2014What Scientists Really Do by Priyamvada Natarajan | The New York Review of Books W the fastest sea level rises since 1980 in North America are along the coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts.hat’s depressing about these two cases is the misconception of science theyreflect. Much of the public clearly does not know what to make of scientificresearch and has a poor understanding of how findings are reached, especiallywhen it comes to assessing future risk. This seems to be true in all countries, but itis particularly striking in the United States, where so much of today’s scientificresearch srcinates. This paradox is worth exploring.Polls in the US regularly show nearly unanimous support for improving thequality of science education, which is perceived as being important to thecountry’s ability to compete globally. A poll by the Pew Research Center in 2009found that most Americans—84 percent—saw science as a positive force insociety. Yet it also found that while people under thirty were more science-savvythan those over sixty-five, all age groups had a rather flimsy grasp of simplescientific concepts, even those taught in most public high schools, such as gravityor the structure of the atom.A recent survey by the National Science Foundation found that a quarter of Americans did not know if the earth moved around the sun or vice versa.Meanwhile, 33 percent of Americans deny the reality of evolution and still believethat humans and the rest of the animal kingdom have always existed in their  present form. Americans have extremely high expectations of and confidence inscience and technology and think of it as a national priority—yet they also distrustits results. How to explain this?One view is that Americans are simply ignorant and lack an understanding of  basic science and mathematics. The assumption is that if these skills wereimproved, the public would become more appreciative of science. Yet recentresearch by Professor Dan Kahan at Yale suggests that the rejection of science isonly weakly correlated with scientific literacy and numeracy. His data find a muchhigher correlation with Americans’ general political and cultural outlook. Kahan’sresearch indicates that, even controlling for differences in math and science skills, people with different cultural values—individualists compared with egalitarians,for example—disagree sharply about how serious a threat climate change is.Kahan’s results also show that people who identify with the Tea Party have aslightly higher level of science comprehension (it’s a tiny effect but it is there)than the average American, according to a nationally representative sample of USadults.
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