A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 22, 2015

Why the Anti-Science Movement Is Making Silicon Valley Nervous

If you're in the tech business you take science for granted. You played with erector sets and chemistry experiments growing up. You liked science in high school. You majored in a related field in college.

All of which is very nice, but now your livelihood depends on selling relatively expensive stuff requiring some knowledge of the most basic science to people who do not share your fascination with numbers and programs and methods.

They just want whatever you sell them to work. 90 percent of them never read the instructions.

So when people start questioning science they are challenging your products and services. Which means they might be more hesitant to buy the latest iteration. So it's good that you are starting to mobilize to fight willful ignorance. There's just one thing: since schools in the Silicon Valley area have among the lowest vaccination rates for children in the US, you might want to think about walking the talk. JL

Matt Rosoff comments in Business Insider:

There is always debate. But at some point, scientific theories become widely enough accepted that other scientists consider the problem resolved, and they begin to look for more interesting problems to solve. This is how scientific progress happens.
I was at a small dinner party Saturday night, and a big part of the conversation revolved around an article in this month's National Geographic about how many Americans doubt science.
For instance, scientists now accept that the earth's atmosphere is getting warmer because people are pumping carbon dioxide into the air and that this will cause dramatic changes in the climate.
But only 40% of Americans believe this is true, according to a recent poll by Pew Research Center.
Another example: Scientists see no connection between childhood vaccinations and autism. The only reason people ever believed there might have been a connection in the first place is because of a single study that was later totally disproved. But a growing number of Americans now bypass childhood vaccinations, and the result is a return of diseases like measles that we thought were stamped out.
So why do so many people doubt science?
One reason, according to the article, is that science is taught poorly. We learn it as a set of inarguable facts. The Earth revolves around the sun. Gravity made the apple fall from the tree and hit Newton on the head.
But in fact, science is messy. It starts with a hypothesis, a theory about the way something works. One scientist finds evidence that seems to prove or disprove that idea. Others pile on, testing it, modifying it, and sometimes disproving it.
People see news of these debates and think, "Aha, those scientists don't really know what they're talking about." So they feel free to choose whichever scientific facts they want to believe in and cluster into social groups based on those beliefs.
When people say they do not vaccinate their kids or do not believe in global climate change, they are not declaring that they don't believe in science. They are declaring their membership in a particular social group of like-minded people. Those bonds within social groups reinforce themselves and are hard to break.
But this shows an incomplete understanding of how science works. Yes, there is always debate. But at some point, scientific theories become widely enough accepted that other scientists consider the problem resolved, and they begin to look for more interesting problems to solve. This is how scientific progress happens.
In other words, some scientific facts really are facts. That messy scientific method — the process of testing ideas by collecting evidence — is how we determine them to be facts.
Anyway, the host at this party Saturday had a copy of the magazine and we passed it around. It was a mixed group of professionals: a lawyer, a tech employee, an educator, a journalist.
There was also a scientist there — a researcher in the field of genetics.
At one point he said so few people were going into science that there were no longer enough qualified graduates fill the positions to do necessary research. He likened it to a "reset," in which we basically have to start over and educate a new generation of scientists.
"A lot of other countries, Japan, China, see an opportunity surpass us," he said.
Sure, this was just one dinner party conversation. But there is a growing chorus of people in the tech industry who see a similar problem: The US is not doing a good enough job educating people about science and technology. It is causing problems in society, and it is hurting our competitiveness in business.
Many of tech's biggest public figures — Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Benioff — are putting money into reforming education.
But I have also heard a lot of these kinds of conversations from people who are not famous but are starting to get fed up and wondering what they can do about it. Perhaps this could become the next big social movement out of Silicon Valley.


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