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Questions of science don't lend themselves to "balance"

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Paul Kinzer
Paul Kinzer is an author and science educator in Galesville, Wis.
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By Paul Kinzer

I am, among other things, a science educator. I travel to schools with a portable planetarium to teach kids about astronomy. In the past couple of years, the number of questions I get showing a distrust of science has grown. 

Kids don't just ask "What do scientists know?" or even "How can scientists know ... ?" They now sometimes ask "How can scientists possibly know...?" They ask more and more about things that are, frankly, just silly: the face on Mars2012UFOs

I've also been a guest several times on Wisconsin Public Radio (I've written a book about getting started in amateur astronomy), and adults ask the same questions. When I try to argue that science can show why these things are not realistic, I am often confronted with the argument that, basically, science is just another opinion. 

"Why should I take the word of scientists, when so-and-so [pretty much always some swindler trying to sell a book] says that scientists are lying to me for their own ends?" This shows a lack of understanding about what science (as opposed to an individual scientist) does and how it works.

I love Minnesota Public Radio, but I was disappointed in the story about the connection between the cost of alcohol and the incidence of drunk driving. It seems to be another example of trying to find "balance" by giving two sides to a story when there are not two equal unbiased and reasonable sides to compare -- or, if there are, they weren't the two used here. 

To juxtapose scientific research with anecdotal opinions and beliefs is NOT balanced news. It is a false comparison. And in this story, the opposing view was from people who have a vested interest in denying the accuracy of the science. 

It is simply wrong to put on equal grounds the scientific research that could result in the saving of human lives against the biased, unsubstantiated opinions of an industry that has as its only arguments political clout and the importance of making money. Discuss the science or the politics and economics; don't pit them against each other as equally reasonable and respectable positions based on dedication to facts.

I was especially bothered that the bar owner in Olson's story was given expert status by virtue of having been in the business for 40 years. He still makes his living by selling alcohol, and he believes he will not make as much money if taxes are raised on what he sells. This belief might, just might, cloud his judgment. 

It was apparent that the reporter had made a definite effort to give a "balanced" view. This "expert" opinion was pitted against that of "a scientist" -- as though the scientist were just making another personal judgment, arrived at, possibly, with some bias of his own. 

The overall thrust of the story seemed to be -- on one side -- rigorous research using the scientific method and peer-reviewed rigor to find conclusive, unbiased evidence; against -- on the other side, and given equal weight -- nothing more than one person's or group's opinions, based on a biased, self-serving set of beliefs and observations. 

An anecdote is not -- in any way -- conclusive evidence. Peer-reviewed scientific evidence is not -- in any way -- simply another matter of opinion from an interest group. To put the two at odds with each other does not make sense, and it makes science (as a method, not as a body of knowledge) seem like just another lobbying group. 

Some Americans seem to have a growing distrust of science, and critical thinking in general, and I find this disappointing and worrying -- even scary. If people understand how science is actually done, they know that scientists are not just another corporate or political group out for gain. 

I don't mean that science is some lofty pursuit, above reproach by mere mortals. Science is a system that "believes" only in showing the truth of things. If someone makes a scientific claim, she or he will be taken seriously by other scientists only if the claim can be rigorously tested and repeated by others. 

To be proved wrong, as a scientist, is not seen as failure if the claim was arrived at honestly and with rigor. But to hold to theories that have been discarded is to lose respect. To be shown as a fraud is career-ending. 

Anyone who says that scientists, as a group, ever act as some kind of cabal just doesn't understand science. For example, many people make the claim that scientists "believe in" evolution as a sort of religion. But if a scientist were ever able to prove, with actual evidence, that evolution is not true, that scientist would win much more than the Nobel prize (though that would be one of the rewards). He or she would gain the reputation of a Newton, Einstein or Darwin.

Media coverage of science often perpetuates misunderstanding. I expect more from MPR in an age when the Internet, talk radio and 24/7 news cycles have made life easier for the peddlers of hooey.


Paul Kinzer is an author and science educator in Galesville, Wis.