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GEORGE: Science really isn't a matter of opinion

September 26, 2017 - 12:51 PM

 


OPINION


Retired NASA climate scientist, James Hansen, commented in a recent interview that he wasn't terribly worried about the potential of CO2 to disrupt climate back in the 1980s because he “...thought there would be a rational response.” Was he right to feel that way? I think he was being naive, but as a "hard" scientist he would have had little opportunity to study people in society.

I think that a rational response to objective fact is critically important, especially when setting public policy in a democracy. Without such a response we risk basing our decisions on preconceived notions about how we think the world should be, rather than how it actually is. But we're in trouble on this front. Objective information is getting harder to find as corporate research begins to take a larger share of our dollars while government funded research wanes.

Our rational abilities as citizens are also suspect, as a recent study points out. 43 per cent of Canadians think that scientific findings are a matter of opinion and two-thirds of us do not trust the media to present scientific information without an underlying agenda. In our highly technological society, I think that this combination will be fatal to our democracy unless we can turn it around.

Rationality and objectivity need to start in our media. True journalistic objectivity is integral to hearing the voices of those who have been marginalized by the mainstream society. Objectivity, reason and evidence make up the pidgin language that allows us all, no matter our ideological bent, to communicate, negotiate and ultimately to decide on questions that are inherently social and political in nature.

The battle for objectivity starts with journalism; as the estate has increasingly been twisted to the will of fewer people, a rational citizenry is needed to hold this institution itself to account. There are biases that can step in the way of our ability to be rational. We tend to seek out information that supports our preconceived notions and discount that which goes against them. This can lead us to seek only sources that support our ideas, especially when writing opinion columns like this. I plead guilty as charged, but at least I am aware of the problem and am willing to talk to people with different biases and different sources of information to inform myself.

Acknowledging that countering evidence exists is important, but it is also important to make sure we understand that contrary information in context before jumping on board with an opinion. Science fiction author Harlan Ellison quipped that "You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant."

A recent headline on an opinion piece from the Vancouver Sun will help me illuminate why a thorough examination of an issue is so important in the public sphere, especially by journalists or people in positions of authority.

"Fatal car crashes triple among drivers high on marijuana after legalization in Colorado; double in Washington state". Every word in this headline supports a true statement, as far as it goes. I now present a quote and a conclusion, one from each of the studies the author used to support his argument.

The Colorado study noted a 9 per cent drop in alcohol related fatalities, prompting them to explore the relationship between marijuana use and alcohol use. This point was not noted in the article, likely because it represents a good outcome from an issue the author wished to paint as a universal "bad".

The Washington study notes "Also, results of this study do not indicate that drivers with detectable THC in their blood at the time of the crash were necessarily impaired by THC or that they were at-fault for the crash; the data available cannot be used to assess whether a given driver was actually impaired, and examination of fault in individual crashes was beyond the scope of this study", a statement that undercuts the veracity of that original headline.

How many of the drivers killed (involved in fatal crashes) were 100 per cent not at fault? As this cannot be answered using either study, thinking about it rationally tells us that we probably shouldn't get too worked up about the headline. While there is no doubt that driving stoned on marijuana is dangerous, we need to find out how much marijuana and just how dangerous.

We have a well known benchmark to use; the risk presented by driving drunk. At .08 a driver is 225 per cent more likely to be in an accident than a sober driver (100 per cent).

A stoned driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. is only 105 per cent more likely.

So while the danger is real, the headline is a bit alarmist.

Forty-two per cent of Canadians have the level of scientific literacy required to understand a media report about a new scientific discovery. In 1989, the scientific literacy of Canadians was only 15 per cent. Improvement has been rapid over the past generation. It turns out that Canada leads a group of 35 countries in scientific literacy, so it is not all bad news.

We may be doing great at providing a workforce ready for the jobs of the 21st century, but we are failing at providing engaged citizens for a 21st century democracy.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
InfoTel News Ltd

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