Is knowledge still power?

The first book club meeting was a success! Grad students studying plant science, biomedical engineering, and public health each contributed to the discussion through their unique scientific base of knowledge and diverse personal experiences.

From the beginning, it was clear why the people in the room were interested in reading this The War on Science: science is a major part of their life and they are gravely concerned with how our current culture is handling science. This book offers hope to deepen our knowledge of why there is a war on science, how it started, and what we can do about it.

In our discussion, the concept of “power” was a major theme. Knowledge is power. Power is money. Yet, this downturn of trust in science and evidence-based policy makes it seem like knowledge is now a nuisance at best and an enemy at worst. Additionally, powerful people (i.e. politicians) do not seem concerned with rooting out facts and evidence to support their claims, or at least not as much as they seem concerned about attaining more power. Knowledge may be power, but the denial of facts to preserve something– exactly what we don’t know– is now more powerful, and thus more lucrative. Is knowledge as power a threat?

We agreed, as I hope all of us can, that real facts and hard science are not debatable, political ideologies. They are more legitimate than political wind. But, facts are currently denied their legitimacy by political ideology and emotional debate. As young scientists, we imagined the reasons for this shifting knowledge-power dynamic, but nothing truly resonated. After a few minutes of collective venting about the various ways science denialism is harming society, we agreed that the issue is more complex than we alone can figure out. We need a sociologist in the book club.

Acknowledging that we might be too young or too hopeful (or both) to understand the full scope of the issue, some of us still refused to fully admit that the people in power are knowingly harming people through truth-denial in favor of their self-interests. This led us to talking about ignorance, tribalism, and the elitism surrounding education. Each of these topics could be their own blog post and discussion on their own. That’s the problem with a societal level problem like fact-denial– the distrust of science and institutions of knowledge are multifaceted, involving social and economic components.

Politicians know this. Politicians exploit this. Some of us suspect that those in power do, in fact, know and understand scientific truths (about vaccines, GMOs, climate change, etc.), but have too much to gain financially and politically by ignoring them. Which lead to the admittedly cynical notion that the people in power in the US—on both sides of the aisle—are just not good people. Integrity, truth, and reason have no real political value outside of public relations’ catch-phrases. Whatever the motivations of our government leaders are, the twenty-somethings at the first book club meeting were all a bit unsettled about the future of America. But we read on.

Inevitably, this discussion of knowledge, power, and politicians led us down the rabbit-hole of critiquing the media. The media can decide which conversations are to be had and which voices will be heard. Otto makes a great point: science isn’t a debate. When a scientist discovers that her/his hypothesis is wrong, they don’t debate the failed theorem. Somehow “unbiased journalism” now means that every opinion deserves a voice– not that opinion is irrelevant in the face of truth. Opinion invites bias; truth does not. In this way, the media gives power to false-facts and to anyone trying to profit from them.

But the media isn’t wholly to blame. Although we recognize that the media has a lot of power, we also recognize that this power can only be checked by an educated readership– something that the United States does not have.

Science education needs a make-over. Right now, science is taught as a collection of facts, like how history is taught as a long list of dates. Students learn the definitions of atoms, how to draw the cell cycle, and what various organ systems in our bodies do. Knowing these facts are important, but knowing these facts is not knowing science. Science is the process that uncovered these facts. Teaching science means teaching how to inquire; how to handle uncertainty; how to critically think (even about topics that make you uncomfortable); how to solve problems; and how to make decisions based on multiple theories, facts, and probabilities.

But this isn’t how science is taught. Fighting a war on science when the faceless enemy fails to grasp what science even is can seem futile. For many, it’s frustrating. Hopefully, the rest of the book can give us reasons for hope in winning this war on science.

P.S.

For those who are reading the book and may be curious about our discussion, the above blog post is not all encompassing. Other topics touched upon by the meeting-goers include (but are not limited to): Roger Stone and how to get power vs. how to use power, how politicians compare to cult leaders, how the media slants our views of risks, the PR of Monsanto, the dawn of PR with Big Tobacco in the 1930s, the false dichotomy of science v. religion, the Scopes Trials, how union growth may or may not relate to wage stagnation, the dwindling number of science journalism positions, good podcasts, and more.

 

Written by Sam Tucci

Edited by Destiny Davis

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