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Why People Mistrust Science

An editorial by biology major Kelsey Morgan ’15

It is largely undisputed that advancements in science and technology are extremely important to life as we know it. However, with the way science and technology are represented in the media and popular culture, it can be difficult to distinguish between science and science fiction. Will the Ebola virus become an airborne super plague and kill us all? Are GMOs really safe? Should we be worried about climate change? And who can we trust to give us the answers?

The answer to this last question should be science, because it is designed to help us answer questions in a systematic, evidence-based way. Unfortunately, people often take a cynical attitude toward science, unfoundedly rejecting its discoveries. A Pew Study published in January reports that while people think science is a good thing, there is often a gap between scientists’ attitudes regarding hot-button issues and those of the general public. While a strong majority of scientists agree that genetically modified foods are generally safe to eat, global warming is a serious problem, and vaccines are safe, only a small part of the general public tends to agree. These gaps in understanding show that despite people reporting that they trust science, there is a large amount of disbelief and mistrust surrounding scientific consensus.

While there are many factors that determine whether or not a person accepts scientific evidence, general mistrust in science can be boiled down to three categories: religious and political affiliations, confirmation bias, and the need for an emotional appeal.

Religious beliefs or political associations can have a profound effect on whether or not a person accepts scientific principles. Some people refuse to accept theories such as the Big Bang and evolution because these theories go against religious doctrines. Politicians also likes to take sides regarding science, often debating issues when there aren’t even two different sides to the issue. For example, the original source of the idea that vaccines cause autism and other harm was an extremely flawed and unethical study that was later retracted. However, this idea gained momentum when it was supported by U.S. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana). Burton and other public figures allowed the “debate” on the MMR to spread, which was a factor that led to a serious mistrust in vaccinations in general.

The “Badge of Membership” principle—membership is more about wanting to belong than what you believe— can help us understand how these affiliations shape our view of science.  It’s like we are still in high school; no matter how old a person gets, he or she still feels the need to agree with his or her peers, and many times the need to fit in trumps science.

A study performed by Dan Kahan of Yale University found that understanding science results in polarization rather than consensus. This finding can be explained by confirmation bias. When people have an opinion about a scientific issue, showing them a collection of facts won’t change it. Shouting a bunch of complicated astrophysics and Darwinian natural selection theory at them isn’t likely to get them to believe in the Big Bang or evolution. Instead, people tend to pick out evidence that supports their preconceived notions.Anecdotal evidence that appeals to our emotions often holds more weight than facts, regardless of the source. We don’t like to rely on cause and effect because true causes can be hard to find and understand, and therefore we rely on people’s personal stories to come up with our own explanations and create meaning where there is none. A case in point:  the causes of autism are not well understood, and science provides little reassurance, in terms of treatment, to parents of autistic children. Therefore, in spite of the understanding that vaccines do not cause autism, the public often turns to parents and grandparents who blame vaccines rather than trusting medical professionals because it gives them something to blame, too.

Life today depends heavily on complex science and technology that only a small group of experts can thoroughly understand, and it is therefore important that people trust and support these experts. While there is certainly reason to be skeptical when looking at new scientific findings, Science editor Marcia McNutt said it best in an interview for the March 2015 edition of National Geographic: “Everybody should be questioning… But then they should use the scientific method, or trust people using the scientific method, to decide which way they fall…”

Looking at science with skepticism is not the same as unwarranted distrust and rejection of consensus. In order for advancement in science to continue, the public must step away from scientific cynicism and put its trust in scientific consensus.

Editor’s Note: Kelsey Morgan ’15 of Lakeview, N.Y., holds a biology degree from Keuka College and has received a $28,000 fellowship stipend to attend Duke University Graduate School in the fall of 2015 to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. A research study she co-wrote with Dr. William Brown, assistant professor of environmental science and biology, was published in the Journal of American Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS) in the spring of 2015. She is one of three science majors featured in the spring 2015 edition of Keuka College Magazine as an “academic all-star” for earning the unique distinction of publishing in an academic journal as an undergraduate student. 

Hydrofracking Topic of Earth Day Talk

Hydrofracking and its impact on the local area will be the focus of an Earth Day talk Friday, April 19, at Keuka College.

Helen and David Slottje

David F. Slottje and Helen H. Slottje, co-founders of Community Environmental Defense Council Inc. (CEDC), an environmental law firm, will speak on “Fighting Fracking: A View from the Trenches.” at 3:30 p.m. in Jephson Science Center  104. It is free and open to the public.

According to Kasey Klingensmith, professor of biology, law firms across the state say local governments can’t stop fracking in New York because state law takes away local authority to enact laws relating to the regulation of the gas industry.

“But Helen and David argued that banning drilling was not the same as regulating it,” said Klingensmith. “They developed and advanced the thesis that New York municipalities may utilize local land use authority. This allows them to enact laws prohibiting gas drilling and associated activities outright. It also provides protective laws—which are not laws relating to the regulation of the gas industry.”

For more than three years, the Slottjes have crisscrossed the state, teaching towns that they can enact laws to keep drilling out, and drafting those laws at no charge.

Kasey Klingensmith, professor of biology.

“Following CEDC’s lead, nearly 150 municipalities have passed either a ban or moratorium on gas drilling,” said Klingensmith. “CEDC’s work has energized the anti-fracking movement, brought hope to local residents, empowered local governments, and continues to send Albany politicians a clear message that New York will not be fracked.”

Helen Slottje received a bachelor’s degree in economics with honors from the College of the Holy Cross and received her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. studied at Harvard Law School from 1990 to 1991.

David Slottje graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He received his law degree from Emory University.

A Bird in the Hand …

Newborn nestlings (All Photos by Hung Do Le '12)

Like most expectant parents or relatives, the wait for “D-day,” the day of delivery, is a torturous enterprise. But once the little one is safely arrived and nestled down for naps and feedings, the crowing begins.

So it is for the students in Keuka’s ornithology class and Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, Bill Brown, who have been keeping close watch on several nestboxes Brown placed along the outer perimeter of the campus, near the treeline beyond Davis Hall and the Red Barn Theatre. The nestboxes, which look like simple birdhouses to the untrained eye, are large enough for birds that prefer to live in cavities such as tree trunks to build a nest inside.

The nestbox of the Black-capped chickadees.

It has been a long wait, marred when eight of nine “active” nests of Eastern bluebirds and Black-capped chickadees were destroyed by house wrens and house sparrows, whose habit is to kick out any eggs already laid in a nest in order to take it over and lay eggs of their own. But one chickadee nest escaped the ravages of the migratory menaces, and that nestbox is the ultimate destination for Brown’s class on this, the final day of the outdoor lab for ENV/BIO 331.

Before paying a visit to the home of the new nestlings, the scientific term for baby birds recently hatched, the class stops at one additional box, where a house wren has begun to lay new eggs – three so far – after returning to the area in the last week or so.

Carefully unscrewing one side of the box, Brown reveals the wren’s nest, made primarily of twigs, with soft grasses, bluejay feathers and hair lining the inside. Fishing around with his hand, he pulls out three tiny pink-toned eggs.

Nest and eggs of a tree swallow.

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Eyes (and Ears) Wide Open

Senior Jason Troutman references a list of bird species in Keuka's ornithology field lab, taught by Dr. Bill Brown, at right. (All photos by Brett Williams).

Bundled warm in hoodies against the morning chill at Keuka Lake State Park, the students are standing still, listening intently. From the branches of trees nearby come chirps, calls and sing-song melodies, rising over the sound of the waves lapping the shore.

“What do you hear?” asks Bill Brown, assistant professor of biology and environmental science, who holds a Ph.D. and specializes in ornithology, the study of birds. Binoculars hang suspended from the students’ necks, but Brown wants them to listen first.

Seniors Steve Stout and Justin Henry record bird species they've identified during an outdoor field lab.

Pencils poised over palm-size waterproof notepads, the handful of students lower their heads and jot down four-letter codes for different species as they respond with the names: Mourning dove. American robin. Cardinal. Canada goose. Carolina wren. Downy woodpecker. [Eastern] Pheobe. House finch.

This is ENV/BIO 331, Keuka’s ornithology class, where one of Brown’s primary objectives is teaching students to master identification of some 104 different species of birds by sight. Thirty-nine of those species must also be identified by sound. And those are just the birds found here in New York state.

According to Brown, almost 90 percent of “birding” is done by ear; the rest comes from knowing what to expect in a given setting, whether that may be a small cluster of trees near a building, along a road, or deep in a forest fragment. (more…)

Scientists in the Making

Chemist Dmitri Mendeleev is credited with developing the first periodic table of the elements, the most important reference in chemistry because it arranges all the elements in an easy-to-read chart.

This table was key for the nearly two dozen St. Michael’s School (Penn Yan) and Penn Yan Elementary School students who visited the Keuka College campus Nov. 19 for the Chemistry Club’s Kids’ Day, held in Jephson Science Center.

Chemistry Club member Richelle Coons adds food coloring to 'elephant toothpaste' as St. Michael's School fourth-grader Sarah Loucks looks on.

The elementary school students used the table to find the atomic numbers of such ingredients as potassium and iodine before creating “elephant” toothpaste, a foam that looks like “human” toothpaste.

Conducted once a semester, Kids’ Day shows elementary school students “how much fun science is,” said Club Secretary Janelle Davidson. “We want to get the kids interested in science at a young age and [Kids’ Day] gives them the opportunity to conduct experiments in a fun and safe way.”

Davidson, a senior biology major from Cortland, showed the youngsters how to use cabbage juice as a pH indicator.

“Acids and bases will make the cabbage juice turn different colors, depending on the pH in the acid or base,” she said.

Chemistry Club president Katie Barnhart, a senior biochemistry major from Warsaw, showed the youngsters what happens to marshmallows, a glove filled with air, and a hard-boiled egg inside a vacuum. The children also dipped cotton swabs in different salts and club member Jason Troutman, a senior biology major from Kirkville, placed the end in a Bunsen burner and, depending on the salt, a different color flame was produced.

Several elementary schoolers poke the 'ooblek' to feel its properties.

Club members also showed their young friends how to make ‘ooblek,’ a type of slime that has properties of both liquids and solids; conducted experiments by combining sugar and fire; and created fireworks with gummy bears.

The highlight of the event was watching Assistant Professor of Chemistry Andy Robak, Chemistry Club adviser, create bubbles by placing a gas-filled hose under water and dish soap. He got his hands and arms wet under the gas bubbles, scooped up the bubbles, and Barnhart set the bubbles on fire.

Other members of the Chemistry Club who took part included: Kyle Morgan, a sophomore biochemistry major from Alfred Station; Steve Stout (treasurer), a senior environmental science major from Locke; Brian DelPineo, a sophomore biochemistry major from Oneida; Ashley Hager, a sophomore biochemistry major from Chemung; Sonya Decker, a freshman occupational science major from Chemung; Kathlyn Parrish, a freshman biochemistry major from Cincinnatus; Caitlin Adams, a sophomore biology major from Redwood; Andrea Burgess, a senior management major from Hemlock; Alex Jones, a senior biology major from Conklin; Chelsea George, a freshman biomedical major from Strykersville; Krystal Russell, a freshman medical technician major from Berkshire; and Richelle Coons, a freshman adolescent biology major from Lyons.