New technologies have led to an explosion of both science and anti-science content
New technologies have led to an explosion of both science and anti-science contentSubodh Varma, The Economic Times, 7/21/2011 - originalNew technologies of communication have led to an explosion of both science and anti-science content. While science in all its diversity is being propagated through websites, blogs, podcasts, videos, films, television, radio, books, graphic novels, even computer games and apps, so is aggressive anti-science. This may take an overt religious form (say, defense of Biblical creation) or just superstition ("the world is going to end on 21st December 2012"), although the latter is derived from the former. The mass media, especially television, has played an enormous role, for both sides.
Western societies are facing this epic battle in a much bigger way than the rest of the world. This is due to two reasons: very high levels of diffusion of new technologies and the nature of religious beliefs. Drawing upon the Bible's description of Creation, way back in the 18th century, Bishop Ussher of Ireland 'calculated' that God created earth on 23 October 4004 BC. Such a precise pronouncement was bound to come under severe stress as fossils millions of years old were discovered and dated by modern technologies, and the earth's age itself roughly set at about 4.5 billion years.
But type in 'creationism' in Google and you will get over seven million hits as both sides jostle for popularity. This is not strange. Technology is only a medium, what it delivers depends on who controls the master switch. Just as nuclear science can be used to build bombs or diagnose cancer, and ultrasound can be used to kill female fetuses or detect fetal diseases, so too the new media can be used to either propagate truth as established by a scientific investigation or it can make quick bucks by talking about adrenaline pumping stuff ranging from 2012 apocalypse to creationism and climate change denial.
Technological advance is supremely democratic, says Michael White , an Australian popular science writer. "It would be unreasonable to assume that those opposed to science would not find their voice on the web and with media in general. The great irony of course is that none of these 'new' forms of communication would be possible without scientific advance," he said.
So, there is a war for reaching and winning the public's heart and mind. As Robert Kanigel , professor of science writing at MIT, puts it, "Sometimes it seems like two implacable enemies in a perpetual, quite silly stand-off".
Scientists have responded with gusto to this onslaught by the anti-science lobbies. While people like Richard Dawkins have been the spearhead of science's response through spectacular counter-attacks, it is in the trenches of the worldwide web that the slugfest is going on. Some of the bitterest polemics are between scientists and climate change deniers, with nobody sparing an inch. This battle on climate change has also revealed darker depths - many pseudo-studies saying that climate change is not man-made were found to be funded by big carbon emitting companies.
Many scientists believe that the cyber war needs to be fought out differently. Phil Plait, author of the popular Bad Astronomy blog, says that the internet polarises people more. "People who believe in something can find information to support that belief more easily, and ignore what they disagree with," he says. This has raised the question of how scientists should tackle irrational ideas and beliefs.
Popular science writer Brian Clegg says that aggression and invective do not help in this debate. "Some like Richard Dawkins take on anti-science aggressively, sometimes attacking individuals and calling them stupid. This really doesn't help and doesn't win anyone over. I think it's better to be honest but calm and friendly, using rational argument, not invective," he says.
Even as the battle rages, more perceptive people are pointing out what should have been clear anyway - it is the schools that matter. Carl Zimmer , New York Times columnist and top ranked science blogger, says that in the US, science teachers are wary of teaching evolution and climate science because of the controversy they may attract. And so students don't get a solid grounding in the basic facts.
This war will soon reach our shores as society and its resources advance. But its shape may well have to be redefined as a more speculative/contemplative religion with a much deeper commitment to the unchanging nature of things meets the new emerging knowledge of the universe and our minute planet which sees constant, unrelenting change, based on laws.