Now, more than ever, there is a massive disconnect between the scientific community and the rest of the public due to several important factors. First, and frankly, most people do not have the time or baseline knowledge to have a reasonable level of scientific and mathematical literacy. It is much easier for someone to develop a binary response to complicated and intricate issues, which they may not understand. Furthermore, this disconnect is fueled by what is known as “The Issue Attention Cycle.” In short, this is the idea that issues go in-and-out of mainstream attention in a revolving and predictable way. Mainstream and social media evermore accentuate this cycle and with new issues consistently gaining the immediate focus of society; it is difficult for scientific research and studies to uncover emergent truths about an issue in a time-sensitive way. In addition, it is easy for individuals to have little interest in an issue that will not have a substantial or immediate effect on them. This sort of cognitive dissonance contributes to an overall inaccurately informed public and together, these several factors all create to a widespread distrust and misunderstanding of science.
This broken public perception of science produces several outcomes. The first is that the scientists who have an expert level of understanding particular public health risks (i.e. nuclear power, chemical exposure, etc.) vastly assess the risks differently than the public. More often than not, the risks that the public deem the most important and detrimental to society are those that the media focuses on, not what the experts say. This leaves open the opportunity for the media and politicians to capitalize on public misunderstanding of risks by politicizing them into partisan issues.
Inherently, this creates massive challenges for governmental agencies to create regulations and manage potential risks as well for representatives to enact effective legislation. Administrative agencies have the responsibility to create regulations and manage risks regarding their particular field, based on scientific expert’s findings. Agencies determine what the most effective strategy for regulation is so that it will fix problems that confront them in a cost-effective way. However, due to the aforementioned issues with public understanding of science, governmental agencies have taken increasing pressure and scrutiny as entities who are simply limiting economic development. Similarly, in the legislative process, representatives objectively (in an ideal representative democracy) draft and support legislation based on their constituent’s wants and needs. Therefore, if constituents are wildly misinformed, it is only a matter of time before public policy reflects the same ignorance.
In the past, when there was a greater level of trust and respect for science, scientific findings had great impacts on public policy. For example, after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring highlighted the health effects of DDT, the spur of environmentalism that followed led to banning the harmful toxin. However, more recently in 2015, President Obama committed the US to combating climate change in the Paris Climate Talks. This is a unique example of the federal government choosing to listen to climate scientists rather than to their citizens, who are more than 95% agreed that climate change is human induced compared to less than 50% respectively.
The results from widespread public policy have immediate and substantial effects on our overall society. Whether it is a ban on a toxic chemical, regulation of a specific pollutant, or mandating informational labels to inform the public, policies and regulations are imperative to fixing issues that our society has created. However, oftentimes waiting for elected representatives to make necessary changes in policy and regulation can take too long before an issue becomes worse, which is where the voice of the people comes in. Public outrage feeds the need for regulation and policy. In history, events like the Cuyahoga River fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill spawned outrage and concern about water quality among the public. Similarly, people became incredibly concerned about the danger of air pollutants after dozens were killed and thousands were injured after an air inversion trapped smog in the town of Denora, Pennsylvania. These events led to the public demanding standards for air and water quality, thus causing representatives to enact two of the most effective environmental acts to date; the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Clean Air Act of 1970.
This is the crux of why the protest for science was necessary. Protesters were not only trying to make an argument that the scientific method is something that needs to be trusted and respected, but it was more a way of showing representatives and governmental agencies that our society needs to enact policies and regulations in coordination with scientific findings. If not, there is the potential for serious health, environmental, and societal catastrophe. It is not a topic of liberals vs. conservatives or environmentalists vs. the working class, but one that is in the best interest of all citizens to support.
Scott Culbert is studying environmental science at Northern Michigan University. He spent the last semester in an environmental policy and regulation class. This blog post and the information within it are a result of what he has learned throughout his course.