Science, Technology, and Society

Society greatly shapes the public’s perception of scientific matters. The general thought about science is that the profession is not responsive to society’s needs; the process of answering questions and meeting needs takes too long. The public’s view regarding the length of time science takes to provide answers is especially prevalent in forensic science as television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have emerged. People expect results immediately.

The general public expects science to remain unbiased and not become overly politicized. When scientific opinions are swayed by politics, public opinion of science decreases. It has been shown that trust between science and society has declined in the last decade. Society questions the changing opinions of science regarding important issues such as stem cell research, overuse of medications like antibiotics, awareness of cancer-causing agents, and the controversy over vaccinating children. Society may also distrust science because unethical behaviors that contribute to mistrust are often reported, and exacerbated, by the media. Society has granted the scientific community with privileges that are upheld as the public invests confidence into the profession.

To combat negative opinions that society may hold of science, scientists should understand their roles in society to better appreciate how to help shape the public’s perception. In addition, the public needs to be educated as well as protected from junk science and misinformation. People may fear scientific information and become frustrated when facts are deemed inaccurate. Junk science, or science that is not consistent with generally accepted scientific views, needs to be eliminated from society, although that is not entirely possible. It is possible, however, to filter scientific findings through peer review, publication, and repeatability of the procedure to decrease the frequency of junk science (Shiffman, 2000). Although the public realizes that differences in the interpretation of data and honest errors occur, the variation in results and opinions is still confusing. Secrecy and competition contribute to a loss of public confidence in the integrity of science. Scientists receive criticism for the lack of information they provide to the public even if the lack of details may occur as a safeguard. This precaution generally occurs prior to research inquiries when scientists are determining the limitation of studies. It is important to protect the public from junk science to ensure that real scientific information is respected and valued.

One of the foremost convictions in science is open communication. The media has a large influence on the public perception of science. Science communicates with the public through media such as books, newspapers, television media, science fiction, and magazines. Although science and media have the same duty to gather information, to provide facts, and to accept social responsibility, the two cultures have different standards, methods, goals, competencies, and funding sources. The differences in professional cultures may cause the public to question the objectivity and accuracy of what is being reported. If the media does not promote these ideals, it can negatively impact the scientific community. Communications between the scientific community and the media should help to foster the public’s knowledge, not promote distrust of science by creating more questions. At times, interactions between the cultures of science and the media may have unintended and adverse consequences for the public. Consequences include creating confusion, mistrust, and a lack of support for scientific research. In science, peer review and publication are important to maintain the confidence provided by the public as well as other scientists. There are a variety of scientific meetings where scientists present findings to their peers. However, it is important that scientists are aware that such meetings are often open to the public, including the media. This is not to say that research presented at scientific meetings is inaccurate; however, there may be reasons the research is not yet published. For example, preliminary results presented to a small audience provide the scientific community with general information regarding the research that is occurring, not necessarily a complete conclusion. Also, a scientist may present controversial work at a meeting to establish the extent of debate the research creates. The potential for misquotes is another reason for scientists to realize that meetings are open to the public. It is much easier for misquotes in the media to occur from a public presentation than it is from a journal article, as most presentations are not prewritten, edited material (Resnik, 1998).

Communication is extremely valuable in science as long as the potential downsides are considered. Scientists often seek media coverage for discoveries because they want the public to know what is happening or they hope to gain support for the research. In particular, scientists have an obligation to raise public consciousness because the public has the potential to make important contributions to science and technology. Open communication with a high degree of intellectual freedom allows research to flourish; debates are an excellent means for this type of open communication. To prevent potential attacks and to strengthen the research, debates are useful. Communication is a valuable part of scientific research. The professional cultures of science and media communicate to their constituents, however, the cultures differ in standards and values of how to communicate so recipients of information should consider potential bias, conflicts of interest, and motives of sources.

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