Should science be a democracy?

posted in: Commentary | 77
DNA sign by Thomas Hawk via Flickr.
DNA sign by Thomas Hawk via Flickr.

A January 2015 survey conducted by agricultural economists at Oklahoma State found that 82% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains GMOs. The same survey found that 80% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains DNA.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. After the initial face-palm, my feelings of intellectual superiority gradually ebbed when I realized that my husband would be in the 80% of the population that doesn’t know that all food, unless it’s highly processed, contains DNA. My better-half has a degree in International Relations and Peace Studies. He is a consultant with high-tech companies. He’s amazing at his job and can charge a premium for his consulting fees. It’s safe to say that he is well educated and knows what he’s doing. However, his last biology class was 17 years ago. He’s reviewed every article I’ve written, and nearly every time it’s been followed by questions on matters that I’d consider to be basic science.

Sometimes, I’m a bit bewildered that he doesn’t know that DNA is in the nucleus of every cell, but I always plop down next to him with a pen in hand and eagerly explain it to him. He can describe my thesis in human epigenetics, what a sequencer does, and what the I’d-tell-you-but-I’d-have-to-kill-you project I’m currently working on. But if I hadn’t taken the time to explain it to him, he’d be in that 80%.

Writer Ben Lillie questioned whether 80% was a believable number: the order of the questions in the survey may have biased results. Sure, 80% might be inflated and the wording of the survey may have introduced bias. But think of all the viral articles on scientific subjects that you’ve seen in Twitter and in your Facebook page that are false or unfounded. Read the comment section in any popular article about GMOs. Whether it’s 80% or 50%, there’s a significant portion of the population that can’t determine the accuracy of popular “scientific” articles. There’s a portion of the population that doesn’t know that DNA is in all food.

This whole topic raises the question of whether scientific matters (such as food labeling) should be decided by a public that is not educated in the technical aspects or nuances of an issue. Should scientific matters be decided upon democratically?

Here are just a few examples: the Shasta County Board recently decided to look into chemtrails; Portland, Oregon rejects adding fluoride to the city’s water; Humbolt county votes to ban GMO production.

If we, the people, get to decide on such important scientific matters democratically, then why do we spend billions of dollars, on institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, USDA, FDA? Do we just fund them so that they can come up with recommendations and guidelines which we can then ignore depending on whether we find it convenient or if our favorite celebrity endorses it? I can use the term “we” here because I pay what feels like a kajillion dollars in US taxes, even though I’m not a citizen.

Dubai Air Show by Alexander Babashov via Flickr.
Dubai Air Show by Alexander Babashov via Flickr.

Each of the examples above has been extensively studied and guidelines have been offered. The EPA, NASA, and the FAA joined forces to write a document about chemtrails (believe it or not); the EPA and the Department of Health and Human services have done scientific assessments on the fluoridation of water; the FDA evaluates the safety of all GMOs and regulates them (if you’re of the opinion that the FDA is “bought off”, then here’s a report on GMOs from the National Academy of Sciences). Our tax dollars funded every one of these efforts, yet we’re still taking these issues to the ballot box.

There are MANY matters where I know very little and feel comfortable deferring to experts: what material should be used when highways are built, what water purification system my county should use, and so on. My taxes paid for all these projects and they impact me directly. I spend 2 hours a day in my car. If those highways are not built properly, if the on ramps are not sturdy, if the Bay Area bridges are not properly maintained, I could be hurt or even die. I fail to see why we defer to subject matter experts on these topics, but not on others. I don’t see any direct ballot measures to decide on the amount of concrete used when paving a road. Yet somehow, we feel that it’s appropriate to tell farmers in Hawaii what they can and cannot plant. Somehow, we the people, think we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn’t.

I asked a few of my colleagues whether they thought that scientific matters should be decided upon by the public, which led to some great discussions. Most people’s first reaction was “yes, it should be left to the public”. But upon further thought, there’s was always an “oh, but then there’s X”, where X was an example or an issue which would make them change their mind. For one colleague it was “oh, but then there’s all those ridiculous viral articles on Facebook… No, it shouldn’t be democratic.” For another colleague it was “oh, but then there’s all those vaccine conspiracy people… No, it shouldn’t be democratic.” In the end, the consensus amongst my colleagues seems to be that we the people should defer to the experts in their field, who should transparently and openly present their suggestions, which we enact.

The ideal solution here is education: my husband should have had to take science classes all the way through college. All college degrees should have courses that teach students how to read a basic scientific paper and to evaluate it critically. That is the true solution to this argument, if only we could achieve it.

In the meantime, there are a few things we can do:

1) Encourage children in our circle of influence to take science classes in high school and college, even if they’re pursuing a career in an unrelated field.

2) Scientists should step up their communication skills. There aren’t many scientists in the private sector involved in science communication or education. Many of us have been trained in presentation skills. Giving concise explanations or pitches are often required in the private sector. There’s no reason why you can’t expand that skill into a part time hobby.

3) Remember that we all have gaps in our knowledge. Working to fill those gaps rather than mocking them will go a long way.

Perhaps, if we work to educate ourselves and others, then science can become more of a democracy.

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Layla Parker-Katiraee holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and a Bachelors degree in biochemistry from the University of Western Ontario. She is currently a Staff Scientist in DNA Sequencing Product Development. All views and opinions expressed are her own.