David Triggle – Science and the Public

June 01, 2007

David Triggle is distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and president of the Center for Inquiry Institute. He is the author and editor of several books dealing with the autonomic nervous system and drug-receptor interactions, some two hundred and fifty research papers and some one hundred and fifty chapters and reviews. Currently, his research and teaching interests have expanded to include the philosophical basis of ethics and issues around the science-policy-public interface through the Center for Inquiry Institute.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, David Triggle explains the new Science and the Public masters degree, which is the collaborative effort of the Center for Inquiry and the State University of New York at Buffalo. He also talks about various arguments for public science literacy, the difference between the need for science literacy and the need for the public’s appreciation of the “ethos” of science, and various questions at the interface of science and public policy. He also treats the topic of whether science and religion are compatible.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 1st, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries. The radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, which is a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. We also maintain centers in Manhattan. Tampa, Hollywood, Washington, D.C. and many other cities around the world. Before we get to this week’s guest, Dr. David Tringle, who will be talking with me about the science and the public program. Here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

Hi, I’m Barry Carr, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We publish what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. And so sure that you love this magazine, but I want you to have a complementary issue to see what we’re all about. To get your sample copy. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. I mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you and you can begin and join the skeptical inquiry. Thank you. 

I’m pleased to be joined on this week’s Point of inquiry by David Tringle, he’s currently university professor and president of the Center for Inquiry Institute here at the State University of New York. He’s author and editor of several books dealing with the autonomic nervous system and drug receptor interaction, some 200 50 research papers and some 150 chapters in books and reviews. He’s currently the editor of Comprehensive Medicinal Chemistry, a series of books entitled Drugs, the Street Facts and a number of other publications. While most of his career has been focused on the questions at the interface of chemistry and pharmacology with really an emphasis on drug interactions and neurotransmitter receptions in ion channels these days, he centers a lot of his attention on the philosophical basis of ethics and issues around science and public policy questions. Here at the Center for Inquiry Institute, he’s joining me on point of inquiry today to talk about the new master’s degree that CFI is collaborating with University of Buffalo on science and the public and also about the public understanding of science. David Tringle, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you very much for having me. A pleasure to come and talk about science and the public. Professor, let’s start off briefly. Tell me about the program, science and the public. Well, the program for which we’ve just received approval is, as you mentioned, a master’s program. And the objective of the program really stems from an observation that Carl Sagan made many years ago when he said that it’s suicidal to have a society which is dependent on science and technology, in which nobody knows anything about science and technology. And so the purpose of the program is not to create string theorists or quantum electro dynamicists or even medicinal chemists. People are not learning science or learning science. Now, they put the purpose of the program is to teach people about the methods and the questions that are used in science so that when people are faced with decisions that the science, public policy, public political party interface, they can ask the right sorts of questions as to the science and his application in society. That’s the purpose of the program, not to create scientists. 

So the purpose of the program itself raises the question whether or not the public actually even needs to know science. You’re beginning with the assumption that quote from Carl Sagan that, yes, people do need to know science. Yeah, let’s talk about that question. It seems to be an open question in society except among scientists. A lot of scientists wring their hands all the time about public should understand science more and more. But one could argue, well, they’re biased. They’re scientists. They want the public to understand science and appreciate science because the public funds science. 

Absolutely. That’s the question that’s often raised by people in the public and frankly, raised by many politicians who argue, as you’ve seen in the continuing discussion on climate change, for example, that scientists have one particular view about climate change because they get funded to have that particular view. That’s nonsense, of course. 

The public needs to know about science, because if you put down perhaps the next 10 most important questions that are going to face society, this society, society in general, in the world over the next two to three decades, they are all going to require scientific and technological solutions. You can talk about climate change up or down. We can talk about energy use. We can talk about the impact of genomics in terms of genetically modified foods, stem cells. All of these are related issues, the depletion of minerals, cetera. All of these require technical and scientific solutions. And the public has a great vested interest in understanding how these solutions are going to be applied because they’re going to affect them. 

But does the public need to know the science nor the science or just trust that the institutions of science are doing a job good enough to arrive at solutions to benefit the public? 

The answer is somewhere in between. I wouldn’t trust scientists, although I’ve been a scientist myself for 55 years working in a laboratory at the same time. I don’t think there’s public and political bodies can be totally ignorant of science. What the public and political bodies need to know is what are the questions that one asks of science and scientists in terms of the technologies that are coming down the track. So, for example, let’s take the ability over the last decade, for example, to introduce genes into plants which confer insect resistance and they develop specific sensitivity or non sensitivity to specific herbicides, etc. So the public certainly doesn’t have to know about the details of gene transfer and what the methods are and shotgun techniques, etc. or they do have to know is what are the questions one needs to ask of the science and technology in terms of what happens when we apply these technologies? What happens to our food supply? What happens to the generation of resistant weeds? What happens to the wildlife population? These are. All legitimate questions that the public needs to know. They don’t need to know the details of gene transfer. But they do need to understand the ethos of science and the way in which scientists go to ask questions not only of each other, but of science in general. Those are the issues. 

So you’re not talking at least just now. You’re not talking about scientific literacy. 

You’re talking about something else. I’m talking about something. This this is not to say that scientific literacy is unimportant. In fact, I would argue that scientific literacy is one of many components of literacy that the average person should have. And they should have a literary literacy. They should have a cultural literacy, a musical literacy. And that way we can all have a sensible intercourse because we all have a common set of knowledge. You and I are talking because we have a common understanding of the English language. If you are, I didn’t speak one language in common, we wouldn’t be sitting here. So everyone needs to have some degree of scientific literacy, some degree of literature literacy, some degree of music literacy, etc. But no, you don’t have to be a quantum electro dynamicists or a theoretician in high energy physics. No. 

So it seems to me we’re talking about two things at once. One’s the whole science literacy argument, the hand-wringing questions. When scientists get together and decry how ignorant the American public is about the basics of science, the triple A-S, the American Association for Advancement of Science, has a list of things they say every citizen should know about science. But knowing those things, other than kind of making us say, well, we’re culturally literate or we’re scientifically literate. Knowing those things, I don’t see an argument that knowing those specific facts of the body of knowledge we call science improves one’s daily life when you’re fixing coffee in the morning. Does it matter if you are wrong about this or that particular scientific fact or ignorant of it? 

Quite right. That’s part of man’s cultural literacy to have this knowledge. Our program does not focus on creating scientific literacy. That’s not an unimportant issue. But that’s not what our program does. Our program focuses on the methods, the questions, the ethos of science, the implicit uncertainty in scientific conclusions, which are a fact which is so often manipulated by the public and political bodies at large. 

So the point of the program not to teach science, not to teach people more facts about the body of knowledge, as it’s always changing that we call science, is it to shore up public support about science? Just make people be more rah rah about science? Is it a science appreciation program? 

No, definitely not. It’s a program which is focused on trying to understand the dynamics of the science policy interface. How does science get translated into public policy? Because the way in which science gets translated into public policy has an enormous public impact. Whether we allow genetically modified foods, we allow them. The French hate them. What’s the basis of that decision? How do we come to accept them so readily when 90 percent of everything we eat contains genetically modified corn and the French say we don’t want any of this? How come? What is the basis of the differential decision making processes? We don’t allow stem cell research, at least not with federal funds. Many other countries do. How do we come to this decision? And that’s those are the sorts of questions we pose. 

So the graduates in this new science and the public program are going to be capable communicators of this even conflict, this conflict between, can I say, world views, the world view based on the sciences and the other ways of looking at the world that seem in contrast or in conflict with that. You’re not setting out to you know, it’s not a seminary for culture or is to go out there and defend the world view of science against its cultural competitors. But you are trying to train people, educate people, a new generation of people who can speak authoritatively on these issues from a scientific point of view. 

Yes, because they understand the methods of science, the implicit uncertainty of science and what basically what Robert Merton many years ago called this sort of the the fundamental ethos of science. Robert Merton was the great sociologist of science. And and he argued that science was essentially based on a set of principles. And he coded these principles. He said that science is universal. That is the values of science, the facts of science. The quantities of science belong to everyone. Science, he argued, is communal. The facts are science. The basis of science not only belong to everyone, but they are the same the world over. He argues that science is based on organized skepticism. That is, science is constantly asking questions not only of science, but scientists ask questions of each other in terms of modern. Fine, changing results, changing hypotheses, modifying conclusions, etc., and is those principles which are really so essential. And finally argued that science is based on disinterest in this. The scientists have no vested interest in the outcomes of the work. 

Well, let’s get into that about the biases of science. Who owns science? The findings of science are obviously never up to a vote. Scientists don’t get together and say, how do we want to decide this research? Turns out we follow the I say we as if I’m a scientist. I’m not talking about science. But scientists follow the research where it leads. But the research agenda of science is also not up to a vote, or at least it hasn’t been historically in this country since after World War Two. People don’t get together and say, what do we want our scientists to be looking into? The scientists kind of unelected elite scientists decide what they research. 

Am I right about that? In part. 

In essence, we need to go back to World War, to the Manhattan Project, which was clearly a highly focused effort. And that led Boniva. Bush, who was then Roosevelt’s science adviser to come at the end of World War two, 1945, to put together is celebrated document on the policies of science. And that’s basically directed American sites with enormous success ever since. So basically other countries, the United Kingdom, most of Europe, etc., basically adopted this modest policy of federal funding with essentially letting the scientists determine their own agenda. And that’s why on occasion, when a congressman gets up and boards a Golden Fleece Award for something that he considers particularly idiotic, why the scientific community is so much up in arms, the public funds it, but with no strings attached. Right. And that’s critical. 

It’s fine. I think I’ll clearly. 

Governments do focus money on particular scientific objectives. So we may have, for example, a particular focus on HIV. Particular focus on cardiovascular research. Those priorities can be modified and determine that. And that’s appropriate at the federal government or state government level. But by and large, even within those categories, the scientists determine exactly what route they choose to use the additional funds that have become available. I think the last thing one wants is the individual congressman or the individual senator dictating exactly how I do my experiment in the laboratory or even the public deciding what experiments are done, what researchers done. That seems profoundly undemocratic. It is profoundly undemocratic. But nobody said that science was democratic. Science is not democratic. But shouldn’t even the research agenda of science be up for a vote? It is up for a vote in many respects. The budget, the largest budget is the National Institutes of Health. It’s probably the largest public research budget in the world. And significantly, the directions of NIH have clearly been changed or modified by public concerns. We’ve had an enormous influx of money into HIV research, for example, over the past decade in Norton, and that’s extremely appropriate. There’s public concern, other directions in which public directed research was polio eradication of polio was very much a public agenda. The collection of money through the March of Dimes, the funding of Salk and etc., etc. all were instances in which the public was very directly involved. I think scientists would be foolish to say that public and political bodies should have absolutely zero role in determining where science goes. There are clearly areas and avenues in which the public should be involved. But to be involved, they must understand not the nature of vaccine development and how you go to culture it in kidney cells, etc. But the ethos is the ethos of science. That’s what they must understand. 

I want to talk more directly about science and the public. But before that, let’s talk more generally about science literacy vs. this kind of just science appreciation or general understanding of the ethos of science. Many scientists with whom I’ve spoken on the show have said citizens need to know science because it benefits them. Knowing science benefits you other than helping you kind of have a little more common sense. You know, maybe science has been continuous with common sense. How does knowing science itself benefit the average citizen? 

It probably doesn’t directly benefit the average citizen in the sense that as he or she stops in Wegmans to buy their weekly groceries. The fact of knowing something about atomic theory is probably the last thing from their mind. So I learn it because understanding things like atomic theory, the basic principles of thermodynamics. 

But, you know, we all tend to disorder etc. You can’t get energy for nothing is no free lunch. Knowing those basic principles is certainly a good guide to a number of things. For example, it would enable the average person to ask some questions of people who say, well, we’re going to build 100 ethanol plants and solve our independence from Middle East oil. Well, the answer is it won’t solve your independence from Middle East oil. A few elementary pieces of knowledge about energy inputs and energy outputs and a little bit of knowledge about there’s no free lunch in generation of energy would help convince people this is not a very sensible way to go to solve energy independence. 

So knowing science benefits a person as a citizen, it makes them kind of a more informed says. And that’s, in fact, one of the few lines of reasoning that scientists give or other advocates of science give for a widespread public understanding of science. Makes you a better citizen, makes you a more informed voter, makes you more engaged, and you can make better decisions about what kind of president to elect based on his science policy. But it seems to me there’s a very small sector of the population who cares about science enough to care about the science issues, enough to base their decisions on those kinds of questions. 

And I think one of the reasons I think you’ll find many of the probably the same scientists that you’ve talked to would argue that the fault for this lies in the way in which we run science education. I mean, I’ve taught in higher education for many, many years. And it’s really only in the latter part of my life. With intimations of mortality on the horizon, no doubt that one begins to think about the bigger picture of science. All of my life, I’ve concentrated on details of chemistry, details of pharmacology as they apply to very narrow pieces of science in which the average citizen has absolute zero interest for good reason and zero benefit to learn and zero benefit to learn the damn stuff. 

I mean, true, my research has led to the generation of a group of drugs which tend to have some use in cardiovascular diseases, but it’s only the application that should interest them, right? They shouldn’t be interested in what I do. We tend to teach science as a sort of a set of individual specialized disciplines. You have to know this organic chemistry. This bit of geography. This bit of earth sciences. This little bit of physics. This little bit of mathematics. A very few programs, certainly not in high school. Tell you what the basis of scientific inquiry is all about. You’re not learning the math. You’re not learning the methods. 

You’re not learning the methods of the outlook of science. And isn’t that because the methods, the outlook of science just up right against the most centrally held beliefs of our culture? 

Yes. Freud, in his lectures of 1919, pointed out that there have been two devastating blows to humankind. The first was Galileo, etc. when we found out that we weren’t the center of the universe. The second was Darwin and the consequences of Darwin. When we found out that we probably weren’t a very important species either. And that’s a fairly lethal one two combination. And those are the repercussions of those two things are here today. In today’s New York Times that a editorial op ed piece by the senior Sam Brownback, the senior senator from Kansas, he’s running for election. He’s clearly trying to sort of straddle a line between evolution and creationism and intelligent design. But there’s one very key sentence in what he said, and that is he will accept those articles of science which fit in with his ingrained beliefs and reject the others. And this is part of the problem that I think science and society faces. 

But the outlook of science that you were just decrying is not being taught. The outlook and the methodology of science isn’t being taught in secondary education, primary education, not even really in university, not even in university, although in universities we do tend to catch up, at least in our understanding of the body of knowledge that we call science when we catch up with Europe and the rest of the West. But throughout our science education, no one learns that that outlook. The methods of science and their implications because of what you just said regarding Brownback, because people don’t follow the implications. They’re afraid of the implications, I’d submit. And this program seems to not shy away from those implications, the implications of the scientific outlook for the most closely held beliefs of our society. You follow the results where they lead you, not where they wished you would. They would lead you. So a public science advocate or a public science educator, there seems to be a truce that a lot of them have made. There seems to be this detente between religious believers who will believe in evolution as long as you don’t say that it has implications for their closely held beliefs about God and atheistic scientists who say, let’s not talk about racism just so that we can get them in our camp as opposed to the cultural competitors who are anti evolution. Strategically, that seems to be a much better way to go if you’re trying to advance the teaching of evolution in the public schools than being all loud about the implications of evolution for these closely held beliefs. 

Well, it certainly makes for a temporarily at least more comfortable dialog because you don’t have to face up to difficult facts. And that’s part of the problem. Now, scientists are very much to blame here. We are all at least in higher education, and we are generally rewarded for being highly specialized, for generating money and results and data publications and books. I’m as guilty as anyone of this in very, very specialized areas and failing to pay very much attention to undergraduate education. And when I was an undergraduate student in the United Kingdom, our undergraduate chemistry was taught by the senior professor in the department because he considered a world famous guy. He considered his role to teach the most junior of the students. Linus Pauling did the same thing at Caltech. But generally speaking, we tend to focus not on teaching by the most senior faculty ought to have the greatest breadth of experience, the widest knowledge, etc.. We don’t do that in higher education. We don’t rewarded in high schools. And so to a significant extent, scientists have themselves to blame for the dilemma in which we find ourselves. 

So if we’re in this dilemma, this disconnect of people. Look, there are a lot of people out there who appreciate science. They go to the science museums and they know they enjoyed Cosmos when it was out. They might not follow the implications of science for their closely held beliefs. Is that an audience that the community of science should be reaching? Or I think we’ve already reached? 

I think to a significant extent, we’ve probably already reached those. The people who watch Cosmos, but people with the message about the implications. Yes. Then we should reach that. Yes, yes. Yes. 

Is it a. Is it a lost battle with the others? There are two camps. There are people who I’m not talking about the anti science people in our society who, you know, believe they’re sacred book and they hold it up at their service and they believe what it says because it says what it says. And the scientists or the unelected elite who are trying to lie to them and their children. I’m writing them off for the sake of this discussion. I’m talking about the majority of people out there who say science and technology, it’s given us great things, gave me my Apple computer, which I love, gives me, you know, a longer life, you know, get that podcast he gives us, gives us podcasts and radio shows. Does all this stuff, but they don’t connect that with the implications for their central beliefs. They don’t draw a connection between science as a body of knowledge, maybe as an as a method of finding things out. They don’t connect that with the world view that has implications for alternative medicine or for the paranormal or for certain religious claims, et cetera. 

Now, I think I think that’s the disconnect. People love their technology. They love their hybrid cause. They love their iPods. They love their high definition televisions. And they wonder at the technologies that went into that whether they use those technologies effectively is entirely another matter. 

But we they and we fail to grapple with this whole issue at the back of how do you apply science in a society? What are the issues that one needs to ask as a public citizen, as a political citizen? Well, the questions that one needs to ask of the science itself in terms of its applications, there are ethical and moral questions at the end of World War Two, for example, that were enormous ethical questions raised by the scientists themselves who would develop the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer in particular said, you know, we’ve seen the devil. Right. You know, he worried a great deal about what we had actually done as scientists. 

So that last question, Dr. Trigonal, I was talking about the implications and not just the public policy implications. You don’t need to know a lot about nuclear fission to know whether or not you want the nuclear reactor in your backyard. These are real public policy questions that we’re talking about, and that’s what science and the public gets at. But it seems to me that science and the public is program is also not afraid to explore implications of the scientific outlook or worldview or ethos for bigger questions than just genetically modified food. You know, bigger questions like the paranormal alternative medicine, claims that are made in the name of science or, you know, seem like science but aren’t science. 

Well, absolutely. We we the objective one of the objectives of science and the public is to. 

Generate the mind view by which people can ask the right questions of those things. Now, what are the objectives? What are the criteria by which you evaluate someone’s paranormal claim? 

What is the nature of the questions you ask of someone who claims to photograph the ghost, as Conan Doyle once claimed to a photograph, etc.? What are the challenges that you face? Will you generate to these questions? And that’s part of what we do in science and the public program. Very much so. But we also ask the same questions of the application of genetically modified foods, stem cell technologies, etc. It’s the same set of questions of which you ask of the applications of science. 

Dr. Torigoe, if science has implications for these questions, you mentioned genetically modified foods, but also the paranormal. And can we take pictures of ghosts and mad and which I know you have a lot to say about. I’d love to have you back on the show so we could treat that because there seems to be a growing interest in that and not not enough critical examination of those claims. 

Well, if science in the public treats all those kinds of questions, it seems to me that doozy is the God question. Yes. Some of the leading scientific thinkers of the past 30 years have argued that there’s not a necessary incompatibility between the world view of science and religious belief. I’m not talking about just the methods of science because you could be a devout believer in whatever God and follow the methods of science and do good research and find out some really interesting things. Get published, write your books and get the accolades from your fellow members of the scientific community. But the world view of science vs.. 

Religious belief. Do you think there’s a conflict? 

A number of scientist, probably the minority, claim that they can hold both science, scientific methods, scientific methodology and the existence of God together. 

I think there’s a fundamental incompatibility there. I think it’s very difficult to hold two opposing views in one’s mind at the same time. But nonetheless, one must recognize that people, including Nobel laureates in biological sciences, claim to hold those views together. The real issue, I think, is that you can take science back to the very moment of the generation of the universe or the multiverse or the membrane hypotheses in string theory. But one can always, as as a scientist or non-scientist, always argue that there is something behind all of that. And you can call it what you like. And that, I think, is the view that I think it’s a relatively limited number of scientists still hold both views simultaneously. But we certainly hold the view and in science in the public that we will take our analysis of science in its application, in the political and public spheres, wherever it takes us, even if it opposes the most cherished police of our society, including the belief that God created the universe 6000 years ago. 

And he belongs in politics. Absolutely. Science might not belong in politics for a vast majority of the electorate, but God certainly does. 

We will certainly challenge that view. We will take the data and the evidence wherever it takes us. If we don’t do that, we don’t belong in a university or a center for inquiry. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of Inquiry. Dr David Trigger. My pleasure. Thank you. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. One adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community who could have imagined that reality would need defenders. The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values by becoming a friend of the center today. Whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting w w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online discussion or argument about the topics in today’s show, or really most any topic under the sun go to center for inquiry dot net slash forums and get involved with our online discussion forums. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of CFI, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnally and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiry’s music is composed warwas by Emmy Award winning Michael Dwalin. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.