Salovey: Universities are vital for bridging the science gap

This commentary by Yale President Peter Salovey appeared online in Scientific American on Feb. 27.

If knowledge is power, then scientists should easily be able to influence the behavior of others and world events. After all, scientists spend their entire careers discovering new knowledge about the natural world — from a single cell to the whole human, from an atom to the universe. What we see day-to-day, however, illustrates that scientists, even if armed with overwhelming evidence, are at times powerless to change minds or motivate desired action. Issues like climate change show the frustrating lack of influence of scientific consensus on larger society. According to a 2015 Pew survey, people in the U.S., one of the countries that emits the most carbon, were among the least concerned about the potential impact of climate change. Why are so many Americans indifferent to this global threat?

One might think that a lack of scientific understanding is the cause. However, the Pew survey revealed that there are partisan divisions on perceptions of climate change. And Yale Professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues reported in Nature Climate Change that people with the “highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.”

As described in a report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, scientific knowledge does not always lead to acceptance of scientific consensus. Scientific knowledge about the natural world alone may not easily supersede ideology. Other information—wisdom across disciplinary and political divides—is needed to help policy makers and members of communities bridge this gap. This is where institutions of higher education can provide vital support. Colleges and universities are home to diverse thinkers and leaders who can discover innovative strategies to translate scientific insights into solutions.

Breaking out of the echo chamber

Educating global citizens is one of the most important charges to universities, and the best way we can transcend ideology is to teach our students, regardless of their majors, to think like scientists. From American history to urban studies, those of us in higher education have an obligation to challenge our students to be inquisitive about the world and to weigh the quality and objectivity of data presented to them. Most importantly, we must teach students the importance of changing their minds when confronted with contrary evidence.

Likewise, STEM majors’ college experience must be integrated into a broader model of liberal education to prepare them to think critically and imaginatively about the world and to acknowledge and understand different viewpoints. It is vital for the next generation of leaders in science to be aware of the psychological, social and cultural factors that affect how people understand and use information.

College and university faculty members—across the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences—are united in careful, disciplined and reasoned inquiries about our world. For example, University College London and Yale University have collaborations in bioinformatics, comparative literature, history, law, medicine and other disciplines to educate students and to address complex global challenges.

Through higher education, students can gain the ability to recognize and remove themselves from echo chambers of ideologically-driven narratives. And they can help others do the same. Students from Yale University, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Waterloo, for instance, developed an Internet browser plug-in that helps users distinguish bias in their news feeds. These students will be presenting their application to Congress. Such innovative projects exemplify the power of universities in teaching students to use knowledge to fight disinformation.

Removing silos in research

For a scientific finding to find traction in society, multiple factors must be considered. Psychologists, for example, have found that people are sensitive to how information is framed. My research group discovered that messages focused on positive outcomes have more success in encouraging people to adopt illness prevention measures, such as applying sunscreen to lower their risk of getting skin cancer, than loss-framed messages, which emphasize the downside of not engaging in such behaviors. Loss-framed messages are better at motivating early detection behaviors like mammography screening.

Scientists cannot work in siloes and expect to have a positive impact on the world, particularly when false narratives have become entrenched in communities. Interdisciplinary research is essential to understanding misconceptions about science and providing data-driven measures to counter false narratives. This is especially true in addressing an issue like public trust in vaccines, a topic that is flooded with misleading information on social media. Vaccines are vital public health interventions, but there have been persistent fears over their safety, despite a lack of legitimate scientific evidence supporting such a view. The loss in confidence in vaccines has devastating consequences. According to the World Health Organization, the measles outbreak in Europe caused 35 deaths between June 2016 and July 2017. And a measles outbreak in Minnesota in 2017 sickened 79 people. These outbreaks were completely preventable because a safe and affordable vaccine is available, but people chose to reject it.

Interdisciplinary research groups worldwide are leading the way in investigating the psychological, political and social factors that affect public trust in vaccines. For example, computer scientists worked with a psychologist to understand people’s attitudes in social media toward vaccination. Experts in public health, political science and international relations joined forces to understand how parents perceive vaccination risks and benefits. A team of international investigators collaborated in tracking worldwide sentiments toward immunizations using data-driven methods. These research findings inform the discussion of community members and policy makers about the issues—discussions that are based on facts and understanding of one another’s concerns, not on assumptions.

Universities are conveners of experts and leaders across disciplinary and political boundaries. There is no environment more conducive for biological and physical scientists to work directly with psychologists, economists, legal scholars and others to maximize the positive impact of their research and to educate the next generation of leaders who will shape our world. Knowledge is power, but only if people are able to analyze and compare information against their personal beliefs, are willing to champion data-driven decision-making over ideology, and have access to a wealth of data-driven research findings to inform policy discussions and decisions.


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