Is Perception Reality?

We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are. -Anais Nin.

Last week, the Pew Research Center published the results of a survey of several thousand Americans on the perception of science in this country – half were professional scientists, half were not (i.e. the public).

First the good news.  People like science and think that it’s had a positive effect on society (84%) – woo hoo!  Scientists (the folks that have produced all that good stuff) rank pretty high too – only losing out to the military and teachers.  Not so bad.

Which is funny – because Americans have a bit of inferiority complex about the science produced here.  If you judge by literature citations, research budget, and Nobel Prizes, science in the US is still the champ — and 90% of American scientists put it at or near the top.  The general public? 17% of Americans said that US scientific achievements were tops.  Whoa.  I’m starting to feel a bit like chopped liver over here.   I’d love to know who folks thought was doing and producing more.  Hrmph.

The division between professional scientists and the public was very clear in a couple of high-profile questions – and the one that staggered and depressed me the most was, of course, evolution.  Nine out of 10 scientists agreed that animals (including you and me) arose from natural processes.  The public?  32%.  Seriously?  How do we get to that point?

If you go to a doctor that says that he’s concluded from your test results that you have appendicitis, and the second opinion says agrees, and the third, and the fourth and so on — I doubt 2 out of 3 people would disregard them.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe in evolution either.  I don’t have to – based on the mountain of geological, archaeological, genetic and biological evidence, I conclude it is the explanation that best fits the data.   Show me one that does so better, and I’ll support that.  This is why I think St Thomas the Apostle should be the patron saint of scientists.

Clearly though, a sizable majority of Americans are participating in willful ignorance and/or have been drawn into the misinformation and hyperbole around “Intelligent Design”.   I know it’s difficult when facts are contrary to certain worldviews – but the Earth is no longer the center of the Universe, and it’s no longer flat.  And we are biological organisms that play by the same rules as all the others that have come before us.

And we have the added bonus of having brains smart enough to perceive that.

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28 thoughts on “Is Perception Reality?

  1. While it is troubling that 68% of the general public doesn't buy the theory of evolution I find it even more disturbing (though not surprising) that 13% (nearly 1 in 8) scientists don't buy into it. It makes me question the validity of their work.

  2. Great post!
    Re: funding, one scientist pointed out that NASA is really good at explaining to the general public what they do every day = funding. The US Geological Survey (who?) not so much, that's where some are falling short.
    The language is also a problem. I see the results of the survey but did they use the words "believe" or "predict" in the questionnaire? Also who the publc considers a "scientist" and who the scientific community does may be 2 different things.

  3. I don't get how people don't all believe in using animals for scientific testing. I love animals (sometimes, even more than people) but if bunnies and mice can help us cure cancer, then bring on the testing.

  4. So sorry to double comment – Kelly reminded me of this (not trying to contradict you, Kelly, just that you jogged my memory) :)
    Again I wonder how they worded that. "use of animals" is vague, and I don't know a single scientist who does not at least question the ethics and wisdom of keeping animals in captivity for research. For life-saving research, maybe. But what about the gobs of useless cruel tests……

  5. This is why I think St Thomas the Apostle should be the patron saint of scientists.I'd go with St Jude or, even better, Giordano Bruno (the last man martyred for adhering to a heliocentric universe).I find it even more disturbing (though not surprising) that 13% (nearly 1 in 8) scientists don't buy into it. It makes me question the validity of their work. Most of them are probably in fields outside of biology. I know that there are several high-profile astronomers and physicists who doubt evolution's explanatory power (though they can't provide a better alternative than "God did it!"). John

  6. What an interesting, thought-provoking post. I have my opinions on these topics, and I suppose I could expend the energy to put them into words. But I think I'll just link to the first thought that came to me as I read this post and saw the words "Pew Research Center."But I'm never opposed to looking at things from a different perspective.

  7. Most of them are probably in fields outside of biology. Yes, that's most likely true. But it still bothers me that they can so easily dismiss the science as garbage. What would their reactions be to scientists outstide of their fields who so easily dismissed their work? No doubt they would accuse such folks as being closed minded and ill informed.

  8. I almost clarified, but then I thought, "Well, it says `scientific testing,' not `is this mascara REALLY waterproof?' testing."
    But yeah, I don't agree with the kind of testing that would hurt animals for the sake of better shampoo or something.
    Remember, I tend to prefer animals to people. ;)

  9. I think you nailed it Steve: when the truth is staring you in the face but you chose to ignore it, it's either willful ignorance or…well, willful ignorance. Why one would chose to ignore the evidence clearly presented is something that boggles the mind. Evolution is real because you can see it happening. Gah!
    Anyway, good to see that scientists are generally well-regarded. As you know, I think scientists are hot ;)

  10. Educated people in this country are of the opinion that higher ed in the US is quite good. From what I have come across. It takes longer (aka more work) to get a BA or BS in the states, as well as a PhD. So there!By the way, they also think Americans work too hard and too much…so much for the concept that other countries think Americans are lazy.

  11. QofB — I was a bit surprised by that number too, but I think like John said, that all practicing scientists aren't necessarily biologists, or fully versed in the data.

  12. Also — I agree that the use of animals could be better defined. I think I read that as a research endeavor with proper guidelines for the humane use of the minimal number of animals. That's probably not the thought that comes to the mind of a lot of the public as they get exposed to the worst of it, rather than most of it.

  13. Kelly — yeah, as I said to Ellie above — I read that question and immediately thought of well-controlled, regulated use of animals — not indiscriminate and cruel uses. But the general public may think of the latter first.

  14. Well-regarded and hot. I'll take it. :DInterestingly, in the data, they broke down the "regard" for scientists among those that disagreed with evolution and they still held science and scientists in high regard — there's a disconnect somewhere. Though perhaps like "cafeteria Catholics" — they feel free to pick and choose which scientific conclusions to adhere to and which ones to ignore.

  15. No no — no mistyping, GB. I don't believe in evolution — i don't have to believe. Much like "I don't believe that the earth orbits the sun." If you define belief as "knowing without proof" — I think we have plenty of support to conclude that it is correct.

  16. Steve – I respectfully disagree on many levels with the assertion that modern biologists' understanding of the origins of life is, in fact, no longer in question or up for debate. You should know (I hope) that I have always found your posts thought-provoking and believe you are an incredibly intelligent and witty individual. However, whether you meant to or not, you are lumping people who don't buy the worldview of scientific naturalism (like myself) in with flat-earthers and "terra-centricists". I'm not hiding behind some anti-intellectualist/hyper-fundamentalist nonsense. I have devoured all kinds of sources of information on this topic (and will probably continue to the rest of my life), and I am not afraid to research and question all assumptions. That being said, I question the assumption that evolution has been observed and proven to be law. I also question the explanations for the origin of the first proteins, and the subsequent massive leaps into "life" as we know it. Not all who believe in Intelligent Design are imbeciles who refuse to let go of a flat-earth worldview. Many (like myself) have studied the amazing molecular machinery of a single cell and are convinced that there's no way a prior less-complex version could have existed, functioned and survived the supposed evolutionary process. None of us claim to have all the answers. It is no more a leap of faith to believe that the universe had a supernatural origin than it is to believe that time, space and matter arose out of complete nothingness. I guess you could lump me into the camp of "holocaust deniers" who are also not convinced that global warming is solely man-made. I believe there is a deep and systemic problem with 'unbiased' scientific study today – in part because public funding is never without agenda, and in part b/c a philosophical bias (naturalism) automatically rules out any potential explanations that don't fit into the naturalist's worldview. My beef is with people who would prefer to dismiss real questions with condescension and sarcasm – I hope that is not what you are doing.

  17. Hey Jim — first off — thanks for the comment — its very easy to either a) ignore or b) flame those that you don't agree with. I know you're not like that, but I appreciate nonetheless. And I certainly don't want to be seen as dismissive (though I am given to sarcasm from time to time) because these questions are ones that I've thought of my whole life.Two things: natural selection/evolution and the origin of life are two separate (yet intertwined) topics. Natural selection has been shown in the laboratory for single-celled organisms (because their generational cycle is so fast, you can actually see the effects in progeny) many times under a series of adaptation causing environments — this underscores one of the arguments anti-evolution folks make — that it can't be tested. Well, it can't be tested on you and me (in any measurable sense) but it can and has been predicted and tested. Of course, folks will then claim that multicellular and unicellular organisms are different and that's not really tenable.As for the Origin of Life — as someone that's done structural and molecular biology for most of his career, I can admit to the wonder of the natural world. In fact, I used to teach CCD to 7th graders with a girl that was a grad-student in astronomy and we would discuss our appreciation of the universe on the macro and microscopic scales. However, it's been well-established that you can cook up complicated organic molecules in pre-biotic-earthlike conditions. Its also very well known that certain types of RNA will self-assemble and self-replicate. Its also known that RNA can create the amino acids — the buiding blocks of proteins. So you have the possibility of ripe conditions, and molecules that are driven to self-replicate. And two or three billion years to get it going (a billion may not seem a lot with all the deficit talk, but its a long time). I think in many ways that life is incredibly UN-likely, but it is more likely than whipping it up from scratch.

  18. Oh — i forgot one thing about bias in science. One thing I know is that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists out there trying to disprove and re-write elements of evolutionary theory. Why? Because showing that the status quo theory and hypotheses work will don't get you papers, professorships or funding — and add on top of that scientists are generally cantankerous and want to prove each other wrong. Can you imagine the flood of funding for something as understanding a major hole in evolution? Holy crap.

  19. I think your opening quote says it all … We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are. We find our comfort, our peace, and that's where we plant our feet. For those who find a sense of strength in the idea of science finding all the answers (eventually), that works for them. For those who choose to believe in a loving Creator who has His hands in the machinations of the universe, so be it. I think it all has to do with faith, one way or the other. To say WE KNOW is premature, because we only THINK we know. No one was around 120 billion years ago, so we can't KNOW. We just have to believe.Or not.Personally, I do believe in evolution, but in the context that there is a God who gave created creatures the amazing ability to adapt to the changes that would come to this planet. I also believe that science is pretty cool, in that it gives us a glimpse into just what an amazing thing that Creator set into motion. And I believe that in the END, we are all going to be freaking surprised at just how right (or wrong) we were.

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