In a post over at the Nature Network, Henry Gee notes that over the last twenty years, he's seen "an increase in ... a siege mentality among scientists". He's probably right. When there's a horde of angry, armed people outside your walls, and they start settling in and making themselves at home, you might start to wonder if you're looking at a siege. When the catapults come out and rocks, stones, jars of burning oil, and diseased animal carcasses start flying over the walls, the folks inside often feel besieged. By the time the attackers disappear in the middle of the night, leaving behind only the remains of their camp, a long-term sanitation crisis, and a large wooden rabbit, the full-fledged siege mentality has usually set in.
The scientific community has fallen victim to a siege mentality in large part because the scientific community has faced near-constant attacks. We're facing the strong possibility that "social conservatives" (in other words, anti-evolution, anti-sex-education, anti-gay, pro-religion pinheads) are going to take control of the state-level school board in Texas, which is such a large market that it will effectively permit them to dictate textbook content for the rest of the country. An anti-evolution bill masquerading as an "academic freedom" act was introduced in the Florida legislature. The Bush administration tossed a scientist off an EPA panel for knowing something about the subject her panel was supposed to be examining, and the likely Republican nominee for President said that there's an actual scientific debate about whether vaccination causes autism. And that was all just last week in the United States. Why on earth would scientists feel besieged in this kind of environment?
The siege mentality in science is understandable, and it's difficult to avoid, but that doesn't mean it's good. It's not. Part of the siege mentality involves a stark "with us or against us" view of things. You - we - are inside the citadel. They - everyone else - are howling outside the gates. That's the world when you're under siege, and that's a problem.
It's a problem because there are a hell of a lot more people out there than the scientific society and it's enemies. There are also a lot of people out there who are ambivalent about the issues, or who simply don't understand them. There are lots of people out there who quite simply don't have the background to judge whether someone is a committed scientist or a committable lunatic (a distinction, let's face it, which isn't always simple at the best of times). That doesn't mean that they're stupid. It doesn't mean that they're ignorant. It doesn't even mean that they are ambivalent about the issues. It just means that they don't know enough about the issue to be able to easily judge for themselves what is (or isn't) the best scientific information available.
How we, as people who care passionately about science, choose to address this issue is going to be critical. We can hope that enough people will recognize that the Association For The Advancement Of The Recognition Of Really Important Scientists is more likely to be giving you the best available scientific information than The Dude that Joe's Uncle's Cousin's Wife Talked To At The Bar Last Thursday, but that's not always going to happen. There are lots of times when it hasn't.
The truth of the matter is that the scientific community doesn't have as much credibility with the public as it should. Some of the loss of credibility is the fault of scientists - the result of poor studies that received huge publicity before being retracted, or of outright fraud - but most of it isn't. It could be the product of the siege. It could be the result of religious zealots who will publicly put science on "trial" to serve their narrow sectarian interests. It could be the product of Senators who will hold hearings and press conferences to claim that scientists are perpetuating a vast "hoax" on the American public, because that kind of thing plays well with their energy company sponsors. It might be the inevitable consequence of a society where truth can be spun, messaged, folded, spindled, mutilated, and purchased by the highest bidder. It could be because of none of those things, some of them, or all of them. Ultimately, the cause of the loss of credibility matters much less than what can be done to get it back.
Complaining about the unfairness of it all is rarely a winning strategy. That's a lesson that most of us learn by the time we're three, even if we forget it before we're thirteen. Demanding that the public believe the "real" scientists isn't going to be a winner, either. That's something that's going to need to be earned. It's not likely to be something that's going to be spontaneously generated. It's something that is going to take hard work. And it can't be done from inside sealed walls.
Dr. Gee has that much right (even if I disagree with much of what he wrote in that essay). People will not respond well if we demand that they believe us. We don't necessarily do much better if we go out there and actively try to teach. The best solution is to create an environment where people can go and discover things for themselves:
Given that people really don't like being patronized, it is no wonder that the public, especially the young, is staying away from science in droves. If the self-selected scientists tell you that these are the facts that you should know, and never mind that you're too dim to understand them, it's no wonder that people desert science as being too inherently 'hard'. This is proven in the breach by the success of more participatory events, such as the Cambridge Science Festival (of which I've been honored to have been a patron) in which visitors are encouraged to make their own discoveries - and which are absolutely mobbed.
We need to spend a lot more time thinking about how to do that kind of thing - and more still actually doing it. If we don't go out there - if we remain walled up in our little fortresses - we'll become more and more isolated from everything. And everyone else will become more isolated from us.