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Scientists Need to Promote Evidence-Based Public Debate

Rush Holt Addresses Town Hall at Pacific Division 2016 meeting


Rush Holt, right, and Roger Christianson field questions during a town hall meeting at AAAS’ Pacific Division annual meeting in San Diego. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

The most important step scientists can take to combat scientific misinformation is to instill “a reverence for evidence” among the public, said Rush Holt, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, at the 15 June AAAS Pacific Division annual meeting in San Diego.

Holt shared the challenges AAAS faces – such as engaging the public in science and its evidence-based approach to problem solving – and called upon attendees for their input during a town hall question and answer session, moderated by AAAS Pacific Division Executive Director Roger Christianson.

“Science and technology have never been more important parts of people’s lives,” Holt said. Despite polls that show that Americans value science, fundamental misunderstandings of leading public policy topics persist. Millions of Americans, for example, deny evidence that point to the value of childhood vaccinations to ward off diseases, and the existence of climate change, he said.

The seeds of such a disconnect from evidence are planted early: More than half of high school biology students receive inadequate education in the study and importance of evolution, Holt said, despite it being “the central organizing principle for biology.”

Attempts by scientists to address public misconceptions, however, have not always been successful, and often are perceived as condescending, Holt said.

Holt called on scientists to help coach the public about how to approach issues by weighing evidence and assessing factual observations to deepen their understanding of problems in formulating decisions for themselves.

“What we need more than anything in this country is to help people understand that they can think on the basis of evidence,” he said.

Holt, a nuclear physicist and eight-term Democrat representing New Jersey’s 12th district in the House of Representatives from 1999-2015, said public policy debates are too often clouded by political posturing that lacks evidence-based thinking.  

“Policymakers have let ideology crowd out evidence,” he said.

“It’s a challenge to see that scientific evidence is used to inform decision-making on public issues,” Holt added.

Attendees of the town hall meeting focused on education, and urged Holt and AAAS to help promote and support elementary and high school teachers as well as instructors of online courses.

“Educators are really important to AAAS and have been all along,” Holt said. AAAS counts hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers among its members, he said.

All disciplines are represented among AAAS’ more than 100,000 members, Holt said. And not everyone fits neatly into a single discipline, he added. AAAS’ commitment to cross-disciplinary science goes back to the society’s founding in 1848 when organizers abolished segmented, scientific societies focused on a single discipline to form an organization to advance science at large, Holt said. Additionally, many AAAS members are not trained scientists but professionals who recognize the important role of science.

“A hundred thousand sounds like a lot of members. If you ask how many people in this country professionally depend on science and technology, that’s in the millions. How many people in this country are affected in their lives by science and technology and engineering and math? Many more. How many people find science beautiful and interesting and important?” Holt asked.

Another question from the audience illustrated Holt’s message of AAAS’ inclusivity.

A middle school student asked how old he had to be to join AAAS. Holt urged the young science enthusiast to cultivate his curiosity by reading Science.

[Associated image: Andrea Korte/AAAS]