A few weeks ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry published the results of a survey about the public view on chemistry and chemists. This is the first study of this kind considering chemistry and the results were as interesting as surprising: Most people (84 %) consider chemistry to make a valuable contribution to society. On the other side, only 12 % of the chemists expected the public to say so. In general, the public opinion sees chemistry as something positive and useful, and considers chemists as reliable and to be trusted. Being a chemist, I would also have expected a far more negative view. One other key results is that most people simply don’t understand chemistry and feel emotionally neutral towards it. I think, that these result might be similar for science in general.
There is a “disbelieve” (or mistrust) in science – which, again, puts science along with pseudo-sciences or religious believes; and I think this is due to the inaccessibility of how research works. One argument that I frequently hear, let’s say, from opponents of vaccination, is that “the scientific discourse is not yet finished”. This is true but beside the point, because no scientific discourse is ever finished. Science, by definition, is difficult to understand and often contradicts itself, overthrowing and questioning everything. Studies are published, and later neglected. Phenomena are observed and explained, until something new comes up. And honestly, science is far from truth, but this is still as close as we can get. Of course, this must create a high uncertainty and also discomfort, for the public as well as for scientists.
A problem that arises from that is that pseudo-scientific and religious explanations start to mix into scientific views, as it happens in biology classes where creationism is taught as a theory alternative to the theory of evolution. But here is a big misunderstanding: creationism is no theory at all. To qualify itself, a theory must be based on observations, must be provable and falsifiable, and should therefore allow predictions. It is quite simple: The hypothesis that all species were created by an omnipotent God who tries to test our faith might be based on the observation of our sheer existence. I agree that the fact that we exist is extremely unlikely and totally astonishing. But the existence of God cannot be proved, or disproved (anyone who wants to object here, please send me your comments and consider to contribute to the according wikipedia article). This is maybe why it is called “faith”. The fact that there is an ancient collection of edited and translated reports about talking, burning shrubberies, is no proof. Also, creationism allows no predictions, maybe excluding the Book of Revelation.
My point is that the scientific discourse always is not finished, while the religious usually is. There are discussions about how to interpret the holy texts, but the text itself remains rather static. We might learn some day that the first spark of life came from an asteroid, or that our planet is indeed just a gigantic supercomputer operated by extraterrestrial mice in oder to find the question to the answer of “42”. We might also finally encounter that one of all religions was indeed correct. We do not know yet. Until then, we just assume that our current theories are working fine within their limits; until we get a better idea.