Why scientists seem to change their minds (9)

Reason 9: The scientists haven’t changed their minds, but many people believe they have

There are a number of high profile issues which many members of the public believe are not resolved by scientists, where in fact there is broad scientific agreement. A classic example is the theory of evolution. Many members of the public believe that there is controversy amongst scientists about evolution; however this is simply not true. Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biological research. I have met hundreds of biological researchers but I have never met one who thought that evolution does not happen. To be honest in all my years working as a researcher I never even heard the matter discussed and it was only later that I discovered, to my surprise, that many people think that it is a matter of scientific controversy. If you are a biologist you see evolution take place in every experiment you do. For example, as mentioned before I used to work on HIV and if you change the conditions in which you are growing HIV (or in the real world, if it is transmitted to a new person) within days you can see that it evolves to become genetically distinct from its ancestors.

Of course if you look hard enough you will be able to find one or two individuals with scientific qualifications who will question evolution but it is certainly not a mainstream scientific viewpoint. So why do people think it is a matter of controversy? The reason is that there are many people who do not believe in evolution for religious reasons and some individuals have tried to support their religious viewpoint by arguing that even the scientists have not made up their mind on this point. A similar situation is occurring with climate change. In this case, many individuals do not believe that humans contribute to climate change for political reasons. They are also stating (often very loudly) that there is scientific controversy on this issue when the fact is that there is broad scientific consensus that humans do contribute to climate change.

Next — Although scientists seem to change their minds… let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water

Kirsty Newman
Dr Kirsty Newman founded the Evidence-Informed Policy Making programme at the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) in 2009. From August 2012, she will be working for the UK Department for International Development in the Research Uptake team. Follow Kirsty on twitter: @kirstyevidence

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