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Appreciating the Dynamic Process of Scientific Advancement

By Anthony (Bud) Rock

A recent report of the (U.S.) Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee contains federal nutritional recommendations indicating that there is now insufficient evidence to substantiate the recommended 300 milligram-per-day limit on cholesterol intake. While the conclusions were met positively by the “foodies” who have struggled to work around such dietary limitations, some characterized the new report as yet another instance of scientists “changing their minds.”

Such a characterization represents a potentially dangerous open door to misinterpretation about the role and merits of science-based decision-making for individuals and society. These misinterpretations are reflected as well in the recent report of the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which points to a growing rift between the views of scientists and the general public on many critical issues and a stunning lack of public appreciation for scientific accomplishment in the face of such challenges.

The notion that science fails us (or worse, misleads us) until it is corrected suggests inherent weakness in the fundamental scientific enterprise, not simply distrust of conclusions at any point in time. This point of view fails to acknowledge the necessary, incremental process of scientific advancement and ignores the fact that science-based policies should always be refined periodically in the face of improved understanding.

Scientists expect to be challenged. It is the whetstone that sharpens the blade that slices through ignorance to uncover knowledge. We place our trust in scientists, not because they are always right, but because they endeavor to be right, earning respect for their collective mission to rigorously observe the objective, empirical tenets of the scientific method.

In the classroom and in out-of-school environments, we are working hard to make science understandable and enjoyable for all. Not every child passing through these various educational environments will become a scientist, but all can learn to appreciate that science can improve the lives that we lead. Science centers and museums in communities everywhere are providing inspirational, relevant science programs, while at the same time building trust and respect for the scientific community.

What is clear is that we fail to incorporate the products of the scientific enterprise at our own peril. Moreover, we are at risk of devaluing these science products precisely as we are urging a generation of youth to achieve greater science literacy. It is in the hands of tomorrow’s generation to value the scientific enterprise and keep it strong. May they never view science as somehow “falling short”—rather, may they accept with patience and determination the steady progress of science against ignorance in all its forms.

Anthony (Bud) Rock is ASTC’s president and CEO.