How do you view science? /Negative perception of public on science

by Abid Iqbal Choon

With the recent U.S. presidential election shock with Donald Trump actually being elected as the next President of the United States says something about the public perception of science. Why? Donald Trump believes that global warming is just something that is created by China in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive [1] and believes vaccines do cause autism. [2] Looking forward, don’t we wonder how it is possible to have someone that has such backward views on science to be elected by the people?


Tweets from Donald Trump, the president-elect himself on global warming and vaccines. (Screenshot)

it says something about how the public thinks or looks at science. Disregarding other factors which may have led people into voting for him, it is safe to assume, there are some people in the public who does not perceive science in a good light. This is mirrored back in our homeland Malaysia, where the anti-science movement in general has been in a rising and worrying trend. It is only a matter of time before some of these people actually get elected into the Cabinet and starts making anti-science policies, which can have severe implications on not just our people, but to a certain degree, to the whole world.

Let’s start from something that is essential to today’s society, education. Yes, education. Particularly in Malaysia, science stream students are always seen to be superior to art stream students. This is the case since for one to enter a science stream class in Form 4, one has to achieve somewhat at least good grades (usually around 6As and above) in the PMR (Lower Secondary Assessment), which has been abolished and replaced by PT3(Form 3 Assessment) now. From such academic requirements, how a Malaysian would stereotypically view students is that if you get into the science stream, you are intelligent and if you are in the art stream, then you are less intelligent than your science stream counterparts. Of course, looking at the bigger picture, the idea for one to be involved in the art/creative industry as a career is frequently frowned upon even without considering their academic prowess. This is because the art/creative industry is often viewed as not a stable financial income source.

On the other hand, the general consensus is that the science stream allows one to enter science related industry after SPM (GCE O-Level equivalent in Malaysia), such as being an engineer or a doctor which is usually related with big-fat paychecks. There’s also this mentality where money means everything in the society’s status quo. If you are rich, you will be respected. Hence, following this logic, if one were to work in a science-related industry, one would be respected in the society because it is expected that they make tons of money. People, want to be respected, but to be respected means to have a good income, which is equated by working in the science sector, so this in itself becomes a vicious self-fulfilling cycle. With this wicked line of thought, most people treat being able to study and work in the science field to be “successful” and the ones that don’t are “failures”, which then shapes how society, and more specifically the smallest unit of society, families, to operate in such a way that parents push their children to get into the science stream and eventually a career in the science industry to both ensure their children to have a stable income and to be respected(which works both ways for the children and the parents, with the latter often claiming bragging rights).

What people in Malaysia think when they think about science CREDIT: BUDGETSARESEXY.COM

Science equates money, at least in Malaysia’s context. Surely, being critical here, does it not feel weird as to why business isn’t being related to money? If money is one’s ultimate goal in life, why science? Surely most multibillionaires are involved in business. Considering this, it may be hard to fully understand the Malaysian society’s logic on science and money, but may be understood when we consider the beginning of this perception.

The following is my hypothesis. Back in the day, people were poor. Think about the 70s and 80s in Malaysia. At that period of time, scholarships were pretty much limited. The father of a family would usually work with minimum wage. By any chance, if any family had a brilliant student, they would be sent into the science stream because at that time, if you have a degree in science related fields, you can really change the financial landscape of your family. Being able to graduate as an engineer or a doctor means so much to families at the time and, over time, this mentality was ingrained into the psyche of society)

Fast forward to today, we can see why society as a whole would probably not be able to relate with science in their daily lives. Like what was stated earlier, science is viewed to just be a field where one can make money and be respected in the society, which is separate from our daily lives. One can say science has become an esoteric entity that has no relevance whatsoever in one’s daily life routine (except maybe, when you are working in a science-related field). With such mentality, it is no surprise that Malaysians in general do not take environmental issues such as recycling seriously compared to how people in the Europe do because the Europeans can be seen to be more science literate and more aware about the importance and what recycling and so on can do to our environment. This is also true for other topics in science, stretching from astrophysical research to GMO foods to, most recently, nuclear power exploration. I personally believe we, the science literate should step up and aggressively work to raise awareness about science and how the negative perception of which can affect us and our surroundings. In essence, this is what we at YME Insider are trying to do.

(Anti-vaxxers in the U.S. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli AP)

So how does all this relate to the backward views on science of the general public? Imagine if in our society, people view science solely as a money making field, and nothing else, there is a certain potential for the situation to deteriorate further. Even now, It may be shocking to know that that there are groups of people who reject climate change and global warming, are anti-vaccines (known as anti-vaxxers), anti-“chemicals”(anything that is natural is good and has no chemicals in it), believe the Earth is flat and not spherical, and believe in pseudoscience in Malaysia!. How bizarre is that? The contradiction between our obsession with the science   stream and the borderline lunacy when it comes to actual implementation of the scientific method shows clearly the dissonance of what we claim to believe in and what we actually do believe in.

However, the discussions revolving around these would take too long to explain in an article and if I tried to do that, I would not do the topic justice. So, how do you view science?



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