On a recent evening, I wandered in the waning light up North Guadalupe Street when a woman and her dog approached me. She asked for money (I gave her a buck) and proceeded to tell me she had found a cure for cancer. I was in a hurry, didn't record or write down the exchange, but the upshot of it was that hair conditioner—as I recall, jojoba-based hair conditioner—used topically would cure cancer. I didn't ask for proof.

What really stuck with me was that her proposition (that hair conditioner cures cancer) didn't strike me as any more outlandish than half of what passes of late for scientific thinking.

Case in point: New Mexico's recent attempts to revamp its standards for scientific education to eliminate inclusion of basic facts such as evolution and climate change. On the bright side of this dark moment, hundreds of citizens turned up on Oct. 16 to protest and urge the state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards endorsed by educators and scientists.

The public outcry prompted the Public Education Department to announce it would reverse course. The imbroglio prompted plenty of national attention, including a personal favorite line from Grist Magazine ("New Mexico: OK, fine, we'll put science back in science standards.") The final standards have yet to be released. As SFR and others have reported (News, Oct. 17: "Altered State Standards"), it's unclear what or who prompted the overhaul and, equally troubling, whether the state administrators who tried to change the standards even understand the science behind them. Many, including New Mexico's Democratic US Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, hypothesize the move was nefarious; in a joint Medium editorial, Udall and Heinrich opine that "Providing an ideologically scrubbed curriculum short-changes our children … all in the name of some obscure political agenda."

Last month, the DC-based Pew Research Center released a report analyzing Americans' relationship to science news. The bottom line wasn't as bottom-of-the-barrel as I expected (numerous reports, including from Pew, have chronicled the public's categorical sinking trust in the news media and the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to supporting the media's watchdog functions).

In the case of science, the news from Pew reaffirmed that partisan divide, but the overall picture was more mixed. Mistrust isn't rampant but, as the report notes, "at a time when scientific information is increasingly at the center of public divides, most Americans say they get science news no more than a couple of times per month, and when they do, most say it is by happenstance rather than intentionally."

Acclaimed science writer George Johnson has written about science and health extensively in an office filled with various scientific contraptions.
Acclaimed science writer George Johnson has written about science and health extensively in an office filled with various scientific contraptions. | Julia Goldberg

In search of level-headed science information, I invited myself over to George Johnson's house. Johnson has written about science for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written nine books, including one of my favorites, Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith and the Search for Order.

My opening question to Johnson went something like, "Can you tell me what the hell is wrong with everyone?"

I relayed to him a recent incident in which a friend, noticing my Fitbit, advised I take it off as it was likely to give me cancer. Johnson, whose recent book is The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery, confirmed my Fitbit was not going to give me cancer, noting how common it is that "people will pick up these memes and they get rooted. We have to fight against being selective and reading things that confirm our biases."

Many people, he suggested, "are convinced that something is wrong with them" and, barring other insights, believe that "something" is being imposed externally.

In discussing science journalism, Johnson—who reports and writes regularly on health—distinguishes between science and health reporting. For science reporting on topics such as climate change, the accumulative and developing story has amassed incontrovertible evidence of human-caused climate change. Often with health reporting, he notes, the stories emerge from studies examining tiny statistics. When "you're looking at tiny effects," he says, "it's impossible to distinguish signal from noise." These tiny risk factors don't necessarily come across in the stories, he notes, and people "seize on the story because they think they've found an answer for why they feel so bad all the time."

When it comes to skepticism about topics such as climate change, Johnson pointed out what he describes as a rising tide against objective versus subjective knowledge. In other words, we value what we believe regardless of what information we may encounter that undermines that belief.

Sometimes.

"I think people really are interested in science in the sense that they'll glom onto some new story about a black hole at the edge of the universe, gravity waves and all of these things. You don't see gravity wave denialists blaming the elitists for imposing these ideas. You don't see a lot of dark matter skeptics, because these things aren't political."

For Johnson, who remembers himself as a young boy poring over Life Magazine, the trend toward assigning equal value to the subjective versus the objective has discouraging implications. "The assumption [I had] was that by now, science would have vanquished irrational subjective emotional beliefs of all kinds, but of course nothing even close to that has happened. It almost seems, if you're really pessimistic, you would say we're going to a new Dark Ages." He pauses before adding, "I don't think that's going to happen."

I hope he's right.