The societal acceptance of the results of our daily work as scientists is dire. The majority of the US population does not explain evolution with Darwin, but with Holy Scripture. Measles is on the rise again worldwide, because vaccination opponents smell a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry to make children autistic. A substantial proportion of the population does not believe that climate change is man-made. They believe that if you fear climate change you are hysterical, and manipulated by interested scientists competing for funding and fame. Homeopaths treat disease with sugar pills, while the health insurers, with our money, foot the bill.
A popular recipe against this increasing rejection of relevant scientific findings is to provide more and better science education in schools and the media. Inspired by a lecture of the American sociologist and historian of science Steven Shapin, I respectfully disagree.
I posit that the problem is by no means the obvious, but nevertheless false notion of a crisis in the acceptance of science or scientific truth in general. Skeptics do not criticize science, but institutions, authorities, and elites. The critics do not like some of the results of science and the recommendations scientists (and sometimes politicians) derive from them. Science and its methods, on the other hand, are in fact spared from criticism. Indeed, the arguments of the skeptics are put forward in the name of scientific norms accepted by us: skepticism and independence from interests harmful to evidence generation. The critics are skeptical and insist on the scientific principle of falsification. They make use of statistics, figures and results from alternative “experts”. The critics often emerge as radicalized, “better” scientists who accuse mainstream science of betraying their own ideals.
In addition to the apparent ‘scientific nature’ of their arguments, it is striking that the list of scientific findings currently under fire is relatively short. The canon of science taught at school, i.e. textbook science, is exempt. Newton, Maxwell, Einstein – no problem. Even the funders of science, such as the NIH, MRC, or DFG, or the scientific method, do not come off badly. They are not even mentioned. But why then do the skeptics reject evolution theory? Because science fundamentally clashes with their religious believes! Why do they fear vaccination? Because parents seriously worry about their kids! Why don’t they believe in climate change? Because they don’t want to change their lifestyle, keep driving SUVs and fly to the Bahamas or Mallorca for holiday! Why practice homeopathy: Because classical medicine often doesn’t help, and sometimes is even harmful!
Could you explain the climate model of the IPCC?
The critics are not interested in scientific ‘truth’. They are concerned about very concrete results and the prescriptions that follow in the name of science. The problem is not scientific ignorance, as often claimed. Of course, there is a lot of ignorance about scientific results and theories – from aberration to xenograft. But this is where it gets really interesting: I posit that we mainstream scientists do not accept the anthropogenic origin of climate change or the theory of evolution because of our deeper understanding of the science behind it. Greta Thunberg is not an expert in the modelling of complex systems, nor are you. Unless you are a climatologist. Our general understanding of scientific results is often rudimentary to superficial. Or would you claim to understand the climatologists’ models and be able to scrutinize their scientific correctness? Could you really explain how a chip in your mobile phone works? Do you understand general relativity? Probably not. But don’t worry, that’s not necessary. Neither to position yourself on climate change, nor to use your mobile phone.
Science skepticism is criticism of elites
With which arguments do we then insist on the role of man in climate change, or the correctness of Darwin’s theory? Our arguments are based almost exclusively on scientific authority. It is a form of social knowledge: We trust the specialists of the IPCC, the CERN physicists, the virologists of the Centers for Disease Control or the Robert Koch Institute, etc.. They are people like us, we are part of their scientific culture. We know the structures in which they collect, publish, discuss and ultimately accept their results. We know whom we can trust and whom not. There isn’t anything democratic about it. It is a knowledge that we have acquired through socialization over a longer period of time as part of the scientific enterprise. This social knowledge is often implicit and can hardly be operationalized. It is essentially elitist, we have well-founded prejudices. We invoke scientific authority(ies). The skeptics are therefore not critics of science, but of scientific authority and especially of us as an elitist social group. They consider science to be corrupted if it produces results they do not like. Corrupted by politics, by the economy, and/or by personal interests. Insofar as our social knowledge is elitist, we become the target of right-wing criticism of elites. Their criticism, by the way, is itself elitist, because it is builds on “knowledge” of alternative “experts”.
Science has lost its innocence
How could this have happened? The pioneers of science as we know it today, the Galileis, Boyles and Newtons, were ‘gentleman scientists’. They were self financed or did research under noble patronage. They were thus independent, committed only to scientific truth. Their science was, apart from the purpose of advancing knowledge, completely ‘disinterested’. They had no societal mission, and did not refer to politics, business, or society. Those were the days… One milestone in this shift of science’s role in society, for example, was the Manhattan Project on the use of nuclear energy for warfare. Or the Bayh-Dohle Act, which allows, if not presses universities to monetize their scientists’ inventions. Science has completely lost its innocence, because it is fully integrated in the ‘institutions’, in business, politics and the military. In large parts of science, in order to receive funding, we must first emphasize the immediate benefit, applicability and usability of our results. We justify our own importance (and thus request for funding) with our service to the institutions. The price we pay for this is that criticism of the institutions automatically brings with it criticism of science. According to logic: If politics lies, if corporations lie, then science also lies.
In addition, the way we do science these days contributes its share to the loss of trust. Science scandals, plagiarism in doctoral theses, reproducibility crisis, questionable incentive systems, etc. are the subject of public observation and discontent. All this raises doubts about a profession dedicated solely to advancing knowledge. Does this not prove that scientists (not science, mind you!) cannot be trusted because they cheat and serve false idols?
What shall we do?
As so often, diagnosis is easier than therapy. Populism, nationalism and radicalization on the right, which are underlying the current surge in mistrust of science, have nothing to do with science at all. There are no stylized information campaigns and TED talks to the rescue. If science can contribute anything at all, then perhaps more restraint in the constant emphasis on its own direct relevance for business and politics. More emphasis on advancing knowledge. If scientific results are robust, they will ultimately always be relevant for society. Of course, the transfer of knowledge is also important, on whatever occasion and in whatever target group. But not so much in terms of a direct understanding of the complex theories and results of science. This rarely works anyway and usually leads to a distorting trivialization of meaning in the service of popularization. Rather, it is about how science works in principle, what mechanisms it has for accepting or refuting results. That hypotheses must be logically consistent, supported by evidence, falsifiable, and results reproducible. To point out and exemplify the Mertonian norms of science: communism (don’t panic: this refers to common intellectual property and collective cooperation), universalism, selflessness, and organized skepticism. And let’s also include transparency (Open Science). But in all this we scientists still have a lot of homework to do when it comes to implementation. Let’s clean up our house!
A German version of this post has been published as part of my monthly column in the Laborjournal: http://www.laborjournal-archiv.de/epaper/LJ_19_11/20/index.html