Most reasonable people understand that science in its pure form is about the pursuit of facts and theories that are supported by the available facts. However, as the Nobel laureates who attended the 67th annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting on June 25-30 noted, there are people who do not support science purely because the scientific process do not support their political agenda. The anti-science movement is concerning enough to anyone who has made a career out of contributing to the advancement of science that not only did the meeting devote a panel to the topic of “Science in a Post-Truth Era”, but the subject came up during the opening ceremony.
“Some rulers, and people, seem to feel threatened by progress and the fact-oriented power of science,” Countess Bettina Bernadotte said during opening remarks while warning her fellow laureates to not ignore the upswing in anti-science sentiment.
The members of the “Science in a Post-Truth Era” was moderated by Deutcsh Well science editor Zulfikar Abbany and included William E. Moerner, a Nobel laureate in Chemistry; Council for the Lindau Meetings vice president Helga Nowotny; Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología director of international cooperation Arturo Borja; Marian Nkansa of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana; and Melania Zauri of the Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
During the panel, William Moerner reminded the audience that “science is not an alternative fact or a belief system. It is something we have to use if we want to push our future forward.” He expressed concern that President Trump chose to ignore the 99.5% of scientists who agree that climate change is a problem while making his decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord.
Later in the panel, Arturo Borja countered that perhaps scientists expect too much of world leaders in an environment where too many voters do not understand the scientific process: “Politicians want votes. … [T]he iterative process of science leaves uncertainty that some politicians can use to support their efforts to gather more votes.”
In other words, the 0.5% of climate scientists who are not convinced of the reality of human-caused climate change creates enough uncertainty for politicians to exploit. Politicians can use that uncertainty as a wedge to convince voters that it doesn’t matter whether the United States pulls out of the Paris Climate Accords or not. Politicians can also exploit the fact that theories can change as new facts are revealed through experimentation.
“A great example is cold fusion. It was right until it was proven wrong,” Moerner said of the fact that “settled science” can change as new facts come in.
This is something that doesn’t always sit well with an unscientific audience that likes “settled science” that doesn’t change, and who often take uncertainty as proof that scientists don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about even when a theory has gained support among 99.5% of climate scientists. You can demonstrate the law of gravity by pushing a person who denies that gravity exists off a tall building (and claiming it was an accident), but it’s harder to discuss the separate theory of gravity with an audience that may not understand what a theory is. This is especially concerning with topics that the anti-science community has turned into issues to the detriment of public health and safety, such as the need to vaccinate children. The original study that supposedly linked vaccinations and autism has long since been exposed as a fraudulent study, but that hasn’t stopped anti-vaxxers from spreading their message and accusing scientists of being paid shills to the detriment of vulnerable children.
Bill Nye: “Science Must Shape Policy!”
The panel listed events like the “March for Science” as a good first step for scientists who are getting fed up with being bullied by the anti-science movement, but stated that a long-term strategy for communicating science would be even better. Some members of the academic community even saw the March for Science as a stunt and one attendee of the Nobel Laureate meeting mentioned that as the main reason that Greece did not have a March for Science event.
The situation might be improved, however, by teaching scientists how to better educate the public about their work. As Helga Nowotny said, “We must help people understand the scientific process. We have failed to do that as scientists. We need better outreach to schools, families and the media.” While it might be unreasonable to expect scientists to become Bill Nye clones, it may not be so unreasonable to ask scientists to work public appearances at schools and science fairs into their schedules. To be fair, this does often feel like the unpleasant chore that astronauts used to call “the week in the barrel”. However, engaging the public is critical for supporting both scientific endeavors and public policies that are supported by scientific evidence. The anti-science movement is noisy, but the scientific community can cut through that noise with its own signal if its members are willing to get out there and work together to communicate ideas that the public needs to know.