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Trianon Scientific Communication

  • Writer's pictureDr Audrey-Flore Ngomsik

The power of science (or not)

The power of #science (or not)

2 women looking into a microscope
National cancer instiute

Over the last 1½ or so years, the number of scientists appearing in the media has increased sharply.

So as the number of (self-proclaimed) experts.

And yet, it’s fair to say that no-one is any the wiser.

That raises the questions:

What can science do?
What should it do?
And what should it not do?
And what is the role of politics in regards to science?

Ever since the outbreak of #COVID-19, scientists found themselves shoved into the media spotlight

Journalists talking to a scientist

Not an enviable position for someone generally used to talk to peers, especially considering that they were asked to provide answers to a developing situation, regarding a disease about which little was known (and which is still not fully understood).

Some were visibly uncomfortable, others delighted in it, no-one excelled in it.

It is perfectly understandable for the public to expect answers from the experts, after all, if the experts can’t provide answers what good are they, and why should we waste the taxpayers’ money on them?

Was it reasonable to expect hard and fast answers there and then?

Conference room with peopla raising their hands
Conference room

Probably not. It was completely understandable all the same.

No-one will doubt that the social fall-out of the Corona-crisis (such as the rise in conspiracy theorists) was in large parts due to a communication breakdown.

Shops open? Shops closed? Schools open or closed? Face masks on or off, and which kind of face mask?

The list of such questions is long, and the answers we got were sometimes confusing.

And all the while people were faced with pretty existential questions and demanded answers quickly.

The fundamental problem is that the scientists are by the very nature of their profession the last people to give hard and fast answers on developing problems.

That is not because they can’t communicate to the public.

Some are quite good at it, some are admittedly even better.

The reason why they are not in a position to provide hard and fast answers to developing problems is that science itself is a very slow-moving process.

The generation of knowledge by trial and error does take time.

In such situations it is very easy to find (or to generate) one study that comes to different conclusions than another or a number of others.

Without going into the ever present possibility of academic fraud, it is entirely possible that one study comes to different conclusions.

In a situation when, as it were, the canvas is still more or less empty this is likely the case, and it is even desirable because the more explanations for such varying observations have to be found the more complete and thus useful the picture will be in the end.

The hallmark of a scientific charlatan is to hold up one paper and say: This proves that you all are wrong!

Science does not work like that.

Conflicting evidence has to be taken seriously, and a model has to be developed that can account for such conflicting evidence and can explain why it was found.

This is how science works, this is why it is so slow.

That being the case:

What can science do? What should it do? And what should it not do?

Science should advise politics.

Obviously, some such input maybe advisable from a scientific point of view, however, in practice a scientifically desirable solution might be completely impractical.

Finding an acceptable compromise between what is desirable and what is politically achievable is the role of politics.

It is furthermore the role of science to explain the progress it has made in understanding problem XYZ.

The worldwide Interweb has been hailed as a means to democratise knowledge.

That is a very tricky way of putting it.

Scientific facts are not subject to democratic decisions, they do not depend on a majority of people agreeing on them.

But even if we take ‘democratised knowledge’ to mean equal access to knowledge, this does not imply that everybody who has read three articles on Wikipedia or watched 3½ videos on YouTube becomes an expert.

What makes a scientist, a scientist is the practice of taking all available facts into account, finding plausible explanations for these observations, and spotting the missing facts and what these gaps might imply.

In a nutshell: Critical thinking.

To clarify:

Critical thinking does not mean to realise (or even just to surmise) that a person in some position of power has their own agenda and to conclude that therefore everything he or she says must be a ruse to fool others.

What science cannot do is to moralise its findings.

We may think of applications such as nuclear bombs or genetic engineering as deplorable or dangerous, but that is not science’s fault.

As long as human beings possess the capacity to sin (in a non-theological sense) human beings can do ‘bad’ things, the means with which they do so is irrelevant.

You may use a knife to cut a slice off a loaf of bread or to stab your husband.

That is not to say that science should be a-moral.

Science does have an obligation to work for the common good.

However, it cannot be held responsible if humans use its discoveries in an unethical way.

Having said that, this appears to us science’s most pressing duty in these times:

To point out, to reiterate, and to educate people on what science is, how it works, what it can do and what it cannot do.


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