Scientists Should Stick to Science
This post originally appeared on The Edge Annual Question for 2014 as a response to “What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?”
It is a statistical fact that you are more likely to die while horseback riding (1 serious adverse event every ~350 exposures) than from taking Ecstasy (1 serious adverse event every ~10,000 exposures). Yet, in 2009, the scientist who said this was fired from his position as the chairman of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Professor David Nutt’s remit was to make scientific recommendations to government ministers on the classification of illegal drugs based on the harm they can cause. He was dismissed because his statement highlighted how the UK Government’s policies on narcotics are at odds with scientific evidence. Today, the medical use of drugs such as cannabis remains technically illegal.
Such incidents of silencing are sadly commonplace when it comes to politically controversial scientific topics. The US Government muzzled climate scientists in a similar manner in 2007, when it was reported that 46% of 1600 surveyed scientists were warned against using terms like “global warming” and 43% said their published work had been revised in ways that altered their conclusions. US preparations for oncoming climate change were checked as a result, a failing that persists today. Going back further, the story of Nikolai Vavilov is chilling. Vavilov was a plant geneticist in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. He was jailed in 1940 for criticizing the pseudo-scientific views of Trofim Lysenko, a protégé of Stalin. Vavilov died of starvation in prison a few years later; scientific dissent from Lysenko’s “theories” of Lamarkian inheritance was outlawed in 1948. Soviet agriculture languished for decades because of Lysenkoism; meanwhile famine decimated the population.
The scientific method is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a method or procedure…consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses”. It is our finest instrument for unearthing the truth. Applied correctly it is blind to and corrects for our inherent biases. Scientists are trained to wield this formidable tool in their quest to understand the universe around us. The truths they uncover can be at odds with our current beliefs; but when the facts (based on evidence and arrived at through rigorous testing) change, minds also need to change.
I use the examples above of sidelined scientists to illustrate the consequences of excluding science from the policy making process. But sometimes the sidelining is self-imposed: scientists can be genuinely reluctant to get involved in such activity and instead prefer to focus on gathering data and publishing results.
There is a tacit understanding, a custom in the culture of science, that scientists practice the scientific method in the confines of the Ivory Tower. Scientists are seen as impartial, aloof, individuals with a single-minded focus on their work and out of touch with the realities of the world around them. Scientists are expected to only do science, to find the truth and then leave it up to everyone else to decide what to do with it.
This is untenable. Scientists have a moral obligation to engage with the public about their findings; to advise and speak out on policy, and to critique its consequent implementation. Science impacts on the life of every single species on our planet. It is ludicrous that the very people who discover the facts are not part of any subsequent policy-making dialogue. Science needs to be an essential component of the public discourse; currently it is not. The consequences of that disconnect can be dire, as evinced by the criminalization of drugs that can provide relief to sufferers of chronic pain, troubling delays in programs of vital national importance, and the famine that slaughtered millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin’s regime.
Scientists should not simply stick to doing science. Perhaps we need to extend the scientific method to include a requirement for communication. Young scientists should be taught the value and necessity of communicating their findings to the general public. Scientists should not shy away from controversy, because some topics should not be controversial to begin with. The scientific evidence for the efficacy of vaccines, the process of evolution, the existence of anthropogenic climate change is accepted in the scientific community. Yet, within the public sphere, goaded by a sensationalizing mainstream media and politicians seeking re-election, these settled facts are made to appear tentative. Science is based on evidence, and if that evidence tells us something new we need to incorporate that into our policies. We cannot ignore it simply because it is unpopular or inconvenient.
By passionately advocating for evidence-based policy scientists will expand scientific research, reversing the trend of recent years; and by thus visibly working for the common weal scientists will earn the public’s trust, protecting long-term investigations from short-sighted cuts. Scientific advancement is utterly dependent on public funding and public backing. The Space Race, the Human Genome Project, the search for the Higgs Boson and the Mars Curiosity Rover Mission were all enthusiastically embraced by the public. The progress of science demands that scientists engage the public. But for that to happen the notion that a scientist should stay hidden away in a laboratory needs to be retired.
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