COMMENTARY || Why we need agenda-free science more than ever
At a time when evidence-free noise is pervasive and persuasive, understanding what science is—and what it isn't—has never been more vital.
By TIMOTHY CAULFIELD
We need more science. We need better science. We need trustworthy science. We need agenda-free science.
These are just some of the messages I heard again and again at Edmonton’s March for Science on Saturday. Even in Trumpless Canada, there is a sense that these are precarious times for science.
I’ve been involved in science policy for 25 years. Over that period of time, I’ve witnessed the disruptive power of social media, the rise of fake news, the growth of science-free, celebrity-endorsed health trends, and the official legitimization of pseudoscience by governments and universities.
Yes, there has always been science-free noise. But now it seems more pervasive and persuasive than ever before. At times, despite decades of remarkable science success stories (sequencing the human genome, discovery of the Higgs boson particle, the development of new ways to create stem cells and edit genes), it feels like Team Science is losing the battle. A recent survey, for example, found that 28 per cent of Canadians still believe or are uncertain about the 100-per-cent debunked link between vaccines and autism (no, no, and no!).
Despite these numbers, when asked, most people will say that they do trust science. But, for many, they only trust the science that fits their pre-existing beliefs. More problematic, they find ways to dismiss the science that doesn’t. Indeed, a 2017 study found that humans are remarkably skillful information avoiders. This kind of unconscious cognitive tendency allows us to build our own realities.
Of course, this can lead to some jarring paradoxes. While sitting on a plane 10,000 metres in the sky, an individual can connect to the Internet and send social-media missives about how all knowledge is relative and that science is just one way of understanding the universe. (One assumes that this same individual will be counting on the science-informed craft to land safely at a science-informed airport.)
Similarly, we probably all know someone who becomes enraged when people don’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change but, at the same time, that individual will enthusiastically reject the just-as-strong scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs.
And there often seems a kind of willful blindness to the supernatural and evidence-free underpinnings of many of the increasingly popular (and, too frequently, government-sanctioned) alternative health practices. Do the people who endorse interventions like Reiki, to cite just one example, really believe there is a vital life-force energy that runs through our body that can be controlled by our hands?
What can be done? There are, of course, complex cultural (e.g., anti-science conspiracy theories), psychological (e.g., social-media-enabled cognitive biases) and structural (e.g., perceived conflicts of interest) forces at play. Changing minds isn’t easy.
But a good place to start is with an underscoring of what science is and is not.
As Carl Sagan said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” Science is not a list of facts. It is not a building, an industry or a government department. It is not the arrogant researcher who thinks he knows everything or the inspiring one who seems to. And it is not a tool in service of a particular ideology. Science is a process. It is a way of seeing the world.
Some studies have shown that reinforcing scientific thinking – such as explaining the basics of causation – can be an important tool in the fight against pseudoscience. Others have found that fostering critical thinking, including elucidation of the numerous forces that can twist science, can help to inoculate people against scientific misinformation. Of course, so many other factors are important – building trust, appealing to the audience’s values and using creative and engaging communication strategies.
Yes, context matters. But all knowledge is not relative. Please, haters, there is no need for more finger-wagging references to postmodernism, Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault. I am fully aware that there have always been social forces, corporate interests and political agendas that twist how science is done and how it is represented. But these failings should not be viewed as a condemnation of science. Rather, they should be viewed as a call to action to protect science and to make it better.
At the Edmonton March for Science, there were numerous posters mocking Trump and anti-vaxxers. Others heralded science’s big successes. And a few called for governments to rely on science-informed policy.
But my favourite—which borrowed from Rick and Morty, a popular science-themed cartoon—emphasized one of the reasons that, in these incredibly divisive times, science is more valuable than ever. Science is meant to be value-neutral and agenda-free.
The poster read: “Rise Above, Focus on Science.”
Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, a Trudeau Fellow and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture And Science Clash
This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.