Science in a post-truth world

    By Devang Mehta, PhD | 12 August 2017

    The legitimisation of falsehood is the defining phenomenon of the ‘post-truth’ world we live in today, and this was perhaps most visible in the Brexit and Trump campaigns of last year. For scientists, this new post-truth world stands as a stark repudiation of everything we value: truth, rationality, logic, evidence; but some of us have been used to this for a while now. For decades, scientists, and particularly biologists, have been directly challenged by ‘post-truthers’ in several areas: evolution, homeopathy, anthropogenic climate-change, genetic engineering of plants, and vaccines among others. It is also a curious truth that every such group, while denying accepted scientific fact, still couches its delusions in scientific jargon. These groups have always enjoyed fringe support, however, as documented excellently by Timothy Caulfield in an article last week, these anti-science positions have become mainstream recently. Mr Caulfield discusses the causes of this movement and gives us (both scientists and the public at large) some pointers towards ‘taking back science’; here, I seek to prescribe some ways in which we scientists in particular, can help stem the tide of pseudoscience.

    Premonitions of defeat

    For much of the early conflict between science and the conspiracists, we knew where the battle-lines were drawn. In the US it was clear that right-wing publications would misrepresent the science on climate-change and evolution; these facts rather inconvenienced their way of life and their favourite mysticisms. Across the globe, it also became obvious that the extreme Left would increasingly mischaracterise almost ANY science involving manmade-interventions: from genetic engineering of plants, pharmaceuticals (hence their support for homeopathy, naturopathy and assorted placebos), to vaccines (stemming from a generic distrust of private enterprise). We scientists though, took some comfort in the resistance (by and large) of truly mainstream media outlets to conspiracy-mongering and in their trust in scientific authorities like the National Academies of Science, the Royal Society, the American Medical Association etc.

    And this is exactly the space where the post-truthers have recently attained victory. Here are a few examples:

    • Exhibit A: In the news last week and perhaps the most dangerous case of post-truth victory, the conversation between the future President of the world’s sole superpower and an anti-vaccine conspiracist.
    • Exhibit B: An article in the New York Times (can’t get more mainstream than that) claiming new analysis (not peer-reviewed of course) throws doubt on the utility of GM crops. The article showed the standard signatures of bad science: cherry-picked data, misrepresented graphs and over-interpretation of results. And yet, in spite of widespreaddetailed criticism from well-respected scientists and extensive debunking by other journalists, the newspaper did not even address most of the criticisms, let alone retract the article as any self-respecting scientific publication would have.
    The effect of anti-vaxxer rhetoric. (Source: The Economist)

    The disregard for evidence always manifests itself in sadly predictable ways: the re-emergence of nightmare diseases, the continuation of hunger and malnutrition in poor countries, the vilification and public hounding of public sector scientists, the destruction of entire fields of scientific research etc. In the past, the dismissals of science have been localised events, in places far removed from the liberal West. Consider as precedent the famines caused by Lysenko’s pseudobiology which resulted in intensification of famine and caused huge set-backs to Russian science. The problem now, intensified due to the internet, is that pseudoscience has taken root in the West, and worse, it is being actively exported by the rich, developed world to countries that simply cannot afford to bet on pseudoscience. As evidence, I present this powerful open letter to the European Union from a Kenyan farmer, pleading for independence for African countries to make their own determinations on modern biotechnology.

    What can scientists do to help?

    My prescription is simple: talk, and write, and talk some more.

    As academic scientists we have the joy of spending our days in the pursuit of truth, the privilege of spending time critically reviewing evidence, and the skill and knowledge to test and validate claims to Truth. We also have a responsibility to exercise this ‘talent’ or ‘skill’ wherever possible and of translating and communicating our science. And here, I do not refer solely to communicating our own particular strain of research.

    As scientists, irrespective of discipline, we are all trained in the same scientific method that our heroes (from Newton to Darwin, from Einstein to Crick, et al.) used before us. That training, I believe, comes with an obligation to do more than just the next measurement, the next PCR or run the next simulation. We all (from particle physicists to evolutionary biologists to cancer researchers) have the capacity to parse scientific literature, the ability to read between the lines of press releases and news articles, the resources to find conflicting literature and  the framework to learn from scientists from other disciplines. Just as importantly, most scientists know how to avoid obvious traps that others (such as journalists or lay readers) may fall for: we know to trust scientific consensus in various fields, we know the power of confirmation bias, we know to look twice at all research papers and thrice at research papers in low-quality journals, and we know that science is always, always nuanced and context-dependent.

    Read full, original post: A call to arms – Science in a post-truth world

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Devang Mehta is a systems and synthetic biologist by training and recently completed his PhD in Plant Biotechnology at ETH Zurich. He is interested in studying how complex biological systems work and interact and wants to try and apply this knowledge to solve global problems using new biotechnology. He is also a graduate of the Zurich-Basel Plant Science Center’s PhD program in Science and Policy and strives to include aspects of policy and ethics in his science.

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