Science in the public debate: nourishing controversy, preventing polemic

The scientific process and the generation of doubt : controversy versus polemic. antenna unsplash

Our brain produces new neurons throughout our lives. Or does it? The importance of this question stems from the fact that “adult neurogenesis”, were it to exist, may someday allow us to repair a diseased brain, or maybe even prevent it from ageing. Consequently, adult neurogenesis has been the subject of innumerable studies for decades now, and yet the question remains open, with new research contradicting previous results that had reported the existence of this neuronal fountain of youth in our brains.

Science is the process of the generation of knowledge and the establishment of objective facts about the real world. Even though scientific facts are the closet thing we humans have to the truth, it is crucial to recognise that they are intrinsically and continuously challenged. Even when a specific fact is proven over and over for decades, there can still be doubts around it. Why is that?

Science by its very essence creates doubt. Scientific knowledge can only progress through the constant questioning of established paradigms. Either they are proven again and again and thus become accepted facts, or they are changed or corrected due to new evidence. However, doubt can also take a more destructive shape. It is crucial to distinguish two mechanisms doubt: the controversy and the polemic.

A controversy is a fundamentally healthy process that leads to scientific clarification. Imagine two groups of scientists debating, discussing and exchanging information about contradictory interpretations of a set of observations. Overall, the main objective of this debate is to obtain a consensus, an agreement. The controversy can only be settled through new experiment and data, which fuel new discussions and so on. Eventually the controversy is settled because the evidence overwhelmingly supports a specific interpretation. This critical thinking process is essential to science, and without a scientific controversy, it is not possible to reach consensus on new scientific concepts. Furthermore, scientific controversy often leads to the emergence of new fields of research. Thus, we are in a virtuous circle of debate and discovery.

A polemic on the other hand, is a destructive process that creates an impasse. Imagine a debate where the scientific perception is strikingly narrow and the driving force of the disagreement is ideology or specific economic interests, not scientific facts. This process also creates doubt, but this doubt is used to discredit scientific consensus. In fact, a polemic is often created by the ideological twisting of a scientific debate or controversy in order to serve a pre-defined political or economic aim. Interestingly, the polemic process often involves discrediting scientists, claiming they have a conflict of interest, and creating a hyper-mediatised war of documents. Those who seek such polemics, often dress up their documents with all the scientific paraphernalia to lend superficial legitimacy to pseudo-scientific propaganda. Therefore, by comparison to a controversy, the major objective of a polemic is to create obscurantism. Doubts can lead to fear and not only to scientific curiosity. Here, we are in a vicious circle that inhibits progress and rational public policy.

Science, media and public policy

For science to be a more effective tool of social well-being, at least in a democracy, it is important that policy and decision makers as well as the public at large are well informed and able to distinguish scientific fact from fiction, controversy from polemic. In informing policy makers, lobbying is a key tool. Although lobbying is often associated with polemics and perceived as the attempt of those with powerful interests to subjugate democracy through scientific misinformation, this is not entirely correct. Lobbying is a set of influence-seeking actions to defend one’s interests. Therefore, lobbying may be driven by positive objectives and scientific truth, as in the example of lobbying for renewable energy and vaccination of children.

Beyond informing policy and decision makers, it is extremely important – arguably even more important – that the public be scientifically savvy and well informed. Thanks to the media and broad digitalisation, the public has access to an extraordinary amount of information and knowledge. However, this tsunami of information is not sufficiently accompanied by the analytical tools that allow the general public to discern fact from fiction. Because the scientific process seems mysterious, removed form everyday life, complex and nuanced, the public rarely has access to why certain claims are supported by scientific research and others are not. We can cite examples such as immunisation mistrust, climate change and the so-called migrant crisis in Europe as striking examples where the debate is fuelled more by mistruths and fear-mongering than by scientifically supported facts. It is therefore crucial that the media take upon itself to provide the public not only with “facts” but also with the tools to allow individuals and communities to make well-informed decisions that may affect their lives and livelihoods.

Scientists in the debate: the good, the bad and the ugly

What are the positive aspects of scientists being directly involved in the public debate? Clearly, scientists working in a certain field are the foremost experts on that subject. In that sense, they are best placed to offer sound opinion based on objective evidence. Even when an issue is sensitive and debate around it is heated, scientific opinion can often be the best tool for building consensus. In addition, expertise and knowledge have a natural tendency to temper a debate. Scientists might often say “We have observed this… but much data are needed to confirm these observations”. In contrast, mediatised versions of a scientific discovery tend to portray teh same observations in grander and more clear-cut terms. Therefore, there are at least three main advantages to having a scientist directly involved in the public debate. The first is to ensure a measured and nuanced reporting of a discovery. The second, and this may seem paradoxical, is to explain the often-controversial nature of very novel findings. The third is to clearly communicate the complexity of the scientific discovery process.

Given the advantages highlighted above, what, then, are the disadvantages? We discern at least three. First, scientists are by definition specialists in a very specific area of their domain. While scientific expertise is an obvious advantage, there is a danger that a given scientist will be tempted or pushed to advance their views beyond their areas of expertise. A second unavoidable concern is that scientists are human too! They will have intrinsic biases and, rarely, even strong ideological positions and may willingly or unwillingly participate in the creation of a polemic. Thirdly, there is a difference between knowing a lot about an issue and being able to effectively communicate that knowledge to the broader public. Not all scientists are effective communicators and this may lead to confusion rather than clarity. It can also lead to scientists withdrawing from communicating in the public sphere. In this context, developing and implementing communication training tools and guidelines would encourage scientists to actively engage with the public.

Having a broader vision of a scientific question, especially if it is problematic such as those with strong ethical implications, requires the views of several experts. Ensuring that several experts are consulted on any given question can address these concerns. This process is essential to bring to the table enough information for the public to generate their own informed opinion, and thus participate positively in democratic life.

Separating evidence-based conclusions from pseudo-science

An important correlate of the involvement of scientists in the public debate is the instance of the scientifically trained politician. There are several examples of politicians with a scientific degree, including a doctorate, and some even with a scientific career behind them. The positive aspect of this is that it suggests that science is recognised as a value in the society. Another positive aspect is that such politicians may have a better capacity due to their training to discern evidence-based conclusions from pseudo-science.

However, this might have a negative impact too. Science can move relatively fast and politicians are no longer practicing scientists. As career politicians, they also have new priorities and imperatives. Both of these elements will colour their conclusions and interfere with scientific community’s conclusions in the eyes of the broader public. It is therefore critical that politicians with scientific training avoid exploiting their degrees to push their political positions as if they were scientific conclusions. Clearly, a political decision cannot be made only on scientific grounds and partial information. However, the more the public understands what the scientific consensus is, why it is so and where controversy may still lie, the more society will avoid the polemic.

Finally, putting the scientist in the heart of the public debate and the media relay of information will inevitably raise the profile and prestige of the specific scientists who happen to be adept at communication. As stated above, scientists are human too and are far from immune to the pitfalls of excessive prestige at the expense of the scientific process itself. It is crucial to keep in mind that it is not the prestige of the scientist that is important. Instead, it is putting the scientific process and evidence-based information at the heart of the public debate, media reporting and – most importantly – education that is paramount.

This article was originally published in French