To tackle the post-truth world, science must reform itself

Donald Trump meets with professors and students at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy in Cleveland, Ohio. Mike Segar/Reuters

Before Brexit and the US elections, Nature magazine columnist Colin Macilwain set out a challenge: “If Donald Trump were to trigger a crisis in Western democracy, scientists would need to look at their part in its downfall.”

Now Trump has become president, the possibility of crisis is real, including the spectre of a “Twitter ban” for scientists. So what of scientific introspection?

Macilwain argues that the scientific elite is inextricably linked to the centrist, free-market political establishment. In their continuous pursuit of funding, scientists reinforce the ruling nexus of politics and finance, oblivious to the evident cracks in the system.

We share Macilwain’s diagnosis, and note that the scientific community seems set to avoid a much-needed soul-searching about its responsibility in the twin crises of science and democracy, escaping introspection by using denial, dismissal, diversion and displacement.

These tactics need to be understood in order to address the current crisis and its potential solutions.

Denial and dismissal

Denial goes something like this: “There is no crisis in science. And if there is one, it does not impact the social role of science, including informing policy.”

International organisations studying the production and delivery of science, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and UNESCO seem to adopt this position, discussing scientific advice without admitting the problems in the science that underpins it.

Alternatively, researchers and policy-makers could acknowledge the existence of a problem but dismiss it as something to be treated with topical remedies. For example, one recent analysis shows how bad incentives drive off good science by sustaining a state of affairs that systematically encourages malpractice.

But responses from the field seem to conceive of the problem as one that requires only a refined technical solution from within the scientific establishment, not fundamental reforms.

Even a recent manifesto for reproducible science, which lists measures to improve key elements of the scientific process including methods, reporting and dissemination, reproducibility, evaluation and incentives, aims only to make science more efficient.

We argue that the present scientific crisis emerges, in part, from uncritically applying to science a mainstream economics concept of efficiency, unavoidably associated with measurements and metrics, when metrics are seen instead by many as part of the problem.

Diversion and displacement

Diversion is another way to avoid addressing the current problems with science.

This stance can be summarised as, “There is a problem, and this is due to an ongoing war on science between the educated liberal left and the ignorant conservative right.” It has been realised by the election of Donald Trump.

Climate change has become a huge political issue in America between the left and right. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Because science is under threat, then, it holds that scientists should close ranks and reject criticism, as they have done in the past when faced with postmodern critiques.

This position feeds onto a persistent Cult of Science, portraying science as the master narrative to adjudicate on the full range of human and societal affairs, and scientists as a nobler domain of humanity.

But in doing so, scientists risk being perceived as just another interest group. Indeed, the public is increasingly wary about trusting scientists to be objective, and scientists would be wise to reflect on the nature of their activism.

Last but not least, displacement is perhaps the most widespread response, judging by the insistent claims about the onset of the post-truth era. This position implies that before Brexit and President Trump, we were living in a world where truth was commonplace in policy and politics.

Scientists accuse the public of incompetence on scientific matters such as vaccines and climate change. And Donald Trump fuels these fires by flirting with known vaccine bashers and shutting down the climate pages on government websites.

In this view, the world would be a better place if only the lay public and politicians better understood science.

But it is important when analysing the vaccine saga – or the ease with which conspiracy theories catch on – to consider the relations between the pharmaceutical industry and regulators, feeding on a series of documented instances of corrupted science, and ruthless industrial pressure.

The mistakes of the lay public should not be taken as an excuse to overlook science’s own faults. Let us not forget the parallel cases of Love Canal in the 1970s, and Flint, Michigan and Washington, DC today, where the same script seems to repeat itself, with residents having to rely on their own scientists to expose the truth.

What went wrong with science?

In one recent analysis, we suggest that science is in crisis because of contradictions between the practice and structure of science, and its public image and social roles.

In his 1963 book, Little Science, Big Science, Derek de Solla Price described how the small-scale, single-project research activities that characterised most scientific work in through the mid-20th century shifted dramatically to big science after the second world war. This resulted from the impressive growth in the scientific production and workforce, and was characterised by large projects requiring advanced technologies.

De Solla Price speculated that this current context might one day lead to a senility of science.

Big science. Amir Cohen/Reuters

Our analysis – which owes to earlier works by philosopher Jerome Ravetz – follows on to argue that the sheer scale of science today is destroying the disciplinary peer communities of little science and demanding objective metrics of quality, which encourage perverse incentives and are subject to corruption.

No quantitative and formalised system of quality control can replace the old, informal system. Instead, resolution will require people and institutions beyond the scientific system.

For political scientist Dan Sarewitz, the degradation of science is also due to its engagement in what he calls a “trans-scientific” endeavour, meaning a problem that can be expressed scientifically but is not amenable to a scientific solution via existing scientific means.

Obesity, for example, seems to be a scientifically soluble problem only if we neglect the extremely complex chain of possible causes which could contribute to the condition.

Sarewitz argues that the miracles of modernity came not from “the free play of free intellects but from the leashing of scientific creativity to the technological needs of the US Department of Defense.”

From this perspective, the ongoing problems with reproducibility in scientific experiments result from researchers choosing to study trans-scientific issues to maximise their funding and publication metrics. Even though science is better, for Sarewitz, when constrained by clear mandates and control, for example, at the service of a market-driven technological development.

Still, the idea that “market” and “innovation” keep science clean begs the question of who keeps market and innovation clean?

What should be done?

Though science is often put at odds with religion, there share similarities in that both function as worldviews. And despite their existential crises, religion and science remain a source of hope for many.

For this reason, it is perhaps not far-fetched to look at the crisis of the church to gain insights for the scientific field.

Martin Luther started his Protestant Reformation in an outraged reaction to generalised corruption – economic and intellectual – within the church. Monk John Tetzel, who was selling indulgences (a remission to the amount of punishment a sinner has to undergo after death) in Germany around 1517, was an example of such corruption.

Today’s science crisis also reveals how the combination of corruption, rage and new technology can mobilise major social change.

Reconstructing science would require a broad democratic constituency, including humanists, technologists and citizen activists, as well as scientists, investigative journalists and whistleblowers.

At the moment, however, creating a blueprint for such a reformation seems delusional: we live in an age of increasing fragmentation, not inclusion.

We must be able to question the idol of objective truth without being accused of postmodern relativism. We must also critically view the co-evolution of science and power that Macilwain alludes to.

Any worldview shift today, scientific or otherwise, must also reconsider the present economic paradigm.

Science in society

None of these structural changes is easy to achieve, of course. So what we suggest, while conditions for this global critique ripen, is that science is at its best when it is explicitly embedded in society, enhancing knowledge rights to an extended peer community.

Taking cases of environmental degradation such as Love Canal or Flint discussed above, it is clear that corrupt administrations, operators and regulators, with their own science, may concur to produce disasters.

Here an extended peer community of concerned citizens and willing scientists can identify the problem and its possible solutions.

Demonstrators protest over contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Citizens have the right to engage with ideological and political debates about science and question the governance processes that produced these failures. Instead, right now, they’re just being called to defend science from its purported enemies.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.