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Is science losing its authority?

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Is science losing its authority?

16th June 2017

By: Saliem Fakir

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Scientists have, for a long time, been held in high esteem. Yet scientists struggle to effectively mediate evidenced-based outcomes in highly politicised and contested public policy issues, such as those concerning climate science or whether cellphones cause cancer.

The Internet is flattening access to knowledge, but not all the knowledge that is accessed is scientific or demonstrates scientific rigour. Partisan-based issues, inevitably, fall into the trap of confirmation bias. The pursuit of science for the purpose of achieving ideological or political ends is a political project, not a scientific endeavour.

Part of the reason is that scientists often believe that objective and independent science should easily clear the muddy waters.
Science is meant to produce self- evident truths, but not all ‘self-evident truths’ are evident. As it turns out, and as my own personal experience of being involved in many debates shows, scientific evidence is often not self- evident. There can be two reasons why this may be so: the field may be new and the strength of evidence is dependent on sufficient years of experience to show whether certain types of practices or the use of substances leads to positive or negative impacts. There is evidence but it is not conclusive.

Both sides of the scientific and political divide may simply be speculating, as, objectively, there is not enough independent data that has been collected to demonstrate with high levels of certainty that something is harmful and should therefore be removed or the activity itself modified so that the negative impact is reduced or removed.

What little evidence there is can be stretched by proponents and opponents to suit their own ends. It is impossible under these conditions to come to reasonable outcomes because arguing against beliefs or ideology cannot be an arena of thought that will meet any criteria of reasonableness or rational persuasion.

Science can also fall under the sway of politics or corporate interests. Much of the politicisation of science that I have seen has been science that has been the subject of intense public dispute because of commercial interests or governments wanting to pursue forms of development where they have not done sufficient public consultation or impact assessment to ensure that these projects do not harm the public interest.

Powerful interests can produce their own science, claims or evidence, given their vast financial resources. We have seen this in the tobacco and oil industry controversies, where science has been ‘produced’ to bolster a particular narrative to maintain the status quo or adopt policy options that favour the interests of these groups.

Commercial interests can also undermine independent science if universities or public institutions are dependent on private or corporate funds to conduct scientific research.

It is, therefore, trite to talk of science today without an appreciation of the politics of science and the degree of institutional independence scientists enjoy in doing their work – without being subject to the duress of commercial or State funders that may not want certain types of evidence to be put into the public domain because it may not fit a line of thought and decisions they may have already made.

The cutting of public funding and forcing universities to be more open to commercialisation have made science less independent, and scientists are often less cooperative because they compete with one another for funds. Commercial contracts also come with strings attached, so much so that scientists are reluctant to disclose ‘things’ to their next-door neighbours. This sort of tied money can make science less subject to rigour and scientific peer review, as scientists are compelled to hide evidence, owing to the need for contractual compliance.

Politicisation also forces opposing forces to amplify and mediate outcomes through the media.

Science, in this case, is not science but merely the abuse of evidence to substantiate one or other position. Journalists covering stories also have their preferences in terms of where they stand on a particular issue. This, inevitably, influences their own assessment of the science. And the truth is that some journalists are simply not equipped to establish the veracity of scientific claims because that is not their specialisation or training.

Social media is also a force that has to be contended with. Science, through one-hundred or so characters on Twitter, hardly makes for robust science and neither is it adequate to inform proper decisions that are important to the public and for the development of society.

Interest in a specific outcome also brings the scientist into the calculus of how and what evidence he or she presents if he or she has a vested interest in a specific outcome. In this case, scientific institutions may be independent but scientists, as individuals or a group of peers, can compromise the very policy translation of their work if they themselves have an interest in a specific outcome.

Scientists are also part of a community and are often nested in communities with specific world views. Loyalties to these communities can have a bearing on how they translate their own scientific work in relation to policy outcomes.

Highly politicised issues are often not best mediated by scientific institutions for some of the reasons I have mentioned here but, perhaps, an independent process involving a highly regarded panel of scientists who can take different scientific views and interests into account can best mediate these issues. As my experience shows, the panel will quickly come to the conclusion that some things are known well and the evidence is indisputable and that, with respect to other issues, the evidence is, at best, inconclusive and, in the final summation, there are some areas of knowledge that are not known because of a lack of evidence, or science has simply not been able to figure it out.

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