Now, in the age of Google, the frontiers of knowledge are misleadingly comprehensible rather than inaccessible. Their very accessibility means that we may not see the complex context before arriving at each nugget of information and often, we don’t want to. One of the most contentious statements of 2016 was “Britain has had enough of experts”, but perhaps a more useful starting point for debate is “have people have had enough of complexity”? It applies to science as well as politics. The problem is that the world really is complex. And the other problem is that no-one has time to deal with all that complexity – it’s tiring and frustrating to try, and denial or straightforward trust are often the easiest coping mechanisms. Simple explanations are easy to remember, and satisfying to understand. But in the complex modern world (especially with topics like genetics, climate, nanotechnology and more), they may often be wrong. So what should we scientists do? Instilling confidence in the scientific landscape (by making science easily accessible) and honestly conveying the best judgement based on the available evidence seem to be conflicting aims.
We need to earn trust in the scientific system in a new way, one that is transparent and open and human. That requires consciously re-building the ties between science and society, but not by inventing a new kind of lofty ideal. It’s simpler than that: this is about conversations. It means taking individual time to talk to others: our neighbours, our Facebook friends, and also the people we might normally shy away from – anyone who is part of the fabric of our society. And it’s not just about talking. It’s about listening, and responding in a respectful way. We need to put ourselves in places where we’re not comfortable, and let others judge the content for themselves. I’m starting to think that “media training” for scientists often misses the point, because it implies that there’s a difference between talking to an interviewer and talking to anyone else. What we need is to have confidence that strong positive dignified behaviour (in any and every environment) is what will make the world a better place. If you can do that with your argumentative neighbour, you can surely manage it in a radio interview. The same skills are important: not scoring points but honest evidence-based debate. Demonstrating good behaviour is one of the most powerful ways of instilling confidence in the scientific system. If we can’t convey every nuance of our protocols and analysis, we can at least convey the spirit in which we work. More.
In any event, one does not create more trust by saying, Believe me or else! Bill Nye, for example, would criminalize dissent from human-caused global warming claims.
If Nye’s “or else!” doesn’t materialize, he has no other argument. That is, it is very difficult to revisit evidence-based arguments with people after one has resorted to empty threats against them.
See also: Geologist on why a scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea An increasingly typical (but usually unspoken) response to “I Marched!” is, “Who cares?” Why not save the jet fuel by staying home and helping educate the community? Especially if your big thing is the environment?
In a free country, scientists can march if they want. But they should really apply the scientific method to the question of whether that is the best way to reach people today.
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