Should We Trust Scientists?

Joining Harvard’s Professor Naomi Oreskes and science communicator Dr Karl for WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks panel discussion, ‘Should We Trust Scientists?’ is the University of South Australia’s Professor Tanya Monro. The physicist, and UniSA’s Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research and Innovation), answers The Adelaide Review’s questions about why this topic is up for debate in 2016.

The theme of your Planet Talks panel session is ‘Should We Trust Scientists?’ Does the fact that we are in an age where this is a session topic concern you, or is this a topic that is healthy to debate and discuss every few years? This topic is super important right now because as a society we need to make some pretty signi ficant decisions about the directions we will take. Whether that be in the way we generate energy, or in vaccinating our children, there is no question that a lack of trust in outcomes from the scienti fic method has had a negative impact on people and on our environment. We need to raise awareness of how science is done amongst the public and decision makers. What really concerns me is that we aren’t outraged at how few scienti fically trained people we have in politics, government and industry. The reality of climate change, the e ffectiveness and safety of vaccines as well as the theory of evolution are questioned by some in today’s society. Even with overwhelming scienti fic evidence to support each of the aforementioned realities, why do you think they are questioned or not believed by some in 2016? The relatively low general understanding of what science – and the scienti fic method – is really about. The fact is that science is not about building evidence to support a scientist’s beliefs, but about posing hypotheses that can be tested, contested, torn down, and reframed as new knowledge comes to light. I think that our culture of fearing failure, or being thought to have failed, plays a role here. If we heard more stories about science that didn’t go to plan, and showed how scientists are more like detectives seeking truth than evangelists spruiking faith I think it would help. What can be done so more of the average population trusts scientists? We need to increase the general level of scienti fic literacy and numeracy in our population. There are many elements to this. Part of it is telling more gritty real stories of science in our everyday lives. It is also about increasing the pro file of people and organisations in our communities who use the tools or fruits of science. Critically, we need to get scienti fically-trained teachers into our primary and secondary schools so that we leave behind any possibility that our children end up feeling that maths and science are ‘hard’ and not for them. This isn’t about dramatically increasing the number of science professionals in our future but rather about ensuring that our future workforce has the skills to understand how to forge a better future and make better-informed decisions on the basis of science and data. Is there ever a time when someone should question science, or a discovery? We need to realise that this happens continuously as a seamless part of the scienti fic process. The researchers question their findings. Many big discoveries are not anticipated in advance and even in getting to the point of writing up their discoveries scientists are trained to question every aspect of what they have observed. Then at this stage the best experts from around the world dive in and probe and question the findings – this is called peer review and even seasoned researchers rarely escape without serious and probing questions. All of this works to reduce the chance that there is bias, or a design flaw in how the research question is posed or answered. Is it perfect? No! Do publications ever get it wrong? Of course, at times. But it is fair to say that in the ‘hot’ areas of research, where many thousands of researchers around the world are competing for prestige and impact, any result is scrutinised and put through its paces. It’s really important that all citizens understand the basics of this process and are able to understand what forms of publications and communications have been through this vetting process. Pseudoscience is a hot topic for sceptics, as there is a number of popular websites and celebrities that trumpet pseudoscience. Is pseudoscience a concern for scientists and academics? Yes, pseudoscience is a concern, largely because to the unsuspecting reader it often appears to use the conventions and language of science, and thus appears to take on some of the credibility of science. The solution is, as stated above, to help people understand where the vetted sources of scienti fic findings can be found, and to develop the science literacy to see through the pretenders. The more science-trained people we have the better our society will get at this. Is how the media reports science a problem (especially if they want to report two sides to a story when there is only one)? It can be, but there have been real strides made to reduce this problem. Organisations such as the Australian Science Media Centre – which play a vital role in rapidly sourcing relevant scienti fic experts – are able to provide expert commentary on topical issues. Following on from the above, how can the media improve its science communication? Media outlets that have science journalists are a step ahead to start with. We also need to encourage our scientists to talk to the media, and to help scientists gain experience and develop skills in communicating their work in accessible ways. WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks Botanic Park Saturday, March 12 to Monday, March 14

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