Tag Archives: Will J Grant

Should scientists engage with pseudo-science or anti-science?

The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

The ABC’s flagship science journalism TV programme, Catalyst, has riled the scientific community once again. And, in a similar vein to Catalyst’s controversial 2013 report on the link between statins, cholesterol and heart disease, it has now turned its quasi-scientific attention to a supposed new peril.

Its “Wi-Fried?” segment last week raised concerns about the ever-increasing “electronic air pollution” that surrounds us in our daily lives, exploiting a number of age-old, fear-inspiring tropes.

There are already plenty of robust critiques of the arguments and evidence, so exploring where they got the science wrong is not our goal.

Instead, we’re interested in using the segment as inspiration to revisit an ongoing question about scientists’ engagement with the public: how should the scientific community respond to issues like this?

Should scientists dive in and engage head-on, appearing face-to-face with those they believe do science a disservice? Should they shun such engagement and redress bad science after the fact in other forums? Or should they disengage entirely and let the story run its course?

There are many of examples of what scientists could do, but to keep it simple we focus here just on the responses to “Wi-Fried” by two eminent Professors, Simon Chapman and Bernard Stewart, both of whom declined to be a part of the ABC segment, and use this case to consider what scientists should do.

Just say no

In an interview about their decision to not participate, Chapman and Stewart independently expressed concerns about the evidence, tone and balance in the “Wi-Fried” segment. According to Chapman it “contained many ‘simply wrong’ claims that would make viewers unnecessarily afraid”.

Stewart labelled the episode “scientifically bankrupt” and “without scientific merit”. He added:

I think the tone of the reporting was wrong, I think that the reporter did not fairly draw on both sides, and I use the word “sides” here reluctantly.

Indeed, in situations like this, many suggest that by appearing in the media alongside people who represent fringe thinkers and bad science, respected experts lend them unwarranted credibility and legitimacy.

Continuing with this logic, association with such a topic would mean implicitly endorsing poor science and bad reasoning, and contribute to an un-evidenced escalation of public fears.

But is it really that straightforward?

The concerns Chapman and Stewart expressed about the show could equally be used to argue that experts in their position should have agreed to be interviewed, if only to present a scientifically sound position to counter questionable claims.

In this line, you could easily argue it’s better for experts to appear whenever and wherever spurious claims are raised, the better to immediately refute and dismiss them.

On the other hand, if scientific experts refuse to engage with “scientifically bankrupt” arguments, this could send a more potent message: that the fringe claims are irrelevant, not even worth wasting the time to refute. So this would mean they shouldn’t engage with this kind of popular science story.

On the third hand, their refusal to engage could be re-framed to characterise the experts as remote, arrogant or even afraid, casting doubt on the veracity of the scientific position. So to avoid this impression, experts should engage.

But wait, there’s more.

Participation in these kinds of popular science shows could also tarnish the reputation of the expert. But not appearing means missing the opportunity to thwart the potential harm caused by fringe, false or non-scientific claims.

And what about an expert’s obligation to defend their science, to set the record straight, and to help ensure people are not mislead by poor evidence and shonky reasoning? Is this best done by engaging directly with dubious media offerings like “Wi-Fried”, or should relevant experts find other venues?

Should scientists engage anti-science?

Well, this depends on what they think they might achieve. And if one thing stands out in all the to-ing and fro-ing over what scientists should do in such cases, it’s this: the majority of proponents both for and against getting involved seem convinced that popular representations of science will change people’s behaviour.

But there is rarely any hard evidence presented in the myriad “scientists should” arguments out there. Sticking with the Catalyst example, there is really only one, far-from-convincing, study from 2013 suggesting the show has such influence.

If you really want to make a robust, evidence-based decision about what experts should do in these situations, don’t start with the science being discussed. In the case of Catalyst, you’d start with research on the show’s relationship with its audience(s).

  • What kinds of people watch Catalyst?
  • Why do they watch it?
  • To what extent are their attitudes influenced by the show?
  • If their attitudes are actually influenced, how long does this influence last?
  • If this influence does last, does it lead people to change their behaviours accordingly?

Of course, we applaud the motives of people who are driven to set the scientific record straight, and especially by those who are genuinely concerned about public welfare.

But to simply assume, without solid evidence, that programmes like Catalyst push people into harmful behaviour changes is misguided at best. At worst, it’s actually bad science.

The ConversationRod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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What has science ever done for us? The Knowledge Wars, reviewed

The Conversation

Will J Grant, Australian National University

The deadbeat boyfriend at the centre of Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit What Have You Done For Me Lately used to take Janet out to dinner almost every night. He used to do a lot of nice stuff for her. But – as the title asks – what had he done for her lately?

Like Janet, many people ask the same question of science.

Sure, since the 16th century, science has given us electricity and anaesthetics, the internet and statins, the jumbo jet, vaccines and good anti-cancer drugs, the washing machine and the automobile. But what has it done for us lately?

In fact, for many people, what science has done for us lately hasn’t been dancin’ till one thought one would lose one’s breath. Rather, it has delivered emotionally-charged fights over issues such as vaccination, whether everyone should be taking statins, anthropogenic climate change, genetically modified foods, wind farms and high-tension power lines.

Indeed, while most of us are happy with most of the products of science – not least our iPods, white goods and light bulbs – when it comes to some of the more contentious issues of science we’re not such a happy bunch.

You only have to look at comment threads on this site on articles about these topics to see just such unhappiness and disgruntlement. In such discussions, science isn’t a benign tool for understanding the natural world, but a villain intent on unleashing industries and technologies we don’t want, or forcing us to give up our SUVs or eat our broccoli.

In this sort of world you can understand why, when considering the state of things, many scientists have taken on slightly exasperated air.

Warts and all

Science is under attack from some quarters. 
Melbourne University Press

And so Nobel Laureate and National Living Treasure Peter Doherty has stepped into this breach to make the case for science. His new book, The Knowledge Wars, rests on the argument that we are in the midst “of a potential deadly conflict between the new knowledge based in science and the established power”.

That is, while science has often been in conflict with established dogma – from Charles Darwin to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren – for the first time in a long time science finds itself pitted against powerful economic and political actors.

In this space, Doherty’s work seeks to provide a practical discussion of the nature of modern science with the hope that we can all take on a more evidence-based view of the world.

Thankfully, this isn’t a ra-ra hagiography that just drums into us that science is the best thing that’s ever happened to us since our ancestors discovered the paleo diet (though there is some of that).

Rather, Doherty seeks to explore how science works in modern times, warts and all. This means instead of a recitation of a high school definition of science, Doherty provides a nuanced, thoughtful discussion of the limits of peer review; the economics of publishing; the scientific culture of critique; fraud, errors and outright criminality in scientific work; and the nature of modern data collection.

This makes it a valuable “behind the scenes” examination of what actually happens in modern science.

Renaissance again

The goal in much of this is not to directly convince those who, for example, reject the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s position on climate change, but to provide ammunition to those of us who find ourselves stuck in a conversation with such people.

We’ve all heard lines about “global conspiracies of scientists”. Yet no one who has a passing understanding of how science works could imagine getting a global community to agree on anything remotely doubtful.

Doherty’s central target (very much in keeping with the history of science, really) is blind acceptance of dogma based on the pronouncements of authority. Here he connects centuries of science from Galileo and Copernicus to Charles Darwin, Richard Feynmann, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren.

We might even point to an earlier trajectory of empirically minded iconoclasts, from Prince Henry the Navigator to Heraclitus the Paradoxographer. Importantly, though those who reject the idea of anthropogenic climate change might point to such iconoclasts as rejecting scientific dogma, Doherty very much highlights such revolutionary work as part and parcel of the process of science. For him, the solution to any of the ills of science is more science.

At times The Knowledge Wars feels like a Wikipedia binge, ranging widely and wildly through invention and events of the last 500 years (although, to be fair, that’s often how I spend my Saturday nights). And, perhaps more fundamentally, it sorely misses a nuanced take on the economic sociology and history underpinning that period. For example, although central to much of scientific and social history of the last half millennium, “capitalism” doesn’t make it to the index.

But the bigger lament I have after reading The Knowledge Wars is one perhaps I share with Doherty. Modern science began with the birth of Renaissance men; with individuals who understood that wise governance requires an embrace of statecraft as well as high art and the latest advances in science.

Yet now, the very idea of Renaissance men and women seems anathema, a foolish dream that could never happen in this crazy mixed up world we now live in. But is that really so foolish?


The Knowledge Wars by Peter Doherty is published by Melbourne University Press and is available for A$29.99 in paperback and A$19.99 in ebook.

The ConversationWill J Grant is Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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