Restoring Trust in Science as a Source of Reliable Knowledge

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Another great program from the ABC’s Radio National, this time from the Science Friction program. The interviewer is Natasha Mitchell. This one is about 25 minutes.

Science FAIL! A perilous story of why it’s good to do

From the concluding minutes:

Dr Ben de Haas: . . . . Ideally that’s what makes the difference between science and other pursuits of truth – that we correct our errors.

Natasha Mitchell: But the current culture of science could be undermining that ideal, and is taking a toll on the mental health of early career scientists especially, — short term grants, a publish or perish culture, promotion being contingent on journal papers, job insecurity, short PhD scholarships, and a focus on only publishing positive findings.

Professor Alan Love: In recent years there have emerged movements for the publication of negative results where some journals will do that. However, it’s still clearly the case, what is expected from scientists is to break through, be the first to discover something, . . . There’s a deep tension there.  Then the only people who can secure those positions that are few and far between are the ones who “grab the golden ring” of the results that everybody wants to tweet, not the person who says, “I discovered that everything I was doing was based on an artefact.” . . . You can’t build a career on that.

artefact: something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment that is not naturally present but occurs as a result of the preparative or investigative procedure.
“the curvature of the surface is an artefact of the wide-angle view”

Mitchell: But perhaps that announcement, that everything I’ve just done for the last three years is based on an artefact, is actually the most powerful finding of all for subsequent experiments.

Love: It could be, absolutely. That’s the picture of science that we really need society to have. If they only get what they see in the movies, if they only get the sort of Era[?] stories, or the recounting of the Nobel prize lecture about how you found that amazing discovery, they’re going to really misunderstand the enterprise and why we should trust it, why we should think that it generates reliable knowledge.

If they read the front page news and they see one week, “Oh look, coffee’s good for me”, and next week, “Oh look, coffee’s bad for me” and then next week, “Oh look, coffee’s good for me again” and they become jaded if the expectation is somehow that the scientists are going to deliver some sort of inviolate factoid about coffee, can we reset those expectations? If we can, I think we can make some serious progress in how we understand the role of science in society.

And given the anti-intellectual, anti-science views that appear to be pervading very large swathes of our supposedly enlightened communities, that is surely an urgent task.