ACCESSIBLE SCIENCE IS KEY TO PUBLIC TRUST
For scientists, these are times both exciting and apprehensive. From designer babies to genomic medicine, artificial intelligence, and molecular surveillance, science is arguably the most dominant force defining our future.
But even as they eagerly claim the mantle of human progress, scientists are becoming increasingly unpopular in a polarized world. In the so-called post-truth society, large sections of the public appear deeply suspicious, even hostile, to the scientific project and its ostensibly benevolent practitioners. The recent wave of vaccine hesitancy — the refusal to vaccinate children based on unsubstantiated health concerns — threatens to reverse a century of progress in disease eradication, emerging among the World Health Organization’s top ten threats to global health. Skepticism of climate change warnings has spread from fringe groups to vocal and dominant political constituencies.
Scientists have typically derided and dismissed these science skeptics as backward, ignorant, even philistine — an attitude encapsulated by the pejorative term “anti-vaxxer.” “The world will be saved despite their opposition, and they’ll be better off for it.” But rather than dismissing such groups as parochial and ignorant, we as scientists must take responsibility for the way science is perceived in the public imagination and examine our role in the polarization of society.
Research is increasingly being locked behind paywalls or private ventures, filtering to the public primarily in the form of institutional press releases or news pieces . . .
In my view, science is finding itself progressively delinked from the public realm. While scientists are indeed battling pressing challenges facing the world today, their work is becoming inaccessible to the general public. Research is increasingly being locked behind paywalls or private ventures, filtering to the public primarily in the form of institutional press releases or news pieces, breathless with triumph, touting yet another groundbreaking discovery.
Inevitably, these news reports — usually little more than sound bites — reduce large and complex science studies to simplified technical “breakthroughs.” Every day seems to herald a new “gene linked to cancer” — often uncovering links not necessarily or reproducibly causative or predictive of the cancer. In the absence of context and nuance, hyped-up science reporting can also appear entirely contradictory — does coffee enhance or prevent cancer? — and moreover, provides little ground for discussion and criticism. To a layperson, the situation can appear at best confusing, at worst chaotic.
Add to this the conspicuous absence, in the public domain, of scientists honestly contending with the ethical and political dilemmas thrown up by their work — the limits of genetic engineering, responsible means of using and collecting data, and the consequences of machine learning. Recent news of the birth of the first genetically engineered babies in China was followed by think pieces in academic journals but little organized response or discussion, and far little in the way of action by scientists or scientific organizations.
A nuanced understanding of the complicated relationship of science with power throughout history is severely lacking from a “hard science” education.
Indeed, scientists are often resistant to engage on questions of politics. Science is considered inherently value neutral and objective — debating its politics itself compromises its neutrality or disinterested motivations. In part this is hubris — presumably a science degree washes our mind clean of all the ideas and biases ingrained in us from birth. But a look at the demographics of science today will reflect that many scientists retain their religious beliefs, political affiliations, and social attitudes, none of which are backed by any empirical study.
However, it is also true that scientific training today fails to equip students with the tools to understand and challenge the political and social frameworks undergirding their work. A nuanced understanding of the complicated relationship of science with power throughout history is severely lacking from a “hard science” education.
In fact, scientists would do well to remember and keep alive the complex entanglements of biological science with imperialism and fascism — from direct experimentation on colonized bodies, to “empirical demonstration” of low IQ in racialized populations, and non-consensual reproductive control. There is also a similarly painful history of misguided efforts to find differences in the wiring of “the female brain” responsible for such inherently female disorders as “emotionalism” and “hysteria.” These histories are not only important to remember, but also to use as tools to identify and probe the biases which may be shaping our (un-)consciousness today.
The need of the hour is for scientists — of all shades and stripes — to create spaces to grapple with their work in all its dimensions. Such a space necessitates the recognition that the pursuit of science is — and has always been — a social process. Science does not exist in an objective space out there, but within the ideas and values of its time. Whether it reinforced or disrupted the political zeitgeist, it has nevertheless been located within it and had a hand in shaping it.
We the scientists must lead the charge today to make science more democratic and transparent, to engage constructively with people’s fears and rebuild their trust. We must demonstrate honesty in learning from our history and seriousness in taking responsibility for the impact of our work. And most crucially, we must realize that we are — consciously or unconsciously — shaping our collective future, and it is up to us to decide who it belongs to.
We the scientists must lead the charge today to make science more democratic and transparent, to engage constructively with people’s fears and rebuild their trust.
Tayyaba is a neurobiologist and science writer. Her research examines the genetic control of brain development in mammalian embryos. She is also interested in exploring the historical and contemporary engagements of bioscience with social structures and narratives.