If we want to use scientific thinking to solve problems, we need people to appreciate evidence and heed expert advice – Professor Michael Clarke
Since COVID-19’s emergence and fake news, as well as opposing scientific evidence on various fronts, a large percentage of the general public had lost its faith in science and had become as jaded as the Australians who have an inane distrust of expert opinions.
Public cynicism can be manipulated to shift the tone and direction of debates as had become clear during arguments about climate change. This goes beyond the *tall poppy syndrome. Disregard for experts who have spent years studying critical issues is a dangerous default position. The ability of a society to make decisions in the public interest is handicapped when evidence and thoughtfully presented arguments are ignored.
*Tall poppy syndrome – A perceived tendency to discredit or disparage those who have achieved notable wealth or prominence in public life.
Why is science not used more effectively to address critical questions?
There are several contributing factors including the rise of so-called Google experts and the limited skills set of certain scientists. The public had started to believe that any scientific study can be manipulated to justify a position, cited to support a certain point of view. This is a cynical statement, where there are no absolute truths and everyone’s opinion must be treated as equally valid. In this intellectual framework, the findings of science can be easily dismissed as one of many conflicting views of reality.
When scientists disagree with one another, as they must, to ensure progress in their field, it becomes easy to argue that it is not possible to distinguish between conflicting hypotheses. Example: If you are flying in an airplane at 30,000 feet, you will not be content with just any scientific study about whether the wing will stay on the plane. Most people will want to put their trust in the calculations of an expert aeronautical engineer who understands the physics of stresses on the wing.
Why do we not trust expert opinions?
Most people are happier with experts, whose conclusions fit their own ideas, encouraging lay people to express their opinions and the internet allows these opinions to get a wide viewing. The internet is filled with information and ideas. Everyone can quickly find answers; everyone is an “expert”.
But using Google to find the answers to Trivial Pursuit questions is not the same as researching a complex question. Experts have unique skills and one is the ability to employ high quality sources, up to date theoretical frameworks and critical thinking based on their experience in a particular field.
Another problem, called the Dunning-Kruger effect, states that “people who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact.” This is almost more dangerous than complete ignorance, because they don’t even know what they don’t know.
Easy access to huge volumes of confusing information and fake news in a post-modern worl, had resulted in a reluctance to do the intellectual hard work of sifting through competing information.
It has been said many times that scientists need to communicate their research more broadly and as with everything else, there are challenges. Peer-reviewed scientific publications are necessary for scientific careers and time spent engaging with the public is time away from laboratory benches.
In their research Michael Clarke, Professor of Zoology and Susan Lawler, Head of Department of Environmental Management & Ecology at La Trobe University in Australia found that if scientists wish to influence government policy, it should not be assumed that research implications would automatically be understood.
Reaching out to busy bureaucrats and politicians is not something that comes naturally to scientists. To turn science into policy, a diverse team of people with different but complementary skills is needed. Skills not commonly found among scientists may be found within the political scientific arena, among lawyers, sociologists, public relations companies, the arts community and the media. Forming relationships with people who can translate highly scientific findings into information which cannot be ignored could be critical to success.
When money is used to assault scientific awareness, such as the thoughtful management of our environment, (think Donald Trump), clever spin doctors with glib lines such as “Cutting Green Tape” or “No fuels, no fire,” threaten decades of rigorous research and policy development.
At a recent global forum, scientists were told that current policy is “based on science, but driven by values.” This means that despite the best evidence, the values of current society will decide when to act, based on the best argument in a political or legal process.
Science is meant to be done dispassionately and objectively and scientists are not well equipped to participate in debates about values, the realm of ethicists, philosophers, artists and theologians.
But, say Prof Clark and Susan Lawler, if we are passionate about applying lessons learned from research, marketers, lobbyists, communication experts, accountants and economists will be needed. A multi-disciplinary team is required to convince society to change. Perhaps the people with these complementary skills will be able to assist in breaking down the anti-intellectualism we face, for the benefit of all.
This address was delivered by Professor Michael Clarke at the 2nd Biodiversity Forum held at the Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne and researched by Michael Clarke, Professor of Zoology and Susan Lawler, Head of Department, Department of Environmental Management & Ecology, both from La Trobe University in Australia.