Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2017: There is no alternative to science! | German history | DW | 26.06.2017
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67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2017: There is no alternative to science!

Last year it was Brexit. This year it's fake news, post-truth and alternative facts. There's a predictable sense at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting that scientists have to fight back. The question is how.

Ask a stupid question, get a good answer, that's my method. And it worked in conversation with Nobel laureate W.E. Moerner.

"Science itself is not an alternative fact. We have no alternative but to use scientific enquiry to make the proper choices to improve the world for the future," Moerner told DW at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Moerner, a chemistry professor at Stanford University in the United States, won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry along with Eric Betzig and Stefan Hell. He's speaking on the panel of a Deutsche Welle Press Talk at Lindau called "Science in the Post-Truth Era."

"If you were interested in building a bridge and you want to make sure it doesn't fall down," says Moerner, "you have to use the ideas of science to calculate how much concrete and how much steel you need, and how big to make it."

Similarly, if you want to make a molecule that might kill a bacterium or affect some disease, he says, you have to use the rules of science, defined by chemistry, "to put the right atom in the right place."

It's precision work, you see. There's no room for vague estimates or beliefs. If you want something to work, you have to use science.

"You can't use alternative fact that have no basis in evidence or the scientific ways in which we prove things to be correct," Moerner stresses.

This has been one of the loudest charges against the current US administration under President Donald Trump - that his decisions are not based in fact but on whim, or unsubstantiated beliefs. And that, so the charge goes, is how you have an administration publicly opposed to vaccinations and international agreements like the Paris Accord on climate change.

Nobel laureate W.E. Moerner at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (DW/Z. Abbany)

Nobel Laureate W.E. Moerner says scientists need to communicate better, starting with their friends and family

But the issue is not only one for the US - the fear that we're living in a "post-truth" or "post-fact" era is international. And it has as much to do with politics and science as it does with the rest of society and, some would say, social media.

We live, it's said, in a filter bubble of ideas on social media that do little more than confirm our prejudices. But haven't we always lived in bubbles? And hasn't science always faced opposition from people who happen to believe other things?

So what can science do to fight belief with fact?

Ways to believe in facts

A scientist might start with a question. They will state a hypothesis, make measurements, and then draw conclusions to discard hypotheses that don't match the evidence and keep those that do. After that the idea is that scientists publish the results, although commercial entities like to keep a tight control over some studies. Then the rest of the community gets a chance to - as Moerner puts it - figure out whether "we believe that or not, do we think it's a correct experiment or not?"

"And over time, anything that is completely incorrect is thrown out and ignored," he continues.

Science likes to present itself as being clean and objective. But mistakes do happen. Sometimes they are accidents, and other times, it is alleged, bad results are obfuscated, or necessary steps are skipped or overlooked.

For instance, in an ongoing case, executives from a South Korean subsidiary of a British company were charged in May for allegedly failing to conduct toxicity test on a disinfectant used for a humidifier. Hundreds of people suffered lung damage and some died.

Toxicity tests are scientific work and whether it's for commercial use or not, such cases erode public trust in scientists - if not science itself - and at the same time hand ammunition to those who wish to discredit the science community as a whole. As much as science is based in fact, people also need to feel they can trust science.

Young Scientist Il Leong at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (DW/Z. Abbany)

Il Jeon says even evidence-based science has an element of faith. You can't be totally unbiased.

"Ultimately, it's politics that governs and controls science and the direction science takes," says Il Jeon, an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo and a Young Scientist at Lindau. "And when people talk about alternative facts it sounds as if the decision makers upstairs don't trust the science."

A dark grey perspective

This is where things get grey - some say it's a very dark grey, but it's grey all the same. Science, says Jeon, is still about belief.

"Apart from mathematics, science is based on observation," says Jeon, "and while observation is evidence-based, it's also belief with high-probability."

But that needn't be a problem, because science is a "mountain of evidence. No one person can comprehend everything so you have to rely on this system which is the scientific community. Anything that is close to truth, anything that can advance humanity, will survive."

It's social evolution, says Jeon. And part of that is peer-review. So that also goes for alternative facts. "If the alternative facts survive the test of time," he says, "whatever they claim - it's advancement."

Scientists get political!

Other young scientists would like to see another kind of evolution, and that is more young scientists getting involved in politics. This would come at a good time, there being a dearth of expertise on the US President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Positions have been left unfilled, and yet there are young scientists who would sign up.

"If I was given the opportunity, yes, I'd be an advisor to the White House," says Dayne Swearer, a National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellow at Rice University in Texas. "And my advice would be to follow the evidence, take non-biased advice, and don't listen to where the money is coming from, but listen to those who have dedicated their lives to answering the questions, whatever they are at the time - climate, cancer, whatever."

Nobel Laureate Steven Chu is perhaps the most famous example of a scientist with experience in government. Chu was Energy Secretary under US President Barack Obama. He was scheduled to hold a keynote speech on "Science as an Insurance Policy to the Risks of Climate Change" during the opening ceremony at the Lindau meeting, but had to return home at short notice. His keynote was read by Professor Moerner.

Young Scientist Fiona Kearns of the University of South Florida says more scientists need to get involved in politics.

"We have a tendency in the US for scientists to be separate from government, and government employees to be separate from the scientists. They are only linked through things like the NSF," says Kearns. "And it's very important for young scientists to consider getting involved in policy making and communicating with government."

But communication starts at home. A number of scientists at Lindau, including Moerner, say they need to start by finding better ways to explain what they do to friends and family. And then, I suppose, you place your trust in the network effect. Let the science snowball!

DW's Press Talk "Science in the Post-Truth Era" takes place on Monday, June 26, at 3pm in the Marionettenoper in Lindau's Stadttheater.

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