Unspoken truths about objectivity and science | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 27.06.2017
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Science

Unspoken truths about objectivity and science

Science sits on a pedestal of purity - and we put it there. But there are some uncomfortable truths about its handling of alternative facts and who gets to say what, says DW's Zulfikar Abbany.

First, a caveat. I fear that one of the worst alternative facts could be the one about fake news. Does the post-truth era truly exist? What if fake news were a mere figment of our imagination? Is it even new?

No, no … please read me out. I'm no fake news denier.

But I wonder whether we, the media, and by extension the public at large have made it something before it was anything. We like to blame social media, but that's an abrogation of responsibility. It's like saying no one voted for President Donald Trump, even though we all know someone did. So why is it that whenever you mention Trump, absolutely everyone nods as if they had nothing to do with his getting elected? Why do we never meet his supporters? Are they hiding on social media?

Well I'm hiding down in the southern German town of Lindau. On Monday, I moderated a DW Press Talk at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting called "Science in the Post-Truth Era."

I went in feeling uncomfortable about the science community's sense of sanctity - as if science never lies or makes mistakes. The two young scientists on the panel, Dr. Marian Nkansah and Dr. Melania Zauri, raised points about the community's failure to ensure all facts and studies were credible, and that it often fails to communicate with the public and politicians. But I still left feeling as uncomfortable as when I went in.

Science seems stuck on a pedestal and it's struggling to climb down. What's more, I feel it struggles to understand the political process. Politics is all about selling messages and that's why real estate man Trump, love him or hate him, or actor Ronald Reagan before him, are a pretty good fit. And for the record, I'm no fan of either.

"We're exaggerating"

Surprisingly, Dr. Jesus Arturo Borja Tamayo, Director of International Cooperation, National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) in Mexico made a telling point when he said science should not concern itself with politics.

Lindau DW Press Talk: Helga Nowothny (left) and Jesus Arturo Borja Tamayo (right). (DW/Z. Abbany)

Borja Tamayo (right): Science should stay out of politics

"I think we are exaggerating a little bit," said Borja Tamayo. "Scientific evidence shouldn't be the basis for political action. Science can be helpful and it can explain natural phenomena. But when you think that the scientific method should be the basis for political action, then you get into trouble."

A lot of the post-truth debate - about which it appears a fair number of young scientists here are blissfully unaware - focuses on Trump and his use of social media. He allegedly uses Twitter to bully the American political class and business into whatever action he sees fit, or to make assertions about vaccination and other public health issues, Mars, climate change or immigration from Mexico.

Stupider than thou

Right from the start, the science community has bemoaned Trump's apparent disregard for evidence-based decisions. But their argument is weak as it often ventures no further than the equivalent of two kids in a school yard calling each other "dumb."

Where's the scientific evidence for Trump's lack of scientific evidence? I've long wanted to know that, but forgot to ask the experts on Monday. Guess I'm stupid too.

So far it's all been an assumption. Trump may have an informed opinion (of sorts), but perhaps he prefers to adopt a watered-down and sugared-up sales patter for the electorate. Where he would get his information from I don't know, given that the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is totally under-staffed, and the one guy there is, I'm told, is fixing the photocopier. But it is quite possible Trump knows what he's doing by talking the way he does.

Try irrational thought for a change

Science often talks about objectivity, that scientists use reason rather than emotion. Nobel Laureate W.E. Moerner said it himself when asked where the outrage was: "Well, a lot of that went on at home," he replied, "but some of us are trained to control our emotions and try to have reasonable discourse."

Lindau DW Press Talk: The panel (from left): Zulfikar Abbany, Dr Marian Nkansah, Prof. W.E. Moerner, Dr Helga Nowothny, Dr Jesus Arturo Borja Tamayo, Dr Melania Zauri. (DW/L. Vincenz-Donnelly)

The panel (from left): Zulfikar Abbany, Dr Marian Nkansah, Prof. W.E. Moerner, Dr Helga Nowothny, Dr Jesus Arturo Borja Tamayo, Dr Melania Zauri

The community may indeed aim or even achieve objectivity in the lab, but it doesn't quite deliver in the public sphere. And the problem is it doesn't see that.

As a journalist, I'm aware objectivity doesn't exist. We can't help but be influenced by a raft of factors - education, geography, history, experience, social interaction, unconscious bias and plain prejudice, and the greatest evil of all, clickability. In fact, clickability is one reason we write so much about fake news. How fake is that?

The clanger, however, came near the end when Moerner complained about the "policy of equal time." That's the idea of giving two opposing sides in a debate equal time in the media, no matter who has the better facts or the "highest probability" of being right.

A battle of the bubbles

"In society we give equal time to both sides of arguments and I think this is completely wrong," said Moerner. "To give equal time to an explanation that's correct 99.5 percent of the time and equal time to something that's never correct except 0.5 percent of the time is wrong. That's too much emphasis on the crazy explanation."

Okay, but at what point do you decide to reject your opponent? How much analysis do you engage in publicly and without prejudice - ie. objectively - before you say they are "crazy"? If you discount them too early, before they've had a chance to show they may have a higher probability of being right, isn't that the same as blocking someone on Twitter? Or refusing to negotiate with terrorists? That's a very high-minded approach. At the very least it's like trying to pop one filter bubble with another.

To be clear, by and large, I'm on science's side. It's comforting to know you can explain things with more than two words: "Just because." But I feel we, as a species, and science as a community, are being dishonest about the lies inherent in the policy of truth.

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