Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Guest post: From Siege to Partnership, by Heather Douglas

CBC Radio's Ideas is running a three-part series , Science Under Siege , which airs  Wednesday–Friday this week.  Heather Douglas, Waterloo Chair in Science and Society, worked with the producer, Mary Lynk, on this series, and has graciously provided a commentary on the series.  Further information about the series can be found here.

Science Under Siege airs June 3, 4, 5, 9-10 PM, CBC Radio One.

 Science is under siege in contemporary society—from the muzzling of scientists, to the cutting of basic research, to a general neglect of the nature of, and importance of, science. Yet science is central to both our daily life and our ideals for rational human endeavors. These ideals undergird our political system (our belief that our societies should be democratic) and our educational system (our belief that an informed and capable citizenry is essential for democratic governance). How can we move from science under siege to a better relationship between science and the public?

The first step is to understand the nature of science. As noted in the program, science is essentially an inductive process, a process that builds understanding of the world from pieces of evidence and continually tests that understanding against new evidence. The inductive nature of science means that science always has some uncertainty—we may discover that our current theories are wrong tomorrow. But this endemic uncertainty provides science with its strength. Because scientific claims are always open to future disproof, and because scientists operate in a culture that fosters criticism, scientific claims are robust.

In order to support robust science, we must have open scientific communities (such that anyone can be trained to join them), open scientific communication (so that ideas can be scrutinized and critiqued), and open forums for debate (such as journals, conferences, and websites). That such social conditions are at the heart of science must be understood and supported by the public if science is to survive.

Further, the openness of science creates opportunities for engagement between scientists and the public. Such engagement can be through communication of findings. It can be through participation of citizens in evidence gathering. It can also be through raising of concerns about what research is done, how it is done, and whether the evidence (never complete) is sufficient for a claim.

These latter questions mean that social and ethical values are always relevant to science, and may be part of the public’s engagement with science. The public can ask whether it is wise to pursue certain lines of research over other lines of research. Scientists’ understanding about what is feasible (or not), and what might be gleaned from different lines of inquiry are of course important. But public concerns are legitimate reasons to move research in different directions.

The public can also have legitimate concerns about how research is done. The public can raise questions about the moral acceptability of some experiments, and not just for human subjects but also for animal subjects or research that involves ecological risks. The public can also be concerned that research done in a narrow private interest can be distorted—either through the scope of the project or through distortion of evidence—violating basic scientific integrity, which at its heart is about respecting the evidence.

Finally, even when the public thinks the right research has been done, and in a good way, the public may still find the available evidence insufficient. The public can have concerns about making a claim prematurely, or rejecting a claim for too long, and thus assess the available evidence differently than some scientists.

Although social and ethical values are thus central to the relationship between science and the public, they should not override the available evidence. Skeptics should always be able to say what evidence would convince them. If they cannot, their belief is not based on science, but rather on ideology, and they should stop pretending otherwise. Science is not just about searching for flaws (no evidence is perfect), but also about figuring out what the best current take on the evidence is. We should expect each other to be able to articulate what evidence would be convincing, and so improve our public discourse about science.

Finally, we should embrace the spirit of experimentation, not just with policy avenues, but with social structures to bring the public and experts together. There are many ways to bring the public into conversation with science, to rebuild the relationship, to allow for critical discussion and an airing of concerns. Such ways must be built on a common understanding of what science is and what it can achieve, as well as its limits. But with this shared understanding, the ways of collaboration open to us are as varied as our cultures, institutions, and imaginations.

Scientists will always have special expertise, and this will pose problems for democratic systems. But the challenge need not be insurmountable; expertise should not be obscure and remote. With a better understanding of each other, and of the legitimate avenues for discussion and debate between science and the public, scientists and the public can build a new partnership.

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