Science In Crisis: From The Sugar Scam To Brexit, Our Faith In Experts Is Fading

3 months, 10 days ago

The This is a Foundation Essay for The Conversation Global. Our series of Foundation Essays offer an in-depth investigation of a specific global challenge. In this piece, Andrea Saltelli asks whats behind the worldwide crisis in science .

Worldwide, we are facing a joint crisis in science and expertise. This has led some commentators to speak of a post-factual democracy with Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump the results.

Today, the scientific enterprise creates somewhere in the order of 2m newspapers a year, published in approximately 30,000 different publications. A blunt assessment has been constructed that perhaps half or more of all this production will not stand the test of time.

Meanwhile, science has been challenged as an authoritative source of knowledge for both policy and everyday life, with noted major misdiagnoses in fields as disparate as forensics, preclinical and clinical medicine, chemistry, psychology and economics.

Perhaps nutrition is the field most in the spotlight. It took several decades for cholesterol to be absolved and for sugar to be re-indicted as the more serious health threat, thanks to the fact that the sugar industry sponsored a research program in the 1960 s and 1970 s, which successfully cast doubt on the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit.

Hidden culprit. Gleb Garanich/ Reuters

Destructive tendency

We think of science as creating truths about the universe. Triumphs of science, like the recent verification of the existence of gravitational waves and the landing of a probe on a comet flying around the sunlight, bringing more urgency to the need to reversal the present crisis of confidence in other areas of the scientific endeavour.

Science is tied up with our ideas about republic not in the cold war sense of science being an attribute of open democratic societies, but because it provides legitimacy to existing power arrangings: those who regulation need to know what needs to be done, and in modern society this knowledge are offered by science. The science-knowledge-power relationship is one of the master narrations of modernity, whose aim declared by philosopher Jean-Franois Lyotard four decades ago. The contemporary loss of trust in expertise seems to support his views.

Still, techno-science is at the heart of contemporary narrations: the convictions that we will innovate our way out of the economic crisis, overcome our planetary bounds, achieve a dematerialised economy, improve the fabric of nature, and allow universal well-being.

The appeal of reassuring narratives about our future depends on our trust in science, and the feared collapse of this trust will have far-reaching consequences.

The cult of science is still adhered to by many. Most of us need to believe in a neutral science, detached from material interests and political bargaining, capable of discovering the wonders of nature. For the foregoing reasons , no political party has so far argued for a reduction in science funding based on the results of the crisis in science, but this menace could soon materialise.

Landing Philae on a comet was no mean feat. DLR German Aerospace Center Follow, CC BY

The crisis in science is not a amaze some intellectuals of history and philosophy of science had predicted it four decades ago.

Derek de Solla Price, the parent of scientometrics literally the scientific study of science dreaded the quality crisis. He noted in his 1963 book, Little Science, Big Science, that the exponential growth of science might lead to saturation, and maybe to senility( an incapacity to progression any further ). For contemporary philosopher Elijah Millgram, this cancer takes the form of disciplines becoming alien to one another, separated by different languages and standards.

Jerome R Ravetz noted in 1971 that science is a social activity, and that changes in the social fabric of science once made up of curtailed clubs whose members were linked by common interests and now a system was governed by impersonal metrics – would necessitate serious problems for its quality assurance system and important repercussions for its social functions.

Ravetz, whose analysis of sciences contradictions has continued to the present day , noted that neither a technical fixing would remedy this , nor would a system of enforced rules. Scientific quality is too delicate a matter to be resolved with a set of recipes.

A perfect illustration of his thesis is the recent debate about the P value commonly used in experiments to judge the quality of scientific results. The inappropriate use of this technique has been strongly criticised, eliciting alarm and statements of fear at the highest levels in the profession of statistics. But no clear arrangement has been reached on the nature of the problem, as shown by the high number of critical comments in the ensuing debate.

Philip Mirowskis recent volume offers a fresh reading of the crisis in terms of the commercialisation of sciences production. Scientific research degenerates when it is entrusted to contract research organisations, working on a short leash held by commercial interests.

The present trajectory will result in an impasse in many areas of science, where it may become impossible to sort out the good papers from the bad.

See me after class. CC BY-SA

Science-based narratives and the social functions of science will then lose their appeal. No answer is possible without a change in the prevailing vision and ideology, but can scientific institutions offer one?

The dominance of expertise

Here the stakes are high and perverse systems of incentives entrenched. Many scientists are highly defensive of the performance of their duties. They adhere to the deficit model, in its criterion or glorified form, whereby if merely people understood science or at least understood who the true experts were then progress would be achieved.

Scientists often subscribe to the myths of one science, and promote actions for or against a policy based on their position as scientists. In a recent occurrence, more than 100 Nobel laureates took a side in international disputes over a genetically modified rice, a quite complex case where more prudence would have been in order.

Climate is another battlefield where the idea that science has spoken or doubt has been eliminated had now become common refrains.

Many scientists defend the supremacy of expertise; if lay citizens disagree with experts, it is the former who are wrong. This because scientists are better than bankers and politicians, or simply better human being, who need protection from political interference.

There is an evident tension between this view and what takes place in the arena of evidence-based( or advised) policy. Here legislation developed to fight racketeering is used by activists and scientists to target their peers in the resisting faction, in hot fields from climate to biotechnologies.

The science of economics is still in control of the master narrative. The same craft that failed to predict the most recent great recession and worse, immediately engineered it thanks to its financial recklessness is still dictating market-based approaches to overcome present challenges. By its own admission, the discipline, which supported austerity policies with a theorem based on a coding mistake, has little clue as to what to do if the global economy will face another downturn.

The economic historian Erik Reinert notes that economics is the only discipline impermeable to paradigm changes. For economics, he says, the earth is round and flat at the same period, all the time, with fashions changing in cyclical changes.

One can see in the present critique of finance as something having outgrown its original function into a self-serving entity the same ingredients of the social critique of science.

Thus the ethos of little science reminds us of the local banker of old times. Scientists in a dedicated field knew each other, just as local bankers had lunch and played golf with their most important clients. The ethos of techno-science or mega-science is similar to that of the modern Lehman bankers, where the key actors know each other only through performance metrics.

Change takes place at an ever-accelerating pace; the number of initiatives to heal sciences diseases multiply every day from within the house of science.

Increasingly, philosophers warn that not all is well in our ever-stronger symbiotic relation with technology. The effects of innovation on chores, on inequality, on our way of knowing and of making sense of reality, are all becoming problematic. Everything moves at a pace that frustrates our hope of control.

What can we do ?

If this wave of concern will merge with the social sciences crisis, then important facets of our modernity might be up for discussion. Will this lead to a new humanism as hoped by some philosophers or to a new dark age, as feared by others?

The conflicts described thus far involve values in conflict, of the different types dealt with in something called post-normal science. Many dislike the name of this approach for its postmodern associations, but appreciate its model of extended peer communities. These communities bring together experts from across disciplines as different disciplines see through different lenses and anyone affected or concerned with the subject at hand, with maybe different positions about what the problem is.

Today, widened peer communities are set up by some activist citizens and scientists. This format promotes a humbler, more reflexive posture. It suggests to citizens a more critical and participatory attitude in matters of science and technology, with less deference towards experts.

New media provides fertile ground for these communities. Could the internet be to science what the printing press was to the church? asks the science and technology philosoper Silvio Funtowicz.

If this process leads to reform in science and challenges the monopoly of knowledge and authority as to some extent we consider happening in health – then we might run some way to rebuilding trust in one of the most important point facets of modern life.

Andrea Saltelli, Researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Science and the Humanities( SVT), University of Bergen

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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