How Will Science Survive In The Age of Alternative Facts?

Scientists must develop strategies to counter a current flood of deception and misinformation.

07/19/2017 02:57 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2017
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Scientists are trained skeptics, so when they reach consensus it is all the more remarkable. Questioning what we do and do not know about a topic, and reconsidering what we think we know, is the essence of science. It is exciting for scientists to poke holes in a theory or someone else’s research (even their own) to advance people’s insight into how the world works. Unfortunately, the public misunderstands such debate between scientists as disagreement on the fundamentals rather than a process that builds our knowledge. 

Today, 97 percent or more of climate scientists agree that human activities are having an impact on climate change. Such consensus among scientists is difficult to achieve, but convincing Americans about the significance of scientific consensus has proven even more challenging. One of the barriers to appreciating consensus is a general lack of familiarity with how scientists conduct research in the first place.

The scientific method starts with a question and a search for evidence. Once evidence is found (or not), other scientists try to confirm the results. Producing tried and true theories requires different approaches to testing and retesting. This process requires transparency and review from colleagues who are trained to find flaws in the work of their peers. Scientists are consequently faced with the paradoxical challenge of convincing the public to put their faith in a system that rarely offers certainty and always encourages skepticism.

...scientists need to do a better job of educating the public on findings they consider uncontroversial."

Science also has a troubled past that has sowed doubts in many wronged populations. From the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, to eugenics, to the Stanford Prisoner experiment, science has a history of unethical and racist practices. The institution in the United States has responded by establishing the Internal Review Boards to reduce risks to research participants. And scientists are now more aware of the numerous dimensions by which biases can infiltrate their work and strive to reduce their negative effects by promoting greater inclusion.

Journalists’ emphasis on objectivity has also had an unfortunate side effect, undermining the power of scientific consensus. Studies have shown that presenting opposing positions on the global warming debate (rather than scientific consensus) has promoted an information deficit on the issue, contributing to climate change denial. And, even when the media presents evidence-based arguments from knowledgeable sources, it is notoriously difficult to shift to an opinion that contradicts one’s personal beliefs.  But there is indeed a general acknowledgement that our lives are better today because of science ― consider how we harness solar power, build skyscrapers over 2,700 feet tall, and develop new medicines.

On April 22, 2017, over a million people marched for science around the world, calling for evidence-based policy-making and robust funding for publicly available science. Our research team surveyed activists in Los Angeles, Austin, and Washington, D.C. to discover more about the motives and perceptions of these marchers. Of the March participants we surveyed, 86 percent said that they agreed that hearing scientists have reached consensus convinces them of their findings. Among the general population, though, there is little understanding of scientific agreement among experts, indicating that scientists need to do a better job of educating the public on findings they consider uncontroversial. Indeed, 96 percent of the scientists and their supporters we surveyed at the March for Science agree that scientists have a responsibility to communicate their research.

The challenge to do this successfully may seem daunting to a community concerned that their efforts are under attack. With the rise of “alternative facts” and fake news, their work has become increasingly misunderstood, making it difficult to deliver on the promises science can contribute to society. Yet scientists must ally with the media and educators to get their insights to the public. We are, after all, on the same side of wanting a brighter future for everyone and if scientists fail, we all lose.