The World Needs Scientific Rationalism

05/09/2015 02:33 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2016

A scan of recent science-related headlines makes sorry reading for anyone with a rational, evidence-based world view. Drought in some places and flooding in others, set against a backdrop of climate skepticism. Increasing antibiotic resistance and the rise of superbugs, along with growing popular rejection of vaccines, set against clear evidence that vaccines work. Food shortages set against popular resistance to the innovation necessary in agriculture to feed a growing population.

There is increasing apathy towards science, verging, in some places, on hostility. National Geographic magazine takes this emerging phenomenon so seriously that its March 2015 cover bore the headline: "The War on Science." Something has gone wrong with the way that science engages with society, but it is not too late to reverse the trend.

On April 5 this year, a beam of protons circulated in the LHC for the first time in two years. It was an important, if somewhat symbolic, milestone on the way to starting data collection for the second run of the world's highest energy particle accelerator. Technically, it was not the most challenging part of the restart, yet still the world's media and social media were excited and enthusiastic about the prospect for new discoveries. A few months before, the world watched in awe as the European Space Agency landed the Rosetta probe on a comet in a breath-taking display of technological and scientific prowess.

Science today has the power to inspire just as much as it always has, and today it is more important than ever that the scientific community capitalize on every opportunity it gets to re-engage, and to take on "the war on science," if that is indeed what we have come to.

The power to inspire is not the only tool in the scientists' toolkit. Repeated studies of who people trust continue to put doctors and scientists at the top of the list. This is something that we scientists do not make enough of. The problem is that we are usually called upon to pronounce unequivocally on issues where there are no clear answers. If I take a flu vaccine, will that guarantee me a flu-free winter? Probably, based on the statistical evidence we have, but nobody can answer that with a categorical yes or no.

Science is not about absolute certainty; it is about degrees of certainty. The better the evidence, the more certain you can be. To illustrate this, take a simple experiment -- rolling a dice to test the hypothesis that it is not biased to come up with a six every time. If I roll the dice once and it gives me a six, I'd be foolish to predict a six every time. If I roll the same dice a million times and it comes up sixes every time, I'd feel more confident saying the dice is loaded, but it's still not absolutely certain: I may just have had a rather improbable, though not impossible, run of luck. Science always works like that, so let's go back to that flu vaccine. On the basis of the evidence, you're much more likely to have a flu-free winter if you take the vaccine than if you don't. Science needs to seize opportunities like the Rosetta landing and the LHC restart to talk not only about science, but also about how science works, and how evidence based consensus invariably points the way to progress.

Why does this matter? Humankind has reached a point at which just about everything we do, whether as individuals or as a society, relies on science and technology. Every decision we make will be better made through a rational evidence-based approach. We have also arrived at a time where the rate of progress in science is faster than ever. New technologies have the power to transform the lives of everyone on this planet for the better. However, as with all new technologies, there can be negative as well as positive applications, leading to sometimes complex ethical issues to address. Society needs to approach these with the rational, evidence-based approach that is the hallmark of science. If we do not, we will not solve the problem of climate change, we will see the re-emergence of diseases that for my generation were a thing of the past, and we will fail to feed the seven-plus billion people living on this planet. The stakes are high, so let's celebrate Rosetta and the LHC, and let's move forward to a rational future where science and society are one.