Who Would Trust a Scientist These Days?
By Sarah-Jane CollinsJuly 5, 2012
We have more information about science than ever before, but does that make us all experts? Like the good scientist he is, Ian Chubb — Australia's chief scientist — is ready to argue the toss.
"Science," Australia's chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb tells The Global Mail, "is represented by scientists who are experts, scientists who are not experts and people who aren't scientists".
Chubb makes this point at the end of June, as the country's richest woman, seeking board seats with her growing stake in Fairfax Media, has publicly argued that its newspapers have pursued an ideological line on the issue of climate change. But Gina Rinehart's accusation is just one in the miasma of public science today, where scientific facts are too often seen as a means of political point-scoring. Lord Christopher Monkton has notably urged climate change sceptics to buy a news outlet to influence the way the issue is reported. In medical research, self-appointed experts continually urge against vaccination despite overwhelming scientific research backing up the case to immunise children against disease.
There's a lot of mistrust of the role of science today, and Chubb says that's because those who don't want to accept a scientific finding — or whose interests are damaged by it — aim to neutralise it by politicising it.
"A lot of people are constantly told that [science] is politicised… but what that means in a lot of cases is that scientists are saying something that that particular person doesn't like hearing.
"So they say the reason for that is that it's politicised — and scientists are telling people simply what they want to hear. Well, I think that's a serious allegation and I don't think you can make it without evidence," Chubb says.
"I'm not suggesting scientists are not human beings. The frailties of the human condition appear in scientists as they appear elsewhere in the population, but I do think to make allegations and presumptions about scientists' motivations because they're mounting an argument or interpreting evidence in a way you don't like is not a very useful approach… unless you're trying to divert attention from what the scientist might be saying."
Chubb was for 10 years the Vice Chancellor of one of Australia's leading research universities, the Australian National University, and has worked for more than 30 years in academic scholarship and administration. He thinks the bigger problem is that science isn't reaching people the way that it needs to.
"You've got to explain to the public what the options are and why you draw the conclusions that you draw, but I think it's particularly important that the experts, the people who have spent 20 or 30 years studying a subject are heard.
"People who come along who have a different view are entitled to have that view put out there, but I think you balance off the weight you give to that view by the relevant expertise of the people in the debate, and not every opinion is equally valuable when you're trying to discuss a very complex matter," he says.
Chubb is concerned that media reports do not distinguish enough between scientists who specialise in a certain field, and those who are not specialists yet still offer their opinion on it.
As medicine is specialised, he points out, other science fields are also highly specialised — but many of the loudest opposition voices in areas of contentious research, notably climate change, aren't specialists.
"If I fell over and broke my leg walking down the stairs and an obstetrician and an orthopedic surgeon came to look at me at the same time, I know which opinion I'd be most interested in," Chubb says.
The broader issue concerning Chubb is the erosion of the public standing of scientific consensus.
Historically the relationship between scientists, their research and the broader public has been complex and fraught. Ideas that chafe against the general understanding of the day are resisted. Theories proved over time, through rigorous, peer-reviewed research to be wrong, continue to be perpetuated and believed.
In 2005 Australian scientists Steve McIlwaine and An Nguyen presented a paper on science, journalism, democracy and technology at a journalism education conference in Queensland.
"In a new era of scientific development and, to an extent never before experienced, lay publics in an increasingly democratic world are finding themselves confronted by challenges for which the democratic system was never intended and has not evolved to handle," their paper says.
Seven years on there is little to suggest the divide between public knowledge and scientific research has narrowed.
In May 2012 United States polling company Gallup polled more than 1,000 Americans on their views on evolution. The results show 46 per cent believe the creationist view that God "created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years".
In Australia 51 per cent of high school students took a science subject to Year 12 in 2010, down from 20 years ago, when more than 90 per cent of students did so. With a lack of formal scientific knowledge in the community, the job of selling scientific findings becomes more difficult.
And there's another factor: As formal training in the sciences has waned, the internet has exploded, putting knowledge and information within reach — often alongside misinformation or outdated research.
"I think there's a lot more science in the public domain than there used to be. When I was growing up of course there were reports on science… but in general terms I think it was much less in the public domain," Chubb says.
But what's available isn't always reliable.
"The blogosphere has a lot more non-experts in it than it's got experts. When experts critique your work, you listen to it. When someone who just happens to not like your conclusions has a whack at you, then I think you're entitled to ignore it," Chubb says.
"You would really hope that they were considered opinions that are put forward and not some florid expose of indiscretions — there's a lot of the latter and there is some of the former, if we're talking about climate science, but also most aspects of complicated science."
Perhaps the most famous example of scientific research being deliberately obscured by vested interests is the development of understanding about what smoking was doing to the human body. For years after science had proved the link between cigarettes and cancer, powerful tobacco companies were contesting that conclusion with studies they had funded.
There is, naturally, a balance to achieve between what the science says and what democratic policy-makers believe is achievable. But as scientific knowledge expands, the number of people with a good grasp of it is shrinking. That makes it harder for the scientific community to get support for research and policy that may change our way of life, and it makes it easier for vested interests to muddy the waters.
"Democracy is far better than any other kind of government so you put up with it," Chubb says. "If you have a view and you have the evidence that supports that view and your view will lead to a betterment of process or policy then you've got to learn not to give up.
"That's my message for scientists as a whole… don't give up, even if it does create some sort of uproar in our media or blogosphere. And I say that for all sides of debate."
The Australian department of industry and innovation recently published a booklet that can be found nestled alongside the street press at inner city cafes that addresses the relationship between science and how we interpret it.
"Human psychology is a peculiar thing. Experiments show that we first seek out information that supports our existing positions and dismiss and ignore information that goes against them… when we adopt a position on anything we are very reluctant to give it up — even in the face of solid evidence," the booklet says.
So scientists whose work shows you something you don't want to believe certainly have their work cut out for them. But it's work Chubb believes Australian scientists are up to.
"We are always ready to argue the toss and try to repeat or replicate or change position in the face of new evidence. Most scientists know that they don't deal in absolutes," Chubb says. "They work in probability, but certainty? No.
"Does that mean that science is never settled? Yes it does, [but] it's that contest of ideas and the robust attempts to disprove hypotheses," he says, "that make science work."