David Basanta, PhD

In defense of scientists

The March for Science and how reducing the gap between scientists and the public is key in bringing back trust in experts.

This Saturday, scientists across the US, as well as those of dozens of other countries across the globe, will be marching for science. Scientists marching for science should give you some pause for thought: scientists don’t march for their own profession. They do support all kinds of causes and they do march! You would have found scientists marching for civil rights, women’s rights, workers rights as well as a few other less charitable causes too to be fair. But a march for science is unprecedented: a strong sign that they do not see an alternative. The reason? events on both sides of the Atlantic show that the role of experts in informing policy making is at risk. Neither the political class nor the citizenry seem to care much about expert opinion.

Brexit as an example

A good example of this is Brexit, the process by which the UK will soon leave the European Union. This process is likely to result in substantial economical harm to both the UK and EU. I don’t know this because I can foresee the state of the economy of the UK and the EU a few years from now. I know this because there seems to be a consensus amongst economists, as well as financial institutions, that this process will be quite painful to these economies. This did not seem to deter voters. As one of the main leaders of the Leave campaign said:

people in this country have had enough of experts” — Michael Gove

Now, I grant you that Economics is not an exact science and lacks the precision of physics or chemistry. But this captures a sentiment that resonates on both sides of the pond. Expertise is looked down on.

With so much information and opinions at our fingertips, guts easily trump reason and objectivity

When you don’t know much about something, getting to know what experts know is a reasonable first step. An expert may well be wrong. You can even disagree with the consensus of the experts in a field, although in that case you might want to think long and hard whether there might be something you are missing. But one way or the other it would be a mistake to dismiss without any sort of critical thinking the opinion of experts. In the case of Brexit you might, for instance, reason a vote to leave the EU by saying that the economy of the UK should not be the only important matter to consider. In the case of the recent US elections you might want to argue that despite the consensus that immigrants benefit the US economy you would rather maintain society as homogenous as reasonably possible.

As a scientist I need to be prepared to leave my comfort zone

As a mathematical oncologist, I am an expert in a very narrow and specific field and I would like to think that my opinion, and that of my colleagues would carry some weight.

I also hope that the consensual view of experts in fields like climatology, GMOs, vaccination, etc would be valuable in any debate pertaining these topics. If you disagree with them that is all right, but you need arguments rather than merely stating that you have enough of experts. The fact that certain people can get away with statements that are easy to disprove is the result of the widening gap between experts and non-experts. A gap that recently has been filled by populists and demagogues. We need to bridge this gap and it is on us scientists to do so!

I don’t particularly like stereotypes but even when they are wrong, there is a kernel of truth in them. I am a scientist that as a kid would rather spend weekends and holidays programming on my computer and reading books than hanging out with friends and playing football. Even as an adult my first instinct is to try avoid talking to people I don’t know. I find the internet to be the finest invention in the history of mankind (certainly superior to sliced bread and maybe, just maybe, equal to wine. Red rather than white, thanks!). Why I am telling you all this? The reason is that I am also part of a science outreach organization whose aim is to bridge the gap between scientific researchers and the public. We do that by taking those scientists out of their desks, fields and laboratories to bars and cafes.

We are now getting ready for the 4rd edition of our science festival next week (April 23rd-29th). It will take place over 5 consecutive days in several different bars and cafes in 13 different US cities.

The front picture shows one of our inaugural speakers, Bob Gatenby, a mathematical oncologist (and chair of radiology at the Moffitt Cancer Center in his spare time) describing how maths can help us find new ways to understand cancer and treat patients. Our science festival, taste of science, is not the first effort to bring scientists to the public. Unlike other festivals, however, it has successfully brought the idea of not lecturing the public but engaging with them in a conversation.

If you are anything like me you are likely to be rather uncomfortable with giving public lectures, let alone the idea of conversing with the public. Still, many of us understand the importance of engaging with society at large. We take it for granted that a modern democratic society should be a one where citizens can understand the challenges it faces. Many of these challenges directly involve science such as climate change, GMOs or vaccination. We can assume that other people will take care of this for us so we can go back to our blackboards, computers and labs and get on with our work. There are some very notable exceptions, but sadly this approach does not seem to be working well.

We need more channels to engage with the public: scientists should be trained to present their work to lay audiences. Without intermediaries. In fact, Universities and academic institutions should look at these efforts when hiring, promoting and awarding tenure. And this involvement is far from a drag: it is incredibly satisfying and enriching.

My own experience with taste of science tells me that, when discussed well, people love talking about all kinds of scientific topics: from the role of carbon dioxide in climate change to the biomechanics of shark teeth to modelling cancer-immune interactions with Lotka-Volterra equations.

People are eager to know more and are not afraid to ask questions, often of a very different kind from the ones we are used to in a departmental seminar (ie: your model shows that tumour cells evolve by consuming more sugar, how should I change my diet to minimize the odds?). Participating in one of these events as a researcher can be a humbling experience: away from the protection of our slides and the types of questions we can almost anticipate from our colleagues. You will almost certainly find people that have a unique and fresh point of view. The trick is to engage the audience. It’s certainly not about using one of your old presentations and dumbing down the content.

This is only a start

I am not claiming that our problem will be solved exclusively by bringing lots of people to science festivals like taste of science. This needs be a two way street and we need a bigger diversity of backgrounds in the scientific community (for many reasons science has been predominantly a middle-class affair and will not reach the mainstream unless the community of scientists includes everybody). A science festival can only be a start but we need a start, don’t we?