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Nullius in verba: Science in the post-truth era

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Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, discusses an upcoming event in the Science Museum – Science and the post-truth era –  with guests Fiona Fox, Matthew d’Ancona, James Ball and Evan Davis.

When the Royal Society was established in 1660 it came up with the motto Nullius in verba, which means ‘take nobody’s word for it’.

Even at its birth, what has become the world’s oldest surviving learned society realised that science isn’t about asserting truths that have been handed down on tablets of stone by authority figures.

Science is about verifying statements by an appeal to facts that have been determined by measurements as part of a never-ending dialogue between theory and experiment. It is about scepticism, providing clear descriptions of research studies, being open with data and explaining why they support or refute a given idea.

But we now find ourselves in a post-truth universe, where facts kowtow to personal belief, there is ‘policy-based evidence making’, any science that challenges dogma with inconvenient truths is curtailed and where emotion seems to be regaining the ascendancy over reason.

How could truth suddenly become so passé?

That is why the Science Museum has invited the authors of three critically acclaimed books about the post-truth era to meet in public for the first time with Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre:

 

Fiona Fox

“Every time I think I have this post-truth thing nailed someone reminds me that ‘twas ever thus’” she says. “My role as chair will be to try to pin these three thinkers down to what if anything is really new and whether tried and tested ways of fighting for facts need to be ditched in favour of a new approach. I will also at least try to represent intelligent friends outside of science who get cross with me for arguing that scientific truths and evidence are patently the best way to navigate our way through topical controversies arguing that political ideas and values are just as valid.”

With Fiona Fox will be Evan Davis, BBC presenter, Newsnight anchor and author of Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit (Little Brown) he says;

 “Too often in business and politics at the moment, people sign up to a belief not on the basis of evidence but instead because it fits their pre-existing world view. One hopes that science can resist this habit, but to do so scientists have to be aware of the all-too-human tendency we have to fit the facts to the belief, rather than the belief to the facts.”

     

©  Little Brown                                                                                    © Evan Davies

Joining them is Matthew d’Ancona, columnist, Science Museum Group Trustee and author of Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (Ebury), who says:

“Post-Truth priorities have driven the rise of ‘scientific denialism'”: the growing conviction that scientists, in league with government and pharmaceutical corporations, are at war with the best interests of humanity. When truth falls in social value, the continuities in social practice it has supported are put in danger.”

     

  © Penguin Books                                                                                       © Hay Festival

All journalists, the speakers know that alternative facts, half-truths that are designed to mislead and fake news have been grist to the mill of politics and journalism for centuries. Science itself has had many battles in recent decades over the truth of evolution and climate change, the safety of the MMR vaccine and so on.

The third speaker, James Ball, Special Correspondent for BuzzFeed UK, author of Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World (Biteback Publishing), adds:

“Science has been battling bullshit and misinformation long before any of us heard the words “fake news” or “post-truth”, whether it’s on climate change, dubious alternative therapies, or the anti-vaccination movement – but it’s not immune to the same pressures and biases that fuel the rest of the misinformation ecosystem. This evening should be a great chance for us to chat about what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and what we can do about the whole mess we’re in.”

      

© Amazon                                                                      © The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

The stakes seem much higher in the wake of the Brexit vote, which shocked many scientists, and Donald Trump’s elevation to US President. In 2014, he tweeted: “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.” Government still struggles with policy evaluation, climate-warming gases are not being properly recorded in official statistics and some government officials are even being discouraged from using the term ‘climate change’.

There seems to be a global and political assault on fact. That is why more than 10,000 people, from researchers to celebrities, gathered outside the Science Museum earlier this year to join the #MarchforScience – a movement which began in Washington DC and spawned more than 600 marches worldwide.

Science is by no means perfect, of course. There is a ‘reproducibility crisis’ (see Why Most Published Research Findings Are False) and scientists can fool themselves and their peers in many ways: for example, there is data dredging (data fishing, data snooping, and p-hacking) which seeks patterns that can be presented as statistically significant, without a hypothesis about the underlying causality, and HARKing (which stands for Hypothesizing After the Results are Known), when it is claimed that a theory cooked up after an experiment was the point of the study in the first place.

Countermeasures are being discussed (registering details of experiments ahead of gathering data: insisting that studies are replicated before they are published; or collaborations to double check findings) and the scientific culture of scepticism, testing and provisional consensus-forming remains one of the most significant achievements of our species: just look at its ubiquitous and indisputable impact on everyday life through a wide range of technologies, from the world wide web to medical treatments.

We need to reemphasise science’s central role in society: the truth really is out there to be discovered and then acted upon. If democracy is to work, we need as many people as possible to understand what science offers in the post-truth era.

During the discussion, our distinguished speakers will grapple with the consequences of the rising influence of the web, where lies are given the same status as truth, the hypnotic appeal of false narratives and the role of citizens when it comes to seeking truth in public life. For a post-truth society, facing major challenges such as the spectre of climate change, science is more important than ever.

The event will allow our speakers to weigh up the current influence of the virtues that for centuries have guided that great intellectual journey that we call science: nullius in verba.

Image from March for Science 2017

 Science and the post-truth era is on Thursday 31st August 7.45 – 9.15pm at the IMAX Theatre.

Written by Roger Highfield

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