I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting before I left my flat this Saturday to join fellow scientists and science-fans on the March for Science in London. Demonstrations against Brexit and the Women’s March earlier this year were still on my mind, I guess, and probably contributed to my anticipation of large crowds. When we all assembled in front of the Science Museum to set off on the march I quickly began to realize that science is, after all, a niche interest and the current anti-science climate hardly considered a big societal issue. Least of all by the media – during the march I frequently checked the BBC and Guardian websites, only to discover that none of the reporting made the front page.
Several news outlets later announced that Thousands had joined the protest. Still, to me our cheerful and rather vocal group seemed much too sparse as we made our way to Westminster, trying to recruit random pedestrians along the way and encouraging car drivers in the streets next to us to honk in support.
But I’m glad I went. The time to voice our concerns and encourage people to regain an interest in science is now. This was also the key message I took away from the speeches that followed the march, in which several of the presenters time and again called for scientists to actively engage with the public, present their work to lay audiences at least as often as to scientific peers and not shy away from demanding the attention of the public about crucial issues of our time.
One observation that seemed to resonate the most with the attending crowd (judging from the ovations it received) came, if I remember correctly, from Angela Saini who exclaimed in sheer disbelief how bizarre it was having to step up onto a stage in the defense of science. Providing justification about how important science is and how much it has contributed to our lifestyle and human history. Justifying its existence to a growing chorus of doubters and agitators. Reminding people that literally none of the technology, health care and infrastructure we take for granted these days would exist without science.
This is very much mirrored in a widely shared video by science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson that was put up a few days ago, in which he addresses the dangers of an American public in ignorance when it comes to science and it’s value for our society.
I’m old enough to remember the 60s and the 70s. We had a hot war and a cold war, a civil rights movement and all this was going on. But I don’t remember any time where people were standing in denial of what science was. – Neil de Grasse Tyson
This frustration is something we all share these days. I cannot count the times I’ve heard someone say “I don’t believe in climate change” as if this was just a matter of faith much like religion. In the most frightening moments it is uttered by someone close, a relative or family member, opening up a sudden rift and the startling discovery of how much your own views have already drifted apart from views of people you thought you knew well. And in these cases it is not even about a matter of different opinion – what we encounter nowadays is the plain refusal to acknowledge facts and look at hard evidence.
Another piece of advice during the speeches came from Suze Kundu, who insisted that we keep asking why. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable ignorance or – even more so! – highly dubious claims. Her take on the “consuming” of information these days is to embrace our childlike curiosity and skepticism in everything we read. And indeed a simple “why” at the end of a statement often opens up new routes to insight or might enable us to see things from a different perspective. In any case it is the first step towards more research and the gathering of knowledge, which (even if we only have unreliable news sources to chose from) might provide us with more of an oversight in the end than deriving our “opinions” and “beliefs” from the top posts we see on facebook.
A healthy dose of curiosity and a well-honed ability to ask the right questions is also often the best (and least provocative) route to constructive results during debates with science skeptics. It helps to ask them for their sources and analyze what was said exactly, by whom and for what purpose. You may even offer to interpret scientific papers if that is deemed helpful (that was my way through the climate change discussion that came up in my family after I got over my initial shock and disbelief). Alternatively, science magazines and journal front-halfs are always a good source for up-to-date scientific information that is still relatively accessible for the lay reader. All mainstream journalism should be avoided, as a general rule.
When listening to the speeches I remembered one of the first articles I posted on this blog – on the 24th of May 2014 – about an ipsos-mori survey that had just come out. Results indicated that the public highly trusted scientists to tell the truth, that there was an increasing interest in scientific issues and people considered it important in their daily lives. It was good news back then, although we might question the reliability of these surveys – in particular given the more recent dramatic failures in survey predictions.
Has the world really changed so drastically since 2014? If the public is losing its “faith in facts“, as the mainstream press prefers to call it, maybe they had the wrong idea about facts in the first place? Perhaps the public was never so much trusting the facts than the sources – and these have obviously changed dramatically over the years, together with their click-bait agendas.
The solution is obvious: keep the “faith” separately from the facts. Trust no-one. Become your own science journalist and gather the evidence yourself – do the research. Or talk to people who can prove to you that they have done the research for you – by asking a lot of questions and taking an active interest instead of passive consuming. These people may be journalists. But even better – they may be scientists. And you can find them on marches in your neighbourhood all year round.