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Culture, history and society

Standing up for science in difficult times

24 Mar 2021 Caitlin Duffy
Taken from the March 2021 issue of Physics World where the article appeared under the headline "Supporting science in difficult times". Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

With COVID-19 fostering anti-science conspiracies, Caitlin Duffy says that scientists have a duty to speak up and challenge misinformation 

Identity question We can combat anti-science ideology directly or by publicly breaking stereotypes that mean scientists are “othered” and mistrusted. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Yeti studio)

Every minute of every day some 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube and millions of stimulating but unregulated discussions occur daily on forum sites. While the Internet allows instant access to information and each other, the bias of algorithms favour suggestions that appeal to the user. Alongside media sensationalism and political corruption, the Internet has cultivated an insurgence of anti-science ideology, fuelled by misinformation, under-representation and angered passion. In a world where nearly 60% of the population has access to the Internet, scientists are needed more than ever to safeguard facts, reliability, global peace and health. 

Anti-science rhetoric has nucleated in the past decade, especially when it comes to the climate. Despite the worst-case scenario showing a global temperature increase of 8 °C and a sea level rise of 1 m by 2100 – well within the lifetime of our youngest generation – many opt to ignore it or challenge the underlying evidence. In the wake of COVID-19, ignorance and a failure to listen to scientists has exacerbated the problem. Onlookers watch as countries guided by science slowly return to a cautious normality, while other countries suffer painful death rates, long-term lockdowns and frustration at U-turns in policies. 

As people seek to find a balanced view of hyperbolized news, scientists appear a good first point of contact for their trained critical thinking.

In the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson initially shook hands with hospitalized COVID-19 patients, then prioritized economics over health, overlooked members of his government breaching COVID laws and changed his mind haphazardly regarding education, free school meals and Christmas celebrations. When scientists extensively modelled the outcomes for COVID and detailed the steps required to prevent the worst, a compliant government should have listened. Banging pots and pans for under-funded, over-worked NHS and other stressed keyworkers is not the answer. And in the US we’ve seen a similar COVID rebellion, with its former president Donald Trump calling for protests against mask-wearing and lockdowns, as well as promoting the ingestion of bleach and hydroxychloroquine, giving false statistics and highlighting vaccine cynicism. Thankfully, new US president Joe Biden is taking a different approach. 

When influential people show such disregard, disrespect and suspicion regarding science, it’s easy to understand how conspiracies are formed and cultivated in communities, giving rise to the dangerous anti-science crusade. The role of a scientist is to be the elective voice of reason against absurdity and tunnel-visioned proclamations. It is vital then that figures of authority trust scientific judgement and act correspondingly. The trust of politicians and the media can help to combat anti-science rhetoric and some of the most pressing issues faced by humanity. With the obvious need for visible scientists, it should be our duty to speak up about our concerns about certain policies. 

Putting yourself out there

Scientists are trained over many years to sift through jargon and data to establish facts, spot flaws and – mostly – set aside their personal convictions should evidence deem them unlikely. After all, even Einstein could not fault quantum mechanics despite his deep, philosophical trouble with the theory. Scientists are approached with complex and detailed situations sometimes falling beyond the scope of their field. As people seek to find a balanced view of hyperbolized news, scientists appear a good first point of contact for their trained critical thinking. 

Although rewarding, being the fact-finding, jargon-juggling rock of reason is often taxing as it not only requires time and effort but mental gymnastics to produce a satisfactory response. Being the go-to for factual concerns can add a different, sometimes unwanted complexity. Alternatively, constant mental stimulation and problem solving is a thriving point for some scientists who use such interesting conversations as a break – or indeed, procrastination – from their day-to-day work.

The demand for and of scientists is high. But we know that for every scientist who chooses to be vocal, there is another who is loathe to fill such an open role, not least because they do not have the time. Indeed, speaking up and putting yourself out there is not always easy. The response from those outside of the community is sometimes ostracizing and offputting: rife with misogyny for women, judgemental towards people of colour, and filled with the misconception that scientists believe they’re better than the general public. 

This, in combination with an often unrelatable day job, can lead scientists to reduce their social ties to non-scientists, ultimately removing an indispensable connection with most of the population. Part of being vocal is to also break down stereotypes and defy stigma. Doing so demonstrates the “normality” lying behind the graphs, liquid nitrogen and serious statistics; behind every scientist is a unique person with distinct interests, families and stories. This is crucial to portray if today’s young people are to grow up with trust and passion in science and if minorities are going to feel welcomed into the scientific community. 

People are often taken aback should a scientist have unexpected hobbies – be it bodybuilder, pro-chef, sommelier, artist or musician. When the outside world only sees “scientist” as one’s identity, it inadvertently belittles talents and hobbies that have taken decades to master. A scientist may, in their eyes, then transform from a boring person who sits behind a computer all day to someone who does science but also runs ultra-marathons or produces their own music. 

Demonstrating that science is accessible for anybody and everybody is not just about improving the image of scientists. It is also a pivotal step in dousing the anti-science fire and drowning out conspiracies – both vital if we are to continue the global advance towards a more peaceful, safe and healthy future.

Copyright © 2021 by IOP Publishing Ltd and individual contributors