Science & Health

To restore trust in science, we need great storytellers

All good scientists are sceptics. Scepticism is central to the scientific method, which is basically designed to prevent the most human of all errors: fooling yourself and, in turn, fooling others.

That’s why the rules of science, set-up in the 17th century by Britain’s National Academy of Science, the Royal Society of London, require that all acceptable scientific work must (after critical peer-review) be published for anyone interested to read.

But while the scientific method relies on rigorous investigation to reach our best possible understanding of the underlying reality, society does not treat all scientific findings equally.

As we have seen over several decades, there is a polarising division in society around what can be thought of an inconvenient science, linked to a sustained attack on some forms of scientific research.

This trend has continued in alarming fashion in recent years, as we have entered an era of “fake news” and compulsive lying in politics.

Science that is difficult to swallow is less readily welcomed

In 2015, I published a book called The Knowledge Wars, laying out a short history of modern science and seeking to explain how science works. The book examined how society variously receives, and deals with, a diversity of information that is of intense human concern.

As I wrote then, when it comes to public perception, medical discoveries and innovations improve lives and are generally welcomed. Antibiotics, for example, have always been considered one of the 20th century’s “wonder discoveries”.

On the other hand, climate science has been met with many detractors — because climate scientists are telling us something that is extraordinarily difficult, on many levels. Namely, that we must change!

Specifically: climate scientists are telling us to phase out the fossil fuels that have transformed society for the better, in so many ways, over the past 200-plus years.

In both cases there’s a “big money” component, embedded in the major pharmaceutical companies (Big Pharma) and the fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas) industries.

The difference is that, if Big Pharma gets it wrong, they risk enormous financial penalties if they don’t “fess-up” fast and make the necessary changes.

Fossil fuel producers, however, seem to operate in a penalty-free zone, using their massive resources to promote climate change denial — masquerading as “scepticism” — and avoid corrective measures, like an escalating carbon price.

It is important to note that this “scepticism” pushed by the fossil fuel producers is not the same thing as the genuine, rigorous scepticism inherent to the scientific method.

It tends to be economic-driven denial using rhetorical tactics in order to give the appearance of a scientific controversy where there is none.

Fake news and compulsive lying present new challenges

One chapter in my book was about ‘Scepticism and Denial’, while another bore the label ‘Deliberate Ignorance and Invented Narrative’.

This was, of course, before the world encountered the reality of Donald Trump. If the book is ever revised, the ‘Deliberate Ignorance’ chapter would likely be entitled ‘Fake News and Compulsive Lying’.

In one sense, Trump has done the world of intellectual inquiry a service: he’s left us in no doubt that scientists and those who believe in evidence-based facts will fail if the only weapon we can bring to the disinformation war is ideas based in critical thinking and a respect for evidence.

We must engage on a much broader front.

As we move through this election year, we are acutely aware that US society is roughly divided into pro-Trump, rural and middle-America, high school educated communities, versus a never-Trump, college/university-educated, big-city and east/west coast demographic.

Given that the US Constitution is basically a secular document embedded in the philosophical perspective of the 17th century European enlightenment, it should be no surprise that enlightenment thinking is at the core of US higher education.

This is a stark divide, with the two groups staring at each other in mutual incomprehension.

The reason Trump appeals to so many people, I think, is that he provides a core narrative many relate to.

Country towns are dying; the local newspaper has gone; the family farm is disappearing; people who were independent now find themselves as employees, often in poorly paid or casual jobs.

Trump’s “drain the swamp” narrative blames this on a “deep state” embedded in the “swamp” of the Washington DC political and administrative culture which, by employing many highly qualified and talented people is, in fact, a major factor in the global dominance of the US.

The massively disruptive changes that have so compromised the working lives of many “ordinary people” have little to do with politics.

They are largely driven by the evolution of agribusiness conglomerates, the aggressive operations of companies like Walmart that undercut small businesses, online marketing, and rapid delivery via Amazon, FedEx or UPS.

Simultaneously, the internet, streaming services, social media and so forth have eroded advertising support for TV, radio and print. Right now, the application of AI may be coming for workers further up the business hierarchy, too.

Trump, in effect, tells people: you aren’t to blame because you’ve changed how you shop and access information, because you prefer cheaper goods and convenience. This has been done to you by “bad guys” in government.

The other component to this narrative based in half-truths is that: “you can’t trust people who have real expertise”. They have to go!

We saw that play visually during COVID in the interaction between Trump, who is profoundly ignorant, and Anthony Fauci, who has deep expertise!

Here’s at least part of what we need to do

If those of us who value truth and evidence want to have impact, we have to put out stories that everyone can relate to.

One night recently, a TV show featuring “the Boss”, Bruce Springsteen, was on in the background. Using music and linking different stories, he was laying out a narrative of a working life. How many of us have interacted with Chasin’ Wild Horses (I did for a bit), albeit certainly not with (as in his song) “two men in the chopper [and] two undersaddle on the ground”.

Though few will have had anything like that specific experience, Springsteen’s little story is somehow universal and rings true: life is tough, we work hard and sometimes dangerously, we make mistakes, we behave badly and lie at times, but still we come through and there’s value, satisfaction and love and hope. Here, he’s echoing common themes from the country music industry.

The lesson for us is we can try to change minds by encouraging intellectual enquiry, scepticism and a respect for evidence. But we must also engage the heartland by, in effect, recruiting great story tellers to the cause.

This articled was originally published in 360info. It is republished under Creative Commons.

Photo by on Mika Baumeister Unsplash.


About Peter C Doherty

Professor Peter C Doherty shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996 with Swiss colleague Rolf Zinkernagel, for their discovery of how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells. He is Professor Emeritus at The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, the University of Melbourne Medical School, Victoria, Australia. Find him on X at @ProfPCDoherty.

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