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16/09/2014

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Taking science personally

People are drawing their own conclusions from research, argues Steve Fuller.

People are drawing their own conclusions from research, argues Steve Fuller.

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We are entering a time when taking science seriously means taking it personally.

This change in attitude is arguably comparable to the shift that took place during the Protestant Reformation, the moment when Christianity ceased being a unified doctrine delivered with enormous mystique from on high. Thereafter it became a plurality of faiths, whose followers staked their lives on their own distinctive understandings of the Scriptures.

What are the signs of such a sea change in the public’s engagement with science, which I have dubbed ‘Protscience’?

Science hybrids

First off, science’s increasing visibility in public affairs has coincided with the ability of people to access the entire storehouse of scientific knowledge from virtually any starting point on the internet.

The result has led to a proliferation of what used to be called (sometimes derisively) ‘New Age’ science hybrids, some of which have breathed new life into movements previously thought defunct, including creationism and homoeopathy.

Science journalism

The character of science journalism has also changed. Gone are the days of science journalists as scientists’ press agents. The field has raised its public profile, while acquiring a perspective more independent of the scientific community.

This situation is explainable as a classic ‘supply push’ and ‘demand pull’ dynamic: that is, the surplus of scientifically trained people spilled over into journalism just when the public has come to think of itself less as spectators than consumers of science. Thus, they wish to know from the science journalist whether the scientists’ products are worth buying.

Testing papers

A notable journalist of this sort is the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre. Despite being a trained medical doctor and self-avowed scourge of ‘bad science’, his modus operandi tends to involve subjecting scientific papers to statistical and other research design tests, which end up uncovering flaws even in papers that have passed the peer review process.

One recalls here Ralph Nader’s ‘test-driving’ cars in the 1960s to see if they lived up to manufacturers’ claims, which sparked the original consumer movement.

Interpreting raw data

At a still more basic level, and sometimes with less scientific training, the public is turning to the Freedom of Information Act to obtain scientific communications and even raw data in order to assess the quality of scientific research for itself.

This has had some explosive consequences, most notably for the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. While the scientists involved were cleared of any wrongdoing, the entire episode left questions as to whether scientists can be trusted to provide a disinterested interpretation of their own findings.

What matters here is not the distrust of scientists but the public’s interest in what scientists are doing and their willingness to try to make sense of it on their own, regardless of what the scientific establishment concludes. For some, this suggests the need for yet another species of science journalism, called ‘upstream’, which would report on ongoing research before it reaches the publication stage.

While this prospect strikes some scientists as a nuisance, nevertheless it provides an opportunity for the public to develop personal stakes in the research outcomes.

Tolerant environment

To many practising scientists, the trend that I am highlighting seems like little more than science being cherry-picked to suit particular world-views. However, a mature secular democracy is capable of respecting even those who wish to embody in their lives hypotheses that scientists have dismissed.

I have no doubt that in such a tolerant environment, people would continue to fund and consult scientific research. But the conclusions they draw from it would be their own, for better or worse.

Taking science personally ultimately means turning oneself into a living laboratory.

I develop these ideas in Chapter 4 of Science: The Art of Living (Acumen, 2010)

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Steve Fuller
Steve Fuller holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick
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