On being challenged recently to explain the value of a scientific approach to a particular problem, I found myself instinctively dismissive of the question. My unhelpful internal response, “because it’s science”, may be indicative of how far removed I tend to feel from those who fail to grasp the intrinsic value of science.
For many of us who embark on scientific careers and interact largely with other scientists, questions about the importance of science are seldom heard. The result is that it can be easy to assume that everyone appreciates, understands and believes in science, purely by virtue of the fact that it is science.
But if the past few years of political and social upheaval have demonstrated anything, it is that we cannot afford to make complacent assumptions about what people believe. Clearly, not everyone appreciates the value of science, much less understands its nuanced findings.
What concerns me most about this is that we, the academics, are at least partly responsible. Rather than engage meaningfully with people who ask genuine questions or raise doubts, too often we respond with unhelpful “because it’s science”-type answers (when we respond at all). More often than not, we remain within our increasingly polarised bubbles, buffered and validated by people who have similar values and viewpoints, cut off from those who don’t share them.
In John Gill’s recent editorial in Times Higher Education, he reflects on his interview with Daniel Bonevac – a Trump-supporting university professor who argued that campuses have become intolerant of alternative political perspectives. Gill discusses the possibility that the political Right’s increasingly negative perception of science is a result, at least in part, of the under-representation of the Right in academia.
Gill quotes Bonevac as saying,“people were gobsmacked by positions and arguments that they’d just never thought through because they’d never encountered them before”. Gill concludes: “If there’s a broader lesson for universities from the events of the past 12 months, it is perhaps that they have to be better at detecting changes in the air they breathe.”
Compounding the problem of political representation in academia is the fact that those whose voices are represented often do not make the case for science strongly or clearly enough. We are trained as researchers, teachers, writers, mentors – rarely as translators or salespeople. We qualify our findings until our conclusions appear indecipherable; we lack an elevator pitch for the broader value of science. Thus, we are trumped by those whose voices are louder and more convincing than ours. And this is a problem because, while some people don’t want to understand, there are many who do; and if they don’t believe in well-established findings or phenomena, it may be because no one has yet explained the science in a way that makes sense to them.
The “translation” aspect of science has improved in many ways. We have improved in the emphasis placed on research “impact” and the incentives associated with it. We have started to transform fundamental problems in methodology linked to the replication crisis. We have started to engage patients, the public and policymakers earlier and more consistently.
But we need to get better. We need to become better salespeople, better translators, better communicators. We need to transition from the generic “because science” to a more concise and coherent explanation for “why science”. If we don’t want to continue to be “gobsmacked by positions and arguments” we haven’t heard before, as Bonevac put it, we need to get down from our high horses and ivory towers and engage more actively in constructive debate.
We have made great strides in coming together as a community to advocate for science, in broadcasting our passion for research, and in making our voices heard. We must now ensure that what we’re saying is clear enough and compelling enough to be listened to.
Rachel Carey is an honorary research associate at University College London. She is writing in a personal capacity.