‘Institute for scientific facts’ aims to smash fake news

Mass polls of global scientists could help to debunk myths about extent of division on contested issues

January 10, 2023
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Butt out survey results will help public distinguish outliers from accepted facts

With a cacophony of scientific voices on social media – some well informed, others crackpot – establishing scientific consensus on key issues is proving more difficult than ever. But a project led by Durham University academics may soon have the answer to that thorny question of what can be confidently called a “scientific fact”.

Under a scheme headed by Peter Vickers, co-director of Durham’s Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society, scientists from across the world will be emailed to give their view on issues on which opinion appears to be split. Results from the polls, which seek to reach as many as 100,000 scientists at a time, will be shared to help the public gauge the true level of consensus on contested topics.

“Humanity has never had a way to measure reliably the opinion of the scientific community,” explained Professor Vickers, who claimed efforts to do so have been “small scale” and reliant on fewer than 2,000 responses. “We need a way to access scientific opinion on a large scale and internationally,” he added of the proposed Institute for Ascertaining Scientific Consensus.

At present, certain ideas with broad support within medicine or academia cross the threshold where they can be considered “facts” in a way that is not recorded, said Professor Vickers, who outlines his proposal in Identifying Future-Proof Science, published by Oxford University Press.

“At some point in the 20th century, the idea that smoking causes cancer was accepted as an established fact but no one knows exactly when it was,” he said, adding that it is still “difficult to say when something is a fact or just an idea with a very high level of confidence”.

Dissent from a small number of scientists can often give a false perception of the strength of scientific consensus on an issue, as shown in the 1960s and 1970s when tobacco companies sponsored doctors and scientists to question smoking’s link to cancer, he said.

“If this institute had existed when science was battling against Big Tobacco, even if tobacco firms had produced 100 scientists casting doubt on the cancer link, we could have showed they were still a very small minority,” explained Professor Vickers.

With social media enabling fringe views to gain an outsized influence on public opinion on key scientific issues – such as the benefits of Covid vaccinations and mask-wearing or whether climate change is man-made – a trusted method of understanding scientific consensus was arguably more important than ever, he added.  

“Some people might think scientists are split 50-50 on certain topics but the actual ratio might be 80-20 – if you can present these figures to the public, you might be able to correct some misconceptions about what the scientific community thinks,” he said, though it might also “help to illuminate where experts in different countries, or different parts of the world, see things differently”.

The project will be piloted this year, but scientists from six continents have already agreed to support the initial trial phase – with Jim Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey and presenter of BBC’s The Life Scientific, among dozens of leading scientists who have agreed to be part of its advisory board.

“No one really knows when we can finally call something a ‘fact’, but if you could point to 95 per cent agreement on something, you could certainly make a judgement on that,” reflected Professor Vickers.



Print headline: ‘Institute for scientific facts’ aims to stub out fake news

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Reader's comments (10)

This is a great idea. I tried to access some of the cited literature, it was behind a pay-wall, and when I tried to access it through my uni library it gave me an error. If it's so hard for an academic to access information the wider public might be forgiven to profess ignorance and produce consiparcy theories about elites withholding the "true facts" to fill the knowledge gap.
This is really just institutionalizing the sort of paradigm policing that Thomas Kuhn described sixty years ago. It is not surprising that elite scientists are backing it. However, it does need to confront some awakward issues. First, are numbers alone enough? The Great Barrington Declaration has almost 1 million signatures and its rival, the John Snow Memorandum, has around 7,000 but the issues addressed by both remain highly contested. The GBD position has not decisively trounced its rival. Second, there is the potential impact on innovative or disruptive science. A Nature paper has recently argued that this is in decline. There are likely to be many factors involved in this but at least some are likely to reflect tighter mechanisms of paradigm control in grant-making bodies and assessment metrics.
This is a very complex issue. I am certainly in favour of presenting science to the public but it must be done responsibly & ethically. On its own a poll of scientists cannot do this. Two exemplar points here, on the issue of smoking causing cancer Doll’s original statistical analysis was seriously flawed & this gave rise to serious doubts. Secondly minority views need to be explained, not dismissed in a poll.
A scientific fact is a contradiction in terms. Science is always provisional and tentative. Given that at bottom science can always change as new observations or phenomena arise, any theory should only be held provisionally. There are no such things as scientific facts.
A few good examples of why science is always, in principle, provisional, and never a static fact, is the change from the steady state theory of the cosmos to the big bang origin, and the gemmule silt theory of Darwin to DNA genetic coding. There are things in nature that can be called facts, like roses having thorns, but any and all theories are only and can only ever be provisional and tentative. To say “scientific fact” seems to me a confusion that conflates facts with theories. They’re not the same.
Contrary to the misleading tongue-in-cheek article's title and overall tenor of the write up, the initiative in question is not about establishing what constitutes a scientific fact, rather it is about attaching actual numbers to the term "consensus opinion". How big is the consensus vs the dissent of the scientific community on a claimed empirical fact or a claimed theory? Let's poll the "experts" on a large scale and accurately establish the percentage numbers. A laudable effort in principle, but with potential problems in the methods of sampling and criteria setting: what are the inclusion/exclusion criteria both to define the overall population of "experts" and to select the population sample to be interviewed?
Terrible idea. I'm sure that serious harm from passive smoking would be voted a "fact". Well, Wikipedia says it is and there are plenty of publications to back it up - most of them statistically inept or even fraudulent. Who is a "scientist" or an "expert"? I'm guessing those who wrote the papers or who control the Wikipedia pages.
Yet another attack on Scientific integrity is all I see here. Imposed apparent Consensus is a tool of the oppressors, ah but the CHESS game is 'humanities' based, so 'science' (STEM) is to be forced to kowtow at the humanities altar to the the woke gods?
For 60 000 years of contemporary variant of Homo sapience, all of them were sure that Earth is flat and sun goes around it. This statement (fact) did not prevented them from bilding of several civilisations, but will not allow to go to cosmos. 95% or more oncologists are sure that cancer cell is a cause of Cancer. This statement (fact) allows us to prolong the life of patients, but never will allow to cure Cancer. All of the Humans belive that they are living in the world of things (objects). This statement (fact) did not prevent us from creation of our civilisation, but will not allow further development. As Thomas Kuhn said - at some point the old paradigm becomes a "straitjacket" for development. This is the very moment. The scholastics are trying to defend the boundaries of the old paradigm. And this will lead to a waste of public money that is needed for development. A great example is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "Give us new ideas" - and who are the judges? Only those ideas are funded that they can understand - within the old paradigm. And this is a fact.
No, this is clearly not the best way to establish scientific facts. Let me explain this by answering two separate questions: Do we need popular consensus to call something a scientific fact in addition to empirical evidence? Secondly, does popular consensus and polls constitute an essential basis for establishing scientific viability? Again, the answer is No. The viability of a scientific fact lies in following scientific principles while doing research, which then backs the fact with scientific credibility. In addition to supporting the fact by empirical evidence, the fact can be scrutinised, peer-reviewed and retested to confirm its scientificity. So following Prof. Vicars argument, why do we need a 95% agreement on a said fact to prove its authenticity. Why is empirical evidence and reviews not sufficient for calling a fact scientific? Next, agreeing with Prof. Vicar’s methodology of establishing scientific facts may push us to an ‘ad populum fallacy’. Just because the majority of the scientists will believe that the established fact is true, does not give the fact any scientific credibility. Again, empirical backing should be the only priority in establishing scientific facts. So it doesn't matter whether we are supported by the majority or not. Although there is something called the acceptability of a fact in the so called ‘scientific community’. But if the scientific community believes in the primacy of data over authority as the basis of knowledge, then why do we need majoritarian support. It may happen that a very sound and empirically-backed factual analysis is not accepted by the scientific community. There are ways in which dominant circles set the discourses of a discipline that later forms the basis of knowledge and truth according to Foucault. Then how will getting a majority help if they are already influenced by forms of authority and power that decides what is acceptable and unacceptable in the scientific discourse. My point simply is that a scientific fact can stand alone without any popular backing or consensus if it is backed by empirical evidence. Now, if Prof Vicar’s suggestion for a majoritarian backing is masquerading from his fears of ‘fake’ counterfactuals that can surpass the narratives drawn from empirical data and its overall impact on attitude formation in humans, then again that is not a concern for scientific data building. What can be done is to run the probable scientific fact through multiple tests and retests by numerous scientists to ‘confirm’ the theory. But I don't think there is a need for a majoritarian opinion for a scientific fact to be called scientific.