The War on Truth Part Two: Reluctant Soldiers? | Jack Smith
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
In part one of this post I asked how a world that is increasingly turning away from the truths obtained through the application of empirical methods treats those who are the users and champions of such methods. The answer increasingly, to put it simply, is not very well. From some of the mainstream press and the dark corners of the internet to (the former) White House and Downing Street, Scientists and academics are being treated with disdain and ignored or derided by those who find our conclusions objectionable or problematic. This has always been the case to some extent and probably always will be, but, as described in part one, it has become more pronounced and politicised in our current era of political tumult.
Government minister Michael Gove’s famous statement “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts” is now emblematic of the turn against informed, educated opinion (made all the more remarkable, and worrying, having come from a man who has held both the education and environment portfolios). And, of course, the way in which the advice of epidemiologists during the Covid-19 pandemic has been treated with contempt by key decision makers and large swathes of the public also speaks to this turn against science and those essential aspects underpinning it, such as empiricism. Add to this the extreme examples of anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers, and it becomes apparent that the weakening of empiricism, and the engendering of mistrust and conspiracy, is having a serious and detrimental effect on all of us.
What has become more apparent to me as my work has progressed is that by choosing to enter into a PhD and pursue scientific research, we have also entered into an ideological war, placing ourselves on the opposing side of those who wish to advance their vested interests by utilising people’s ignorance and fear, and who, in so doing, undermine one of the most successful and valuable aspects of the modern world – science itself. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that not a single one of us is pursuing a scientific career in order to purposefully enter on one side of a conflict but rather, like innocent deer grazing through the woods, minding our own business, we seem to have blithely strolled into the cross-hairs of those who wish us ill; finding ourselves in the firing line of those to whom we, and our work, represent a threat.
Admittedly, there is something exciting in the idea that our quite often mundane and tedious work could represent a threat to anyone (it’s definitely one way to make reviewing the literature seem more exciting, and at this stage I’ll take what I can get). But we must be savvy to this by thinking more about what it means to be caught up in this conflict and discuss how best to defend ourselves, our work, and the values that underpin them, in case they ever come under attack.
But a good scientist’s instincts will naturally rage against such an idea. We are supposed to be impartial and detached. Our job is to produce scientific evidence and make this evidence, and subsequent drawn conclusions, accessible to society at large. Once the knowledge is produced and disseminated, it’s out of our hands. Surely we must leave it to the media, politicians and the other denizens of the public sphere to champion causes and make normative insistence on the importance of empiricism?
Could this be seen as a cop out? A dereliction of duty? The science itself must be impartial and detached, yes, but the conclusions drawn must be championed and defended. We are embedded in this world and so is our science, the conclusions of which have real effects on people’s views and behaviour, as well as giving important instructions to everyone on numerous different topics – on how to protect our health, utilise natural resources, or advance technology, for example. The world needs these instructions and it cannot implement them properly if they are not treated with the respect they deserve.
But how best to defend empiricism and the truths it gives rise to? Indeed, is even agreeing to acknowledge the conflict a wrong step in itself? This question is apparent in the wider culture wars with some arguing that racists and misogynists should be met on the field of battle and trounced, and those who argue that simply engaging lends credence to a false conflict that exacerbates a largely politically contrived divide.
I’m torn myself – some days I want to take up arms and fight every expression of anti-empiricism and other days I feel like doing so would simply add to the problem. Having one foot in a conflict mind-set and another out of it is maddening. Safe to say it’s complicated and it can be hard to know where to place your conviction.
Whether it is wise to engage on the battlefield in defence of empiricism or not, taking on the mantel of Scientist (capital S) has become an increasingly normative and political act with attendant enemies who have, like Judge Barret, placed themselves on the opposite side of the very values we embody and champion. We are not pursuing science and research as a career explicitly to become defenders of higher ideals but such ideals are under attack and they are important.
So do we proactively fight back? If so, what does that look like and what skills are required? Or do we simply continue to engage in science, taking every opportunity to communicate that science and to aspire to communicate it as best we can – acting like Monbiot and calmly dousing the flames of anti-empiricism with reference to the evidence? Should we concentrate on healing the damage done to people’s trust of science after it was so easily corrupted by the likes of self-interested tobacco companies? How do we improve science to minimise errors and therefore maximise trust?
I’m afraid I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they are on my mind. I think they should be on all our minds as we progress further, if we wish to become the best scientists we can be. If I come to any conclusions I will write another post and share them, and I encourage you to do the same. In the meantime, we can content ourselves with knowing that simply engaging in science has increasingly become, at least in some sense, and however tragically, a subversive political act; a revolution in itself.