Sigma Xi Members Discuss the War on Science

by Heather Thorstensen | May 08, 2015

National Geographic’s March cover called out “The War on Science,” leading to an article written by Washington Post science writer Joel Achenbach. In it, Achenbach explained why is there so much trouble with the public accepting the scientific community’s consensus on topics such as climate change, genetically modified food, and vaccines. 

 “It’s very clear the world of information has changed,” Achenbach said while recently talking about his article on the Diane Rehm Show. “There has been a disintegration of the old gatekeepers of knowledge. And now people get their information from the Internet, they get it from a variety of sources; it’s a small “d” democratic information world out there. And they often find exactly what they already believe and they end up in these echo chambers.”

The article prompted Dorothy Dunning, a retired member from West Virginia University’s biology department, to start a discussion in Sigma Xi’s online communityfor active members, The Lab: Members to Members. 

The main themes of the discussion were:

1. Scientists want to be part of the public conversation about science but outreach efforts generally aren’t rewarded. 

“Do we have a moral obligation to explain how science works?  I certainly think so,” wrote Sigma Xi member Allen McGrew, of the Department of Geology at University of Dayton. “Regardless of obligation, however, we certainly have a vital stake. Why? Because the general public votes. And their votes affect every aspect of science from education to funding to public policy on things ranging from wetland preservation to whether we subsidize fossil fuel exploration or solar cells.”

Still, the academic mindset hasn’t accepted fully that engaging the public is a valuable effort, wrote Alan Emery, of Sigma Xi’s University of Toronto Chapter.

2. The public has come to distrust science but scientists might be able to do something about that. 

Sigma Xi members Philipp Kornreich, of Syracuse University, and John Fennick, a member of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Chapter, pointed out that public distrust in science is nothing new. Negative articles about science, such as the 1995 Forbes article “Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Statistics” remind the public that science isn’t always right. And, like any sector, scientists aren’t, unfortunately, always ethical. 

But scientists can change that by improving integrity in research, Fennick said

“We should campaign for scientific reports that contain just the facts, uncluttered by speculation or fanciful observations and kept in perspective with honest caveats,” he wrote. 

Too often today, he added, researchers, reviewers, and journal editors leave out caveats in scientific papers such as “preliminary finding” or “more work is needed.” The claims and interpretations of studies can be sensationalized and passed on to the public by science journalists, Fennick said, citing an article by Drs. David F. Ransohoff and Richard M. Ransohoff, in Effective Clinical PracticeSensationalism in the Media: When Scientists and Journalists May be Complicit Collaborators.” 

3. Sigma Xi members didn’t agree on who is responsible for distrust in science. 

Journalists, journal editors and reviewers, the public, and scientists were all named as groups that need to do things differently. 

4. Teaching the public about science will probably help. 

While some members said that there will always be some people who will not change their beliefs, many said it is important to better educate the public about scientific results and how science works.
 
Kristi Multhaup, a professor of psychology at Davidson College, wants to see more dissemination of accurate information based on carefully conducted studies and, in some cases, efforts to give the public the outcome of the research they paid for with their tax dollars.

Multhaup cited Robert Sommer’s proposal of dual dissemination in which scientists would continue to publish peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals but also publish versions of their articles intended to be read by the public and published in popular outlets. 

David Garfinkle, of Oakland University’s Department of Physics, added that one thing the public should know is how much the scientific community scrutinizes the findings of other scientists. 

“…any erroneous conclusions brought about either by careless mistakes or by bias or dishonesty will eventually be corrected,” he wrote. “Thus, when a consensus in the scientific community is widespread and longstanding, it can be trusted despite the fact that individual scientists are just as subject to ordinary human failings as anyone else.” 

5. Canadian members are already seeing a War on Science. 

Canadian member Alan Emery, of the University of Toronto Chapter, said that a war on science is already happening in Canada—with cut funding, loss of science positions, and destroyed reference materials—and the only way to fight it is to work with the public. 

“To combat this effectively requires that scientists and science writers engage the public in discourse that enlightens and enlivens without creating impossibly polarized positions,” Emery wrote.

We invited many of these Sigma Xi members to expand on their comments by submitting a blog post to Keyed In. We published these posts to extend this conversation to a broader audience and invite additional feedback. Read the guest posts by John Fennick, Alan Emery, and David Garfinkle.
 
We hope you’ll join in the conversation by sending us a comment via social media (Twitter, Facebook) or submitting your own blog post to keyedin “at” sigmaxi “dot” org.


Heather Thorstensen is manager of communications for Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. 

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