Science In Crisis: From The Sugar Scam To Brexit, Our Faith In Experts Is Fading

Under the microscope. www.shutterstock.com

Danielle Andrew 07 Oct 2016, 14:35

The ConversationThis is a Foundation Essay for The Conversation Global. Our series of Foundation Essays provide an in-depth investigation of a particular global challenge. In this piece, Andrea Saltelli asks what’s behind the worldwide crisis in science.

Worldwide, we are facing a joint crisis in science and expertise. This has led some observers to speak of a post-factual democracy – with Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump the results.

Today, the scientific enterprise produces somewhere in the order of 2m papers a year, published in roughly 30,000 different journals. A blunt assessment has been made that perhaps half or more of all this production “will not stand the test of time”.

Meanwhile, science has been challenged as an authoritative source of knowledge for both policy and everyday life, with noted major misdiagnoses in fields as disparate as forensics, preclinical and clinical medicine, chemistry, psychology and economics.

Perhaps nutrition is the field most in the spotlight. It took several decades for cholesterol to be absolved and for sugar to be re-indicted as the more serious health threat, thanks to the fact that the sugar industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s, which successfully cast doubt on the hazards of sucrose – while promoting fat as the dietary culprit.

Hidden culprit. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Destructive trend

We think of science as producing truths about the universe. Triumphs of science, like the recent confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves and the landing of a probe on a comet flying around the sun, bring more urgency to the need to reverse the present crisis of confidence in other areas of the scientific endeavour.

Science is tied up with our ideas about democracy – not in the cold war sense of science being an attribute of open democratic societies, but because it provides legitimacy to existing power arrangements: those who rule need to know what needs to be done, and in modern society this knowledge is provided by science. The science-knowledge-power relationship is one of the master narratives of modernity, whose end was announced by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard four decades ago. The contemporary loss of trust in expertise seems to support his views.

Still, techno-science is at the heart of contemporary narratives: the convictions that we will innovate our way out of the economic crisis, overcome our planetary boundaries, achieve a dematerialised economy, improve the fabric of nature, and allow universal well-being.

The appeal of reassuring narratives about our future depends on our trust in science, and the feared collapse of this trust will have far-reaching consequences.

The cult of science is still adhered to by many. Most of us need to believe in a neutral science, detached from material interests and political bargaining, capable of discovering the wonders of nature. For this reason, no political party has so far argued for a reduction in science funding on the basis of the crisis in science, but this threat could soon materialise.

Landing Philae on a comet was no mean feat. DLR German Aerospace Center Follow, CC BY

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