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Why scientists are marching

London—On April 22, scientists from around the world will mark Earth Day by taking part in an unprecedented “March for Science.” The aim of the march is to “celebrate and defend science at all levels—from local schools to federal agencies.” It is important for the world to understand why the usually sedate community of scientists will take to the streets in a global demonstration of concern.

In November 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” its “Word of the Year.” In an era in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” scientists like us cannot stay silent. So we will march to return scientific “certainty” to its rightful place in public debate.

“Post-truth” describes well a year in which disregard for facts became a pervasive feature in world politics. As a candidate, US President Donald Trump denied the overwhelming evidence for climate change, endorsed the discredited claim that vaccinations caused autism, and asserted that compact fluorescent light bulbs can cause cancer.

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But policymakers in America and Europe have trafficked in equally outrageous “expert views” on the consequences of their opponents’ positions on topics ranging from genetically modified foods to nuclear energy to Brexit. Recent social media attacks on a measles-rubella vaccination campaign even surfaced in India, fueling a mix of conspiracy theories, safety concerns, and questions of motivation—and demonstrating the extent to which lives can be imperiled when facts are ignored.

Earlier warnings, such as Ralph Keyes’ 2004 book “The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life,” drew little attention from the science community. That’s because we’d heard it all before; “post-truth” responses to “objective facts” are as old as science itself. An early example was the persistent belief in a flat earth, a view maintained for centuries after the ancient Greeks had accumulated clear evidence to the contrary.

This sensibility has entered the political mainstream, influencing policies that will profoundly affect the health and wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants. Those who regard the scientific method—the systematic observation, measurement, and hypothesis testing that have underpinned humans’ apprehension of ourselves and the world for centuries—as a core value of society must step forward to defend its central role in guiding public debate and decision-making.

But to be persuasive, we scientists must put our own house in order, by avoiding behavior that can fuel post-truth rhetoric. When published findings are based on falsified data or deliberately misleading conclusions, the credibility of every scientist suffers. Peer review must be rigorous and always strive to detect and snuff out shoddy or deceptive work.

Equally important, researchers must do a better job explaining what scientific “certainty” means, helping the public and policymakers to distinguish between proven hypotheses and unverified theories.

Those engaged in science urgently need to develop and implement more effective strategies to communicate scientific advances and discoveries that affect society and the environment. A central focus of this effort should be to explain and defend the methods and rigor of the underlying process of evidence collection and validation. Simply put, a higher level of science literacy among the public, the media, and especially among policymakers is essential to recognizing and rejecting unreasoned attempts to discredit science and scientists.

In his 1946 book “The Discovery of India,” India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, advocated the development of a “scientific temper”—the adoption of the scientific method as a way of life. To defeat the post-truth threat, that temper is needed now more than ever. On April 22, let’s defend it with passion. Project Syndicate
Stephen Matlin is adjunct professor at the Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London. Goverdhan Mehta is university distinguished professor of chemistry at the University of Hyderabad. Henning Hopf is professor in the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the Technische Universität Braunschweig. Alain Krief, executive director of the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development, is emeritus professor of chemistry at Namur University and adjunct professor in the HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry at the University of Karachi.

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