OpinionDevang Mehta

A call to arms

OpinionDevang Mehta
A call to arms

Science in a post-truth world

The legitimisation of falsehood is the defining phenomenon of the ‘post-truth’ world we live in today, and this was perhaps most visible in the Brexit and Trump campaigns of last year. For scientists, this new post-truth world stands as a stark repudiation of everything we value: truth, rationality, logic, evidence; but some of us have been used to this for a while now. For decades, scientists, and particularly biologists, have been directly challenged by ‘post-truthers’ in several areas: evolution, homeopathy, anthropogenic climate-change, genetic engineering of plants, and vaccines among others. It is also a curious truth that every such group, while denying accepted scientific fact, still couches its delusions in scientific jargon. These groups have always enjoyed fringe support, however, as documented excellently by Timothy Caulfield in an article last week, these anti-science positions have become mainstream recently. Mr Caulfield discusses the causes of this movement and gives us (both scientists and the public at large) some pointers towards ‘taking back science’; here, I seek to prescribe some ways in which we scientists in particular, can help stem the tide of pseudoscience. 

Premonitions of defeat

The effect of anti-vaxxer rhetoric. (Source: The Economist)

The effect of anti-vaxxer rhetoric. (Source: The Economist)

For much of the early conflict between science and the conspiracists, we knew where the battle-lines were drawn. In the US it was clear that right-wing publications would misrepresent the science on climate-change and evolution; these facts rather inconvenienced their way of life and their favourite mysticisms. Across the globe, it also became obvious that the extreme Left would increasingly mischaracterise almost ANY science involving manmade-interventions: from genetic engineering of plants, pharmaceuticals (hence their  support for homeopathy, naturopathy and assorted placebos), to vaccines (stemming from a generic distrust of private enterprise). We scientists though, took some comfort in the resistance (by and large) of truly mainstream media outlets to conspiracy-mongering and in their trust in scientific authorities like the National Academies of Science, the Royal Society, the American Medical Association etc.

And this is exactly the space where the post-truthers have recently attained victory. Here are a few examples:

  • Exhibit A: In the news last week and perhaps the most dangerous case of post-truth victory, the conversation between the future President of the world's sole superpower and an anti-vaccine conspiracist.
  • Exhibit B: An article in the New York Times (can't get more mainstream than that) claiming new analysis (not peer-reviewed of course) throws doubt on the utility of GM crops. The article showed the standard signatures of bad science: cherry-picked data, misrepresented graphs and over-interpretation of results. And yet, in spite of widespreaddetailed criticism from well-respected scientists and extensive debunking by other journalists, the newspaper did not even address most of the criticisms, let alone retract the article as any self-respecting scientific publication would have.
What we don’t need are lectures from Europeans whose lifestyles look luxurious to ordinary Africans. They want us to remain agricultural primitives, stuck with technologies that were antiquated even before we entered the 21st century.
— Gilbert Arap Bor, Kenyan farmer and lecturer

The disregard for evidence always manifests itself in sadly predictable ways: the re-emergence of nightmare diseases, the continuation of hunger and malnutrition in poor countries, the vilification and public hounding of public sector scientists, the destruction of entire fields of scientific research etc. In the past, the dismissals of science have been localised events, in places far removed from the liberal West. Consider as precedent the famines caused by Lysenko’s pseudobiology which resulted in intensification of famine and caused huge set-backs to Russian science. The problem now, intensified due to the internet, is that pseudoscience has taken root in the West, and worse, it is being actively exportedby the rich, developed world to countries that simply cannot afford to bet on pseudoscience. As evidence, I present this powerful open letter to the European Union from a Kenyan farmer, pleading for independence for African countries to make their own determinations on modern biotechnology. 

What can scientists do to help?

My prescription is simple: talk, and write, and talk some more.

As academic scientists we have the joy of spending our days in the pursuit of truth, the privilege of spending time critically reviewing evidence, and the skill and knowledge to test and validate claims to Truth. We also have a responsibility to exercise this ‘talent’ or ‘skill’ wherever possible and of translating and communicating our science. And here, I do not refer solely to communicating our own particular strain of research. 

As scientists, irrespective of discipline, we are all trained in the same scientific method that our heroes (from Newton to Darwin, from Einstein to Crick, et al.) used before us. That training, I believe, comes with an obligation to do more than just the next measurement, the next PCR or run the next simulation. We all (from particle physicists to evolutionary biologists to cancer researchers) have the capacity to parse scientific literature, the ability to read between the lines of press releases and news articles, the resources to find conflicting literature and  the framework to learn from scientists from other disciplines. Just as importantly, most scientists know how to avoid obvious traps that others (such as journalists or lay readers) may fall for: we know to trust scientific consensus in various fields, we know the power of confirmation bias, we know to look twice at all research papers and thrice at research papers in low-quality journals, and we know that science is always, always nuanced and context-dependent.

From personal experience:

I also think that oftentimes our instinct to avoid ‘controversy’, or to put on blinders and carry on with our own research, harms science more than any external factor. 

In my four years in academic science I’ve interacted with scientists specialising in synthetic biology, plant biotechnology and in plant breeding. During my Master’s lectures in synthetic biology and societal impacts, the GMO crop example was repeatedly brought up as an example of bad science communication. The GMO crop controversy was was hung with ‘keep-away’ sign, a curse to be warded off by future synthetic biologists. To an extent I found these discussions valuable, but as I found out later they were also incredibly naive. And at no time was the basic fact that GMO-safety concerns were anti-scientific, explicitly mentioned. 

Subsequently, I began a PhD in plant biotechnology, basically creating GMO crops within a synthetic biology framework. As I plugged into the plant science world in Europe and beyond, it was astonishing to see the impact that the GMO controversy has had on the field. GMOs were, and still are, a lost cause in European plant science. Universities that made ground-breaking advances in the genetic engineering of plants have shifted away from the topic. Plant science, once far ahead of other fields in terms of genetic engineering, has fallen back considerably. There is still research going on in Europe on transgenic crops, but labs like mine do this work for applications in developing countries, not in Europe. Partly because Europe doesn’t really need GMOs as badly as other parts of the world do; but also because it’s an impossible sell. And the few researchers that do work on modifying European crops are forced to create meaningless distinctions such as cisgenesis. (In the vain hope that gene transfer within a low taxonomic rank will be more acceptable to opponents of biotechnology.) 

Of course such species-based distinctions are anathema to the principles of synthetic biology, but most synthetic biologists I know are still content to remain disconnected from the GM debate (I wonder how many of them have even heard of cisgenesis). It is true that synthetic biologists have perhaps learned from the past and have participated in more ELSI conversations than other older scientific disciplines. However these conversations are, I think, marked by a certain naiveté about the nature of opposition to genetic engineering (including synthetic biology). In my opinion more synthetic biologists need to engage in the debate around GMO crops, at least in self-interest if not for scientific camaraderie.

Scientists working on plant breeding are another community that have disappointed me in this regard. Too many of the plant breeders I have met proudly market their technologies (from oligo-directed mutagenesis, to apomixis and epigenetic modifications) as ‘non-GMO’. It is disheartening to see intellectual cowardice of this sort take root among fellow plant scientists; but in a world of limited science funding and strong lobbying by the opponents of science, this is perhaps only to be expected.The advent of CRISPR based gene-editing has however, changed the conversation, and for much the better. As I’ve discussed before, gene-editing explodes entirely the distinction between plant breeding and genetic modification and the good news is that even breeders have begun to realise how short-sighted the ‘non-GMO’ marketing ploy is.

A collective responsibility

I think that all academic scientists hold a sacred trust to research the science, whatever the discipline, and to then disseminate our findings. One of the original raisons d’être for academic research is after all, education; I don’t think that should stop at the lecture theatre. It behoves us to defend science wherever it is under attack: to defend climate scientists when they’re attacked, to defend plant geneticists when their private emails are broadcast, to defend the researchers whose GM-crop field trial is burnt by activists, to defend the right of biomedical scientists to experiment on animals, to defend scientists that develop vaccines, and to defend stem cell science from mystical fanatics.

But defence is not enough. We need to research these issues and then talk about them with friends and family, and co-workers and students and supervisors, and most importantly with ourselves. In our labs, we question our own preconceptions every day; I simply ask that we do this for all science that comes under attack. With others, set aside your tolerance threshold for bullshit and talk. When a family member forwards a WhatsApp message citing pseudoscience, respond.

...most of your friends and family, and your colleagues and acquaintances will still trust you a lot more than they trust...the other peddlers of pseudoscience...

When a friend or colleague casually cites an anti-vaxxer or says they don’t trust GMOs, don’t just sigh mentally and dismiss them. Talk, ask questions, explain the science and send them links to more information. If someone you know claims a pro-vaccine or pro-GMO conspiracy, question their premises. And yes, accept that people’s trust in scientists and institutions has fallen. Accept that while Nobel Prize winners are still respected, their word is no longer taken for granted. And realise that, for all that mistrust, most of your friends and family, and your colleagues and acquaintances will still trust you a lot more than they trust Greenpeaceor Vandana Shiva or Robert Kennedy Jr or Andrew Wakefield or NaturalNews or any of the other peddlers of pseudoscience out there.

Well with that: 2017, what’s next?