After the victory of Donald Trump in the American presidential elections, the discussion about the role scientific knowledge in society has intensified. Researchers have been worried whether, in the post-factual era, alternative truths compensate and overcome scientific facts. Recently, academic people all over the word organised demonstrations in order to emphasize the crucial role of research in building well-being and development of the world.
I am also very worried of the negligent or negative attitude to research among people and some decision-makers. It may cause severe consequences and big backward steps in the state of the world. But I am also worried of the way scientific truths and research is defended and promoted. If we speak of results of scientific research as absolute truths, we fall into a quagmire by defending scientific knowledge in a dishonest and unethical way.
During the doctoral training, students learn, through systematic instruction or as a piece of tacit knowledge, what can be regarded as scientific truth. There are strict rules how to do reserach and how to tell about scientific findings and results to the research community. When researchers meet the non-academic world, they enter quite another landscape with different expactations, demands and rules.
There are two major challenges in these encounters. The first one concerns the difference in the need for knowledge. In research, we publish new findings when we have done realiable enough studies on this issue. People outside academia, beeing media, politicians or the public, want to get solid information about questions which are actual today regardless whether there exists any scientifically proven knowledge on them.
The second challenge derives from the very nature of scientific truths and is more insidious. For people it is hard to understand that the latest scientific knowledge on something is not necessary the last one. In fact, there are very few “eternal” truths in science such like Pythagoras’s theorem, which states that in a right triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. As to most questions, science can give only temporal answers which can then be questioned by new research.
The situation sounds controversial: quasi-knowledge based on beliefs is often more stable than that based on scientific research. The explanation for this surprising thing comes from the very essence of these two kinds of knowledge. New findings made by researchers challenge the old scientific understanding of a certain phenomenon, and if there is enough evidence for that, the new knowledge compensates the old one. Beliefs are based on traditions and accidental experience and are, by definition, not shaken by contra-evidence.
Let us take an example of scientific truth. Darwin’s evolution theory was a revolution in understanding the history of species and it was for a long time the only truth which was accepted by the research community. The theory was based on a large amount of reliable evidence and therefore there were good reasons to believe in it. However, in recent years research in the field of epigenetics has forced us to rethink the Darwin’s theory in its strictest form.
So, what was true twenty years ago has been revised. A further example of a different kind of scientific knowledge. Nowadays, we know much more about cancer, about the influence of genetic background to people’s qualities and about causes of misunderstanding than was the case some 30 years ago, but we are still far from a situation where we could explain these things in every individual case.
Most researchers are comfortable with the struggle around different truths and the probabilistic nature is the last world of science. For people outside the academic world such a state of affairs is confusing. How can we rely on scientific knowledge, if we learn that the most healthy dose of red wine is two glasses a day while it was four glasses a month ago, that some researchers say that global warming will be in the next fifty years two degrees and some others argue this being five degrees, the best scientifically proven material for hip endoprosthesis is not any more metal as it used to be..
The battle around the role of scientific truth frustrates researchers, but the solution for this is not to give an impression that scientific evidence represents an absolute truth. It is better to emphasize that knowledge based on scientific evidence gives us the best available truth but can be later challenged by further research.
The key ethical principles for science need to be understood also in this light – honesty and accountability must reflect the true nature of scientific endeavor. How we actually achieve this is an open question for the research community to consider together.