How science and scientists engage with the public is a matter of growing importance in the so-called post-truth era. I contend that instead of defending science and its epistemic authority at any cost and by any manner, public science education should engage science sceptics on even terms and with respect.
Saturday April 22nd 2017 marked the first March for Science in Finland, held as part of a worldwide movement for science and higher education (https://www.marchforscience.com/). Whatever its impact was, the march definitely is an interesting sign of the times. In at least some sections of western societies, there is concern for the epistemic authority of science and scientific expertise. Denigration of scientific expertise, however science might be perceived, is evident in the populist political rhetoric in both old and new continent. The same goes for Finland: the conservative, centre-right populist coalition government has been very unrelenting in its cuts to educational funding, seems to freewheel on facts, and has instigated a “restructuring” of university funding. In 2016-2017 this resulted in a rather gloomy mood in the Finnish academia.
In the March for Science, students and faculty members rallied around the flags of universities, along with some interested politicians, in a show of unity and power directed towards the national government.
It surely is important for universities to secure funding and respect from the government. However, the war for science will be won in the hearts and minds of lay people – people (understood here in a very monolithic sense) who are rarely in a position to contribute to scientific change and its progress, people who are outsiders to the scientific establishment. As every vote in election counts, the lay perception of science does matter a great deal to scientists and universities.
Therefore, it is important to take some time to think about other, maybe more mundane and less spectacular engagements with the powerful public opinion than science marches.
Enter the Finnish cosmologist Kari Enqvist, author of numerous books in popular science and a regular contributor to national broadcasting corporation YLE. Enqvist recently published a short column titled “Goodbye Leprechauns, Welcome Science” (https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-9544273, YLE 4.4.2017).
Enqvist’s polemical text addresses the challenge of the post-truth era and what he sees as contemporary denigration of science. Enqvist urges all sensible citizens to step up and say: “truth matters”. Truth, he says, is not merchandise.
The less sensible citizens, forming a considerable portion of Finnish population according to Enqvist, are sceptical of science in general. They think that science is but one of many ways to understand the surrounding world, and a limited way at that. Enqvist lumps the science sceptics together with shamans who see and believe in leprechauns and explain the world in terms of mystical energies and vibrations. In fact, leprechauns seem to run the world now, as is evident to Enqvist from what is happening in Turkey and the US.
I also have, much like Enqvist, a troubled relationship with shamans who see and believe in leprechauns. I almost refuse to believe that the mad king of leprechauns, Donald Trump, exists. I am also very, very worried about Finnish leprechauns with revisionist ideas of history and human rights, and the manifest normalization of racism in Finnish politics and society. And, I am generally troubled when people in position of power talk over people, talk beside the point (and past facts) and denigrate science for whatever ends; ends usually other than the common good or inclusive society.
Thus, I wholeheartedly agree with Enqvist on most accounts. However, I find it difficult to accept his divisive manner to argue for his point: either you are smart and side with me and science, or you are completely silly. The manner in which Enqvist discredits science sceptics implicitly places scientific truth beyond public criticism. This is hardly an attempt at creating dialogue or constructive engagement in public science education.
I will get back to public science education and dialogue in the end. Enqvist’s account of science lacks so much nuance, that I first feel compelled to analyse his position.
The science monolith
Enqvist’s position implies the 1950s imaginary of science for progress and social justice, an attempt to redeem the science that won the war, or an attempt to make a case for the republic of science – however you want to express that normative ideal of science. Science equals truth with regard to the external objective reality, and policies should abide.
Not included in Enqvist’s implicit narrative, I suspect, are the trials and tribulations of (e.g.) the 1960s and 1970s, when science and its harbinger industries got associated with environmental degradation and other related disasters. Science wasn’t always (and still isn’t) all about fighting the climate change, you know – it was also about creating the petrochemical and nuclear industries and waste, the nuclear threat, misuse of pesticides and all that. Somehow pristine science, in its attempt to harness and control nature, succeeded in coupling progress with very ugly consequences, both in popular imagination and in the real. (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and its impact serves as a fine global example of this, see also Harry Collins’ 2014 book Are We All Scientific Expert Now? for its nice introduction.)
The criticism from sixties to eighties was spearheaded by social movements, which championed for values that science and the industries had perhaps forgotten about in their hunger for progress and prosperity. This was manifest in demands for (e.g.) environmental protection, alongside with the associated regulatory ideals, democratic governance and rights-based thinking.
I am fairly sure that Enqvist’s sensible citizens hold these values and ideals as central to their cultural form of life, yet in the past the values and ideals were side-lined by the careless progress driven by the science that Enqvist so reveres.
This one, is also a truth that matters to sensible citizens.
My argument here is that science cannot be understood or presented as a monolithic institution, impervious to public criticism, as Enqvist’s column seems to indicate. By insisting on this kind of idealized image of science, coupled with the explicitly stated idea of science as producing truth that corresponds to external reality, he actually does a disservice to popular image of science. For science is very much embedded in its economic, social and political dimensions.
Cosmology is a case in point. To a casual observer, cosmology mostly serves the general public as an inspirational medium. Cosmological research must be funded somehow, though, and therefore the revered science of heavenly bodies becomes a subject of social, economic and political considerations: the discipline has a history also on a smaller than cosmological scale. (Not familiar with the field I probably miss important social, political and economic applications of cosmology, for which I have to apologize.)
Science for public and policy
Science and its harbinger industries, when not subject to regulation, are just as prone to screw up as they are prone to create prosperity and progress. Too big promises from scientists lead to big disappointments when scientists (eventually, some would say) fail to deliver the goods. Claiming that science is infallible and should not be openly questioned will lead to a popular sense of treachery. (Again, Collins 2014 is the go-to reference.)
Thus, science should be open to public discussion and criticism, if not for the esoteric knowledge it produces, then for the kind of impact the use of that knowledge has in our lives. Science, truth and progress should not trump everything else by default, and there must be room for criticism – even for scepticism towards science.
The notion of scepticism presents another spectre that Enqvist is eager to point out: relativism. Echoing the 1990s “science wars” (mostly fought in the US between cultural studies scholars and natural scientists), Enqvist has a word to say about postmodern thought:
“Up to now, all kinds of imaginaries have been met with kindness. Each one of us have their own story to tell, the post-modern philosophers preached, while teaching us to be tolerant. Everyone’s story is equally valuable, they explained, and the media has really embraced this by publishing any mumbo-jumbo without criticism, only to increase sales.”(translation by the author)
This, Enqvist states, must end now.
His text is, of course, a very truncated presentation of postmodern thought and relativism in general, and seems to place too much of weight on social influence of philosophical thought. In science studies relativism has some purchase methodologically (check out the principle of symmetry in “Edinburgh strong programme”), and the extreme forms of relativistic postmodern thinking are, well, extreme.
In any case, I have no trouble in agreeing with Enqvist that not all stories are of equal worth. It is partly a question of context and purpose – what works for a tabloid should not automatically work for purposes of policy making. The worrying thing (I am channelling Enqvist again) is that the tabloid-reading public, the lay people who also vote, are the ones most apt to get corrupted by visions of truth that Enqvist associates with shamans and leprechauns.
Strategies of public science education
The problem with Enqvist’s text is that he himself seems insensitive to the context and position he writes from. He is oblivious to the fact that he also has to earn respect and following, and that his status as a scientist alone might not be enough to sway people. That is why his writing strategy and his divisive argumentation are problematic from the point of view of public science education – in winning the hearts and minds of the lay people.
In an example of this, Enqvist states that science is characterised by humility, as scientific progress (apparently) is a story of successive falsifications of assumed truths. Therefore, not one scientist would ever present himself as someone in possession of certain knowledge, if not for nothing else, then for the fear of getting ridiculed by his peers.
Enqvist finishes his text with the following message to science sceptics:
“Stick your subjective sensation, for a while, where the sun does not shine. Try to learn some humility. Ask yourselves for once: could I be wrong?”
Engaging adversaries in a dialogue across the science-public divide requires true cross-disciplinary competence from a scientist. The same humility that Enqvist values within scientific community and in relation to knowledge is completely lacking in his relation to the public.
Thus, Enqvist truly lives up to his vocation that truth is not merchandise. Talking over (using power over) people requires very little transaction between discussants. However, a persuasive science educator needs something to win people over, to make them want to buy the idea that science is our best way of coming to grips with the surrounding world. In pluralist liberal democracies a citizen, arguing his case in the public sphere, has to engage others with some respect in order for his ideas to gain currency.
The western world in general does not embrace the priestly class of scientists quite like they used to, and this is especially true of the science sceptics. Instead of enlisting new allies for his cause or creating dialogue, Enqvist presents himself as an arrogant scientist, making the gap between science and its sceptics grow even larger. What science sceptics might infer from Enqvist’s text, is that they should not trust a scientist who does not respect them, especially since he is telling people what to think, and how to think.
With no special authority among the science sceptics, to them Enqvist comes across as someone who is dangerously close to what the cosmologist himself would call a shaman. Sadly, the special science vibrations that Enqvist could bring to the table for the sceptics are now lost in mutual disrespect. Could scientists in their zeal foster something else as well, such as constructive dialogue, between scientists and science sceptics?
STS Helsinki | University of Helsinki