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Doing science in public

U.S. Army soldiers with influenza at Camp Funston, Kansas, during the great influenza epidemic of 1918-19. Image: Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine.

U.S. Army soldiers with influenza at Camp Funston, Kansas, during the great influenza epidemic of 1918-19. (Image: Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine.)

Facts vs. knowledge

An important moment in the science enterprise of the United States was the formation of the National Academy of the Sciences by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.  Throughout its history the National Academy has provided advice about the nation’s preparedness for war. Over the years, the National Academy has provided consensus reports on many issues central to the country’s welfare, including climate change and pandemics.

After World War II, the National Science Foundation was formed, in part, to address “how the successful application of scientific knowledge to wartime problems could be carried over into peacetime.” Science in service to national interests has evolved in many federal agencies over time and touches most aspects of society.

Though we tend to think science provides us “the facts,” that is rarely true. Science is a systematic method for studying things that we can observe. The scientist’s goal is to understand behavior, perhaps clarify cause and effect, and develop the ability to anticipate or predict.

Science provides “knowledge” that has been tested and validated in some way. But that knowledge also is cloaked in uncertainty. A “fact” might be construed as knowledge with miniscule uncertainty. Facts in complex systems, like the Earth’s climate and the COVID-19 pandemic, are rare.

The uncertainty fallacy

Pooja Mehta, Research Laboratory Tech Associate, constructs a hanging drop spheroid platform.

Pooja Mehta, Research Laboratory Tech Associate, constructs a hanging drop spheroid platform. (Image: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering.)

A similarity we see with the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change is the emergence of scientific research at the same time this research is essential to protect or benefit society. Given the health and economic urgency of the pandemic, the desire for societal application is, seemingly, unbridled.

In 2010, my U-M colleague, Maria Carmen Lemos and I wrote about the uncertainty fallacy. Uncertainty — and how to cope with it — is intrinsically difficult for all of us. In the paper, Lemos and I explored the notion that uncertainty had to be eliminated or, in many cases, reduced in order for science-based knowledge to have societal benefit. We also recognized that uncertainty could always be used in a political or rhetorical way to support or refute positions that people wanted to take.

That uncertainty always would be used in these contexts is an important part of my framing of the use of science in society. It is part of the process, and it is, likely, not “cured” with a cudgel of overwhelming science-based evidence or more education of the scientific method. Better knowledge of science will benefit individuals and policies, but it will not eliminate the politicization of science and the political use of scientific uncertainty.

Scientists, politicians, and debaters use uncertainty with intent. Scientists who study behavioral, communication, politics, economics, decision-making, and many other fields have described our challenges to manage uncertainty and how it contributes to good and bad decisions.

The political use of uncertainty

Joggers wear masks in Central London

Joggers in Central London battling air quality, not COVID. (Image: istock.)

As I have watched our nation’s response to COVID-19 and listened to the rhetoric, I’ve seen the political use of uncertainty evolve into a veritable art form.

Take the argument over masks. Early in the pandemic, leading health experts discouraged the populace from wearing masks. However, as we have learned more about COVID-19 and its behavior, scientists concluded (with a high degree of certainty) that wearing masks is an effective way to help reduce spread.

Detractors cling to the uncertainty: “But first it was ‘no masks.’ We don’t know what to believe.” It is like hearing that, “In 1975 scientists were talking about an ice age. But now it is warming. We don’t know what to believe.” It is a personal decision whether you end that thought, hence, “I choose to be confused because that works to my preference.”


Flooding in Detroit

Summer 2019 flooding in Detroit. (Image: Pixabay.)

COVID-19 and climate change illustrate the perils of doing science in public. In order to address societal needs, scientists have to work with existing knowledge as they pose new questions. A new investigation may, in a superficial way, appear to contradict previous conclusions. Further investigation may prove previous knowledge was incorrect.

In the best of circumstances, performing scientific investigations in the public forum to address urgent problems cannot provide a simple message with a singular prescription. Working in the public forum brings scientific uncertainty directly into the quagmire of humanity’s competing needs and desires. The inconsistent messaging about wearing masks amid a deadly pandemic is just one example.

We must accept that uncertainty always accompanies the communication of emerging science. Again, scientific investigation of complex systems, rarely, produces singular facts. In a global, technologically advanced society, countless sources of knowledge influence how those facts are communicated. Some sources are legitimate. Others are disorganized, chaotic, even nefarious. Just look at social media.

When we develop climate science or medical advances in society, we need to be equally aware of the role played by communications and communication science. We also have to consider what we have learned by studying behavior, politics, and all of the social sciences. We need to embrace and appreciate a more holistic understanding view of how science works in real time. Ignoring, denying, and dismissing science within organizations and governments imperils our ability to succeed and thrive.

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