Science in the post-truth age

Published April 03 2017

The results are in: Denmark is a prison.

In Hamlet’s dark mood, Denmark felt like, and therefore was, a prison. As he famously explained, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

The statement speaks to the current zeitgeist. The Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The American Merriam–Webster dictionary acknowledged a related phenomenon earlier, giving its 2006 word of the year to comedian Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” — believing something that feels true, even if it is not supported by fact.

A climate of post-truth may not be such a big problem if you happen to be in marketing. However, for the rest of us, particularly those of us in the scientific community, the sway of feelings over fact-based arguments is troubling.

The line between fact and belief, even in matters of science, has grown more and more nebulous. A co-worker teaching an introductory chemistry course recently described an incident. While explaining the infrared spectrum of carbon dioxide to his class, he commented on the connection between carbon dioxide, infrared absorption and global climate change. After the lecture, a student in a state of some agitation expressed her surprise that the professor was allowed to air his personal opinions in a university lecture. The professor did a double take: Had climate change become the new evolution?

Part of the problem may stem from how scientists talk about science. Experimental science is rooted in the scientific method, which is itself a form of inductive reasoning based on systemic observations. There’s the rub: Inductive reasoning, or “the inference of general laws from particular instances” (thank you again, Oxford Dictionaries), easily can be misused or mistrusted by those not practiced in the art. Members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology are familiar with the adage from enzymology in which we say that we never can prove that a mechanism is true; we only can falsify particular steps.

This falsification criterion, in turn, comes from a philosophy of science that sets a very high bar for truth. An observation, however often made, is just that: an observation. Bertrand Russell illustrated the shortcomings of inductive reasoning with his story of a turkey. This turkey woke every morning expecting to be fed as he always had been without fail, only to have his head cut off on Christmas Day. Albert Einstein is reputed to have summed up the problem of induction with the adage “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Observations, even repeatedly made, can appear to lie. And scientists, rather than proclaiming climate change and its anthropogenic causes as fact, instead describe a series of observations with which that conclusion is consistent.

The general public is right to be skeptical, just as our graduate students absolutely must be, if we are to have any hope for scientific progress. Copernicus was right to question the obvious conclusion that the sun circles the Earth, just as medieval mariners suspected the world was not flat. However, their questions were not grounded in feelings, preferences or personal agendas but rather a rising tide of countermanding observations.

Abraham Lincoln is said to have observed: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” By letting the air out of the emotional appeals — the marketing — we may hope to cut down the number of people in the middle category. Science education and outreach have a vital role to play in demonstrating how to use inductive reasoning — the scientific method — to construct a credible argument. Embedded in that notion is that every argument based on observation has limitations and the reason for those qualifications and wiggle words that we insert at the conclusion of every scientific paper.

Truth may be for the saints and philosophers. Experimental science and those who invoke it are limited to theories: proofs beyond a reasonable doubt. Such proofs cannot be communicated adequately in a brisk 140 characters of text, and they rarely leave one with a satisfying, truth-y feeling. Science education and outreach must become more engaging and compelling than ever if an informed scientific viewpoint is going to compete — for the public’s minds if not their hearts — in 2017.

Jennifer DuBois Jennifer DuBois is an associate professor at Montana State University and the secretary of the ASBMB.