Challenge to Scientists

Why the web has challenged scientists’ authority – and why they need to adapt

Academia is in the midst of a crisis of relevance. Many Americans are ignoring the conclusions of scientists on a variety of issues including climate change and natural selection. Some state governments are cutting funding for higher education; the federal government is threatening to cut funding for research. Resentful students face ever increasing costs for tuition.

And distrustful segments of society fear what academia does; one survey found that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.
There are multiple causes for this existential crisis, but one in particular deserves special attention. The web is fundamentally changing the channels through which science is communicated – who can create it, who can access it and ultimately what it is. Society now has instant access to more news and information than ever before; knowledge is being democratized. And as a result, the role of the scientist in society is in flux.

One thought on “Challenge to Scientists

  1. The stifling of free speech – esp. conservative thought – in academia by both students and faculty members has certainly caused right-leaning Americans to cast a dubious eye on academics in general. Many see a broad streak of anti-Americanism, even a virulent hatred of those who believe in American exceptionalism. But that does not equate to a general loss of faith in science.

    It is, however, an indication that many have lost faith in technocrats and scientific activists who are experts in their fields but step way beyond their headlights when they advocate specific policies. They apparently are seeing things through lenses of a single color – blue or red – while the rest of us live in a world awash with color. They can’t see, and thus ignore, that their policy prescriptions will have undesirable side effects – unintended consequences – in our multi-hued, highly interconnected world.

    As a scientist long involved in a highly controversial topic – nuclear waste, as well as having been asked to speak on other controversial topics (e.g., climate change) I’ve found that two things served me well: sticking to the facts, which includes acknowledging the uncertainties; and listening respectfully even to those who disagree with my position.

    Personally, I (and many other scientists like me) don’t think the role of the scientist is changing. Our role, as it always has been, is to try to objectively ascertain the truth hidden in the data we collect and to communicate that truth. What is changing is that some scientists are confounding science with activism – which then makes their objectivity doubtful.

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