By Khadidiatou Sall
Do we live in an age of alternative facts? It appears people are forgetting the difference between facts and opinions. The two are not the same. One is based on hard evidence while the other is just a personal value judgment. For example, consider climate change; it is all too frequently portrayed as a subjective debate. However, there is overwhelming evidence that climate change is a real phenomenon.
Climate change is clearly a threat to biodiversity, health, agriculture, and security. It is leading to political instability, drought, wildlife fires, sea level rise, the spread of diseases, and famine. With the world population exceeding 7 billion in March 2012 and being expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, it is imperative to develop more sustainable ways of living. Science is essential to that. I became a scientist because I wanted to help and contribute to making this world a better place for me and for the upcoming generations. My motivations are not unique. In fact, many of my colleagues or peers became scientists for the same reasons.
As scientists, we strive to build accurate knowledge that reflects the laws of nature. This understanding helps us develop tools and technologies that improve our standards of living. Science has brought us electricity, agriculture, sanitation, vaccines, space programs, internet and many technological revolutions, which changed our life for the better. It is not a surprise that in many countries, billions of dollars are invested each year in scientific research. However, it is hard to understand that after all science has done for us, many people still hold an antiscience rhetoric. Many deny the existence of climate change and/or evolution; the myths that vaccines cause autism and genetically modified organisms are hazardous to health are still highly pervasive. Thousands of scientific studies have demonstrated over and over again that these claims are simply not true.
Still, people persist and maintain their opinion without having any scientific evidence. I usually call this phenomenon the “this is how I feel movement”. For many people, emotions matter more than facts (if the facts matter at all). As the social psychologist Leon Festinger suggested, “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” When feelings become more important than the facts we need to question the system that enabled such a mentality. Who is to blame? the scientists? the politicians? the fake newsmongers?
As a scientist, I will put part of the blame on us. We do science for the people. We are funded by the people. We need to communicate to the people. We need to share our research and demonstrate how it can affect people’s lives. We need to get a seat at the table to vote for science driven policy. We need to promote scientific literacy and critical thinking starting from a young age. We need to stand up for science when it is belittled. As scientists, we tend to feel too comfortable in our world, discussing with our peers in scientific meetings, writing our grant proposals or just performing research. We give a little importance to communicating outside our field. For controversial topics, you will often hear scientists say, “I am a scientist, not a politician!” or “that is beyond the scope of my research.” It seems many scientists have given up the right to be vocal outside their research field. Even worse, being vocal about one’s research is frequently seen as a waste of time and may even be discouraged. The consequences of this lack of outreach are an uninformed populace, which translates into regressive policies from the elected antiscience politicians. Scientists Speaking Up is to make sure that we, as scientists or science enthusiasts stand up for science. Science has given us an opportunity to be an active member in our society, now is the time to give back and protect it.