Direction

Today I’m talking to Dr Stephen Darling about science and where it’s going.

Hear more from Stephen at his shows on the 9th and 18th August at the New Town Theatre.  

You say science is fucked, what do you mean by that? What direction is science going in?

It might be going downhill.

There are two problems that I see – the first is an increased political willingness to ignore scientific research when it is inconvenient – the most glaring example being the whole climate change area, where a vociferous political movement has engaged – depressingly successfully – with attempting to discredit the scientific evidence for human influenced climate change. Scientific explanations have been attacked in favour of dogmatic (often political or religious) positions. Of course, this kind of thing has been going on since time immemorial but it has increased recently.

And it arrives at a time when science itself has become a little more self-critical. An important paper has claimed that ‘most research findings are false’, and while the title is – perhaps – a little more eye catching than the contents, there is unease in the scientific community that there may be some aspects of the way science works that introduces bias and error. Although this concern, from scientists, tends to be targeted at developing new, better, less error-prone ways to do science, it represents fuel to fan the flames of the dogmatists and demagogues, who can claim that even scientists don’t have faith in their findings.

Scientists have already begun to popularise methods and approaches to counteract these problems, but it remains to be seen if enough scientists will recognise that there is a problem and adopt such methods, or whether science will continue to whither as it becomes seen as more and more flawed.

Where will science be in 5 years?

Hopefully having countered some of the more persuasive criticisms made of it. I am, by nature, an optimist.

Is that good?

Of course!

Can we change the direction of science and people’s confidence in it?

I think so, but only by being open about the problems and the solutions, and engaging the public about the idea of science as a diverse knowledge-finding process rather than a canon of facts. It would help if science tried to address its elitist image – after all, a good scientist is someone for whom answering a question ‘I don’t know’ should lead to musing ‘I wonder why…’ – which seems to me to be hugely liberating and far from an elite perspective.

Governments could help as well, by changing the incentive structure around scientific funding.

What are you doing to un-fuck science?

Trying to practice it in as open and responsible a way as possible – but I’m just getting started on that road.