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Director, Institute of Biotechnology University of Helsinki24.4.2017
Truth on Life-Support
It is often said that the first casualty of war is the truth. But it has also fallen victim to the current iteration of the American political system. We now live in an era of alternative facts and fake news.
Politics has always been a grubby business, but for elected leaders to tell barefaced lies, or to denounce well-documented truths propagated by their opponents on the scale we are becoming accustomed to, is almost unprecedented in democratic societies.
The corrosive effects are almost impossible to overstate. We have seen it all before: it's called propaganda. Regimes that proclaimed their record harvests and military conquests, even as their own people were starving, or their soldiers were being massacred on the frozen battlefields, did not survive for more than a few miserable decades. Yet they inflicted unbelievable suffering before their downfall, and the destruction they wrought still scars us.
Imagine what would happen if science itself were perverted in this way, with a leading clique lauding every outrageous and fraudulent claim that fits their own agenda, whilst seeking to shut down opposing views, regardless of experimental evidence? Horrifying though such a prospect may be, it is exactly how scientists were forced to behave under those totalitarian regimes already alluded to, long before they had perfected the machineries of war and genocide. As Heine famously prophesized ‘Where they burn books, they will also eventually burn people’.
As the world’s custodians of truth, we scientists are placed by all this in an extremely uncomfortable position. New threats to a world built on reasoned discourse should not be under-estimated. So what can we do?
First, we must redouble our efforts to protect science itself from the encroachment of the idea that statements based on wishful thinking and prejudice are as valid as those founded on rigorous analysis. The explosion of open-access publication poses an obvious risk, as does the ever-increasing premium placed on achieving high-profile landmark papers in leading journals. We have to re-assert the value of 20 years of painstakingly boring experiments, to test every new theory that comes along to destruction, or at least to reformulation. Second, we have to devote far more time and resources to communicating to the general public, through every single platform we can devise or access, exactly what we do, what it means, how we reach our conclusions, and what are its implications for the world. The torrent of tweets based on lies has to be overwhelmed by a counter-current of rational thinking, based on evidence. If we fail in this task, the world’s leading democracy might plunge us all into darkness.
To end on a more hopeful note, the backlash against prejudice and obscurantism has already begun. The recent mass demonstrations in support of science, in the US and worldwide, show that we - and a vast army of supporters amongst the public - aren't prepared to see facts and experimental evidence swept away by this tide. Its not enough to assert that science is true whether you believe in it or not. People have to be persuaded to believe in it too.
J P Roos 24.04.2017
Excellent blog! Thanks!
Director, Institute of Biotechnology
University of Helsinki
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