Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.

12.12.2022

Prophet of gloom

As the world moves towards 2023, we are facing what seems an almost unprecedented nexus of interlinked crises, affecting not just the whole of humanity but the very planet on which we live. Covid, Ukraine and the looming climate catastrophe are the ingredients, at least the ones we know about. But their effects – in global economic disruption and impoverishment, the energy gap, famine, the ever-present risk of nuclear accidents or even the possible use of nuclear weapons in combat, are what we must now deal with, or will soon have to. Add to the mix the self-harming actions of several leading nations – Brexit in the UK, the breakdown of democratic norms in the US, Russia’s imperial adventurism, the continuing, periodic lockdowns in China that serve no obvious purpose – and it feels as if we are all on the precipice of decline, if not already tumbling over it. Dealing simultaneously with all of the above looks to be a tall order. And this doesn’t even factor in the unpredictable effects of a possible major natural disaster, such as a catastrophic volcanic eruption or tsunami (see my recent op-ed 1 in EMBO Reports).

I am by nature an optimist, but it’s hard to find causes for optimism amongst all this gloom. And what will it all mean for science, for academic life and for free thought? Here too, reasons to be cheerful are distinctly lacking. A glib answer might be ‘science is the answer’. In other words, that logical thought and human ingenuity will eventually guide us toward solutions to all the problems we have created or have neglected to address. But this may take a long time to happen. In the short term, the outlook seems bleak for us in academia as well. Governments are struggling to cope with keeping their population physically warm and financially solvent over the next winter, and many winters beyond that. They are likely to find ‘luxury items’ such as higher education and research a convenient resource to plunder.

On top of that, the reflex of populist politicians everywhere is to blame someone other than themselves for all of their policy failures. Today’s social media just amplify their messages, lulling their supporters into irrational and often absurd beliefs. In all this we are an easy target. The rise of the anti-vaxxer movement is probably the most visible and alarming manifestation of this trend. But there are other, equally dangerous tropes gaining currency: the ‘great replacement theory’, supported by no historical or sociological evidence, was once voiced only on the outer fringes of the extreme right. Yet it has now been embraced by half of all Americans 2: along with the widespread belief that the answer to gun violence is more guns 3.

Unscientific or anti-scientific ideas are not confined to the US. A much quoted study from 2008 revealed that 47% of teachers in Romania and over 80% in North African countries did not believe in evolution 4. An Ipsos MORI survey in 2013 found that creationist views are held by over a fifth of the general population in major European countries such as Italy, Poland, Russia and Turkey – see 5. A common thread amongst these views is the rejection of anything that appears to originate from the societal elite, to which academics and ‘mainstream politicians’ automatically both belong.

A recent study published in PNAS analysed the reasons for the declining trust in science and put forward possible measures to counteract it 6. In a nutshell, the authors found that political beliefs commonly outweigh evidence-based scientific findings, and to counteract this trend we need to improve our communication skills and engage directly with individuals or groups having potentially hostile views. We need to appeal to their own values even if they are not ours, and integrate or align the scientific message with those values, targeting it appropriately. But this is obviously a very challenging task. Reframing the communication of science so that it is attuned to populist beliefs may simply entrench those beliefs further.

Another imperative, if we are to confront the anti-science trend and bring our work to bear on solving global problems, is to improve the reliability of our collective findings. This is a very difficult task given the ongoing proliferation of predatory publishing outlets, plus the obsession with publication metrics as criteria for appointment, promotion and funding awards. I believe this problem has to be addressed at source by the scientific community before we can make much progress in defeating the torrent of anti-science views. For now, it feels like we are losing the battle, and even that we are providing ammunition to those who claim that scientists are serving only their own egos and do not produce anything useful.

In recent years we have witnessed the rise of absurdly simplistic political slogans as an answer to society’s perceived ills, most notably ‘defund the police’, or ‘defund the FBI’. I fear that ‘defund the universities’ or ‘defund science’ may be just around the corner. In Finland as in the USA, this seems to be already happening, even without the slogan.

But none of this is new. The role of academia in history has frequently been to confront the self- serving ideology of those who wield power, so that the voice of reason isn’t completely stilled, and lives on to re-assert itself in a more enlightened age. So, if all else fails, we simply have to struggle on as best we can, and hope that wisdom will eventually prevail.

References

1 Jacobs H (2022) Lazy hazy days. EMBO Rep. 23: e55545. doi: 10.15252/embr.202255545.
2 Southern Poverty Law Center (2022)
3 YouGov, CBS News Poll (2022) 
4 Clément P, Quessada MP (2009) Creationist beliefs in Europe. Science 324: 1644. doi: 10.1126/science.324_1644a.
5 Blancke S, Hjermitslev HH, Braeckman J, Kjærgaard PC (2013) Creationism in Europe: facts, gaps, and prospects, J Am Acad Relig 81: 996–1028 
6 Philipp-Muller A, Lee SWS, Petty RE (2022) Why are people antiscience, and what can we do about it? Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 119: e2120755119. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2120755119.

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