Last week, Erwin Boutsma wrote an opinion piece (in Dutch) in ‘C2W | Mens & Molecule’ saying that the latest news in scientific research is often the least certain. This clouds the image that the wide public has of science as they have learned that science is the best tool to achieve certainty about reality. In reality, the path to that certainty is dotted with uncertainties and the adapting of hypotheses according to new data. And yet, the wide public is often presented with new information in a way that implies certainty.
The public was told that vaccinations are the way out of the pandemic and back to a normal life without corona restrictions. And vaccinations certainly do help. If it transpires that the efficacy of the vaccines against infection drops over time and restrictions need to be enforced again, many citizens will start believing that science is not actually that relevant as they would otherwise have had better vaccines or would have known that the efficacy was limited. The scientists’ and pharmaceutical companies’ communication was usually accurate. They consistently communicated about the limited duration over which they could collect data about the efficacy of the vaccines. But politicians often communicated differently, saying that vaccinations were the way out of restrictions. They probably did this in an attempt to get as many people as possible vaccinated. I call this manipulation disguised as ‘science’. Now that that promise has not come true, it seems clear that some citizens are drawing the conclusion that science is not so trustworthy after all.
Another frequently heard saying in politics is “Science says that we should do XYZ”. Science does not say anything at all about what we should or should not do. It seeks out facts and can only study the likely effects of policy choices. It is then up to politicians to consider the facts and knowledge, and then make a policy choice based on a value judgement. For example, science does not say that we need to drastically reduce our CO2 emissions in themselves. All it says is what a reduction would do if the target is to limit temperature rise and what the likely effects would be of a temperature rise, including the estimated uncertainties. Whether we decide to limit the rise or not is up to politicians. And the action that politicians take, what they want to spend it on instead of on other societal goals, is a value judgement. Instead of clearly explaining the choices, it is usually easier for politicians to hide behind the argument that their decision was a necessary consequence of scientific findings. We scientists may find the interest in our profession that this demonstrates flattering, but it is a trap. The ordinary person definitely does feel that it is a choice, and might come to the conclusion that science is just an opinion.
So what a university really should not do, as Bob van Vliet already wrote, is award honorary doctorates to serving politicians.
Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team at www.tudelft.nl/cheme/vanderveengroup and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen.