Science March is welcomed – but don’t imagine the discrediting of science will go away

Dr Ken Perrott has welcomed the raising of the profile of the “science debate” in New Zealand in the past week and big turnouts for the Science March in several major cities.

Writing in Open Parachute, he said he saw the marches as a general demonstration of support for science and opposition to attempts to discredit it.

Examples of discrediting include attacks on the science around climate change, vaccinations, evolution and fluoridation.

Some of the media presented the march as a demonstration against US president Donald Trump and his policies, Dr Perrott noted.

“But every country and every region have examples where politicians have downplayed scientific evidence or even attempted to discredit that evidence and the scientists who produced it. These sort of struggles went on long before Trump and they will go on after Trump.

“For example, in New Zealand, we have some specific issues over water quality and climate change which are quite unconnected to the US and its politicians. We have to fight out those issues here. Scientists, anyway, strongly resist linking their issues to politics and political movements. We have had a few bad experiences from that. This resistance and the silly intervention of identity politics into the organisation of the US Science Marches did make many scientists wary of participation.”

The Science March would not make the problems go away, Dr Perrott cautioned.

A continuing debate around science issues accordingly was important, although Dr Perrott emphasised he was not using the word “debate” in the formal sense of debate involving specific contact between adversaries.

“Issues about water quality and the environment come up continually in New Zealand. In the media, in local body and parliamentary considerations, and in government statements. A lot of the commentary may downplay the science on the issue or overplay economic and financial aspects. Some of the commentaries may be outright anti-science – or present misinformation, even distortions, about the science. Activist claims about the ‘dangers’ of the use of 1080 to control predator pests are an example.

“The misinformation and downplay of scientific information cannot be allowed free passage – it must be challenged. Hence there is a debate – again not a formal debate, but a debate, nevertheless. The public is exposed to various claims and counterclaims via the media and the internet. Regional bodies and parliamentary committees are deluged with submissions and scientists and supporters of science have a role to play there too.

“Scientists and supporters of science should not stand aside and let the opposition win by default – simply because they abhor the political process or ego-driven participation in media reports. But they need to choose their battles – and they need to consider the effectiveness or otherwise of different forms of participation in public debate.”

Among his concerns  with “formal” debates, Dr Perrott said usually they are more entertainment than information.

“In fact, debating is a recognised form of entertainment often driven by egos and aimed at ‘scoring points’ which appeal to a biased and motivated audience. They are rarely a way of providing information and using reasoning to come to conclusions – which is the normal and accepted process of scientific discussion.”

An exchange of scientific views or information in front of an interested but unbiased audience, on the other hand, can be a useful and good experience.

Similarly on-line, written debates or discussion of the sort Dr Perrott had on the fluoridation issue in 2013/2014 can be useful. Participants must produce information – and back it up with evidence, citations or logic – and the other party to the discussion always has the opportunity to critically comment on that information.

  • Dr Perrott trained as a chemist. He retired after a research career in surface chemistry, soil science and fertiliser chemistry working in the DSIR (Chemistry Division and Soil Bureau), MAF, MAFTech and AgResearch. He enjoys discussion of the wider social and philosophical issue surrounding science. These issues are often misrepresented in our society and he believe scientists have a responsibility to counter unscientific thinking and movements. This is one of the reasons he became a blogger, starting up Open Parachute in the middle of 2007.

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