Trust me: I'm a scientist

Sunday 21 October, 5.00pm until 6.15pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2

Policymakers regularly accompany their policy proposals with scientific claims, while campaigners also cite ‘the science’ to further their causes. But this tendency has not been without problems for the reputation of science and scientists. In 2010, for instance, it was revealed that the IPCC’s widely reported claim – that global warming would cause the Himalayan glaciers to melt by 2035 – was simply not true. In Autumn last year, the British Medical Association, as part of its anti-smoking crusade, asserted that smoking in cars generates 23 times more toxins than you would find in a smoky bar. While the figure was impressively frightening, it was also untrue.

There are countless other instances, from claims about whether a glass of red wine a day is good for our hearts to assertions that fetuses feel pain, where the science used to justify a particular course of action or argument has proven to be unreliable. Do such cases undermine the authority of science? Are we inclined to trust science less given the number of high-profile fictions passed off as scientific fact? Some suggest the peer-review process needs to be tightened; others that too much pressure is exerted on research institutions to gain media exposure which leads to exaggerated or distorted claims. But is this missing the point? Is the more significant problem the attempt to use science and scientific claims to justify political and moral arguments?

We experience this most prominently, although far from exclusively, in environmentalist discourse. There, arguments for reduced energy consumption, for changes in the way we live, are made in terms of that which the science demands. In effect, science is being used to tell us what to do. So rather than the problem being too little trust in science, are too many inclined to trust the science too much? Do government, activists and campaigners need to stop hiding behind science and scientific claims and make their arguments in moral and political rather than scientific terms?

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Dr Stuart Derbyshire
reader in psychology, University of Birmingham; associate editor, Psychosomatic Medicine and Pain

Dr Roger Giner-Sorolla
reader in social psychology, University of Kent

Imran Khan
director, Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE)

Professor Sir Mark Walport
director, Wellcome Trust; Government Chief Scientific Adviser (from April 2013)

Dr Nina Powell
doctoral research fellow, National University of Singapore

Produced by
Dr Stuart Derbyshire reader in psychology, University of Birmingham; associate editor, Psychosomatic Medicine and Pain
Dr Nina Powell doctoral research fellow, National University of Singapore
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