Research enjoys generally high levels of trust in Sweden. At the same time, fake news and misinformation is rampant, and conspiracy theories are easily spread online. What role should researchers be playing in the current social debate? And how do you stick to the facts rather than opinions when you are a scientist? “I think we have a responsibility for ensuring that sense and reason prevail in social debate, given that there is so much false information out there. It’s got worse and worse over the years,” says Lars Johan Erkell, Reader in Animal Physiology.
Olle Häggström, Anna Wåhlin and Lars Johan Erkell are all accustomed to talking about their respective fields of research with people from outside the academic community. As a climate scientist, Anna Wåhlin often receives requests to make media appearances, and this is also the case for mathematician Olle Häggström, who does not shy away from getting involved in social debate either. Biologist Lars Johan Erkell is active through his posts on the Biolog(g) blog run by researchers in his department. In his blog posts, he argues against creationism, which is the belief that the Earth is 6,000 years old, and intelligent design. Both these movements assert that life and the Universe are the result of a process of creation rather than having arisen through natural processes.
“I have felt that it is my duty as a university lecturer to respond to the disinformation being spread by these movements. While you might not be triggering a massive debate, setting out the facts online is in itself important,” he says.
Lars Johan Erkell notes that scientists are trained to dig up and assess facts.
“And that’s exactly what we are missing in much of the ongoing debate in society – emotions run high, and conclusions are reached based on very little,” he says.
“I agree with Lars Johan. I think that one of the university’s major functions is to equip society with the most up-to-date knowledge and to provide a scientific perspective on a range of social issues,” says Olle Häggström, Professor of Mathematical Statistics.
“I also agree. On the other hand, I think our job is about facts – not having opinions on facts. Naturally, you can have your own views and say whatever you like. But I don’t really think we have a moral duty to have an opinion,” says Anna Wåhlin, Professor of Oceanography.
The three scientists note the importance of being clear about what are facts versus what are personal opinions.
“I respect the fact that different scientists may arrive at different conclusions on whether we should engage with political issues and discuss them. We would rather see facts influencing the political and ideological debate. Yet at the same, we don’t want political debates to influence the pursuit of facts, so that we scientists acquire a bias and come up with the results that we want to find. So it’s a real dilemma. On the one hand, there’s much to be said for the idea that as scientists we should engage more in social debate, while on the other hand, wanting to keep science free from ideology suggests that we should steer clear of social debate. Personally, I consider society and social debate to be so important that I’m not prepared to just stand back,” says Olle Häggström.
One issue that Anna Wåhlin has been reflecting upon is whether it is acceptable to let your values guide what research questions you investigate.
“For instance, if you hold the view that it is vital for us to minimise carbon dioxide emissions, you end up researching a range of issues that address the question: ‘What impact will an increase in carbon dioxide emissions have?’ Then you end up with a lack of facts in the opposite direction and many arguments for. I’m exaggerating for effect, as I’m sure you realise. I think curiosity is a good driving force that determines which research questions we should address, but I try to be thorough and strict with myself,” she says.
There are also historical examples where personal values have been in conflict with objective research. One such example is the Manhattan Project: the American research project that resulted in the atomic bomb. Olle Häggström explains that most of the physicists recruited to the project recognised that they were working on a devastating weapon, but were motivated by the risk that Hitler’s corresponding project would win the race, which might in turn lead to world domination by the Nazis.
“The physicist Richard Feynman pointed out that while he was involved in the work, he was so absorbed by the exciting research question at hand that in the spring of 1945 – when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still unscathed but following Hitler’s surrender – Feynman did not give even a moment’s thought to the fact that his original reason for joining the project no longer existed. It was only afterwards that Feynman actually realised this: ‘What on earth was I doing there?’” says Olle Häggström.
Lars Johan Erkell stresses the importance of being objective, accurate, sticking to the facts, and maintaining a respectful tone when debating with people whose views are contrary to your own.
“That allows you to take the heat out of the debate and to do a better job of getting your views across rather than descending into polemics. A few years ago, when I was intensely involved in the debate around creationism, I got a lot of positive feedback for the fact that I was so respectful and could be reasoned with. I was very pleased about that because it meant that they were taking me seriously,” he says.
“I’ve seen Lars Johan in action, and I really admire that ability he has to maintain a respectful tone. Unfortunately, I’m not quite as good at it. Intellectual honesty is something I value very highly, and I can end up feeling very strongly provoked when I perceive that the opposition in a debate isn’t adhering to the basic ideal of honesty. It’s often situations like that which draw me into the debate,” says Olle Häggström.
The three researchers agree that it is only very rarely – if at all – that they manage to persuade someone with an opposing view to change their view as a result of direct debate with them. However, there is still an important point to debating in public.
“There is an audience, a third party who can be swayed by what I say. I take comfort in that when thinking about the rather sad fact that I’ve probably never once succeeded in converting a pseudo-scientist in a direct confrontation,” says Olle Häggström.
Anna Wåhlin, Professor of Oceanography
In the spotlight because: She has just sent an autonomous submarine into the waters beneath a glacier.
Olle Häggström, Professor of Mathematical Statistics
In the spotlight because: His book Tänkande maskiner: Den artificiella intelligensens genombrott (Fri Tanke, 2021) [Machines that think: the emergence of artificial intelligence] has just been published.
Lars Johan Erkell, Reader in Animal Physiology
In the spotlight because: He will finally be returning to work in the lab after receiving his coronavirus vaccination.