As the post-truth era takes hold of social debate, politicians and world leaders thrive by calling climate change a hoax. Research faces threats of funding cuts. Major environmental regulations and treaties are at risk. And scientific evidence gets lost in a public uproar dominated by personal emotions, interests and beliefs.
Trust in science is at an all-time low. A survey by the European Commission noted that 58% of Europeans ‘can no longer trust scientists to tell the truth about controversial issues’.
That’s right, 6 out of 10 people on the continent do not trust you to do your job. At least not when it comes to societal development, which, in my view, should be science’s main goal. Instead, they think of you as part of an anti-capitalist conspiracy, or a puppet for big corporations. Two kind of contradicting but wide-spread sentiments.
Yet, we need science. You know it, I know it, people everywhere know it. Science is an engine of economic prosperity, it makes it possible to cure illness and feed populations, it’s our best chance for a sustainable living in a world full of finites. Finite space, finite water resources, finite species diversity.
So, what the hell is going on?
I believe the mix-up lies in scientists barely engaging the public. The same people who should ultimately decide on scientific policy. After all, they are the ones paying for research.
Now more than ever, scientists should strive to connect with the people who supposedly benefit the most from their work. They must venture outside labs, lecture rooms and the pressures of a peer-review driven system.
Ironically, the moment when public engagement is most urgent coincides with a lack of interest from scientists to engage. Very few scientists in the world are responsible for the overall sharing of breakthroughs.
But their small numbers will not be enough to regain the public’s trust. Scientists everywhere should face this challenge by working within and outside academia. Only then can science fulfil its true role in shaping a better world.
Even if that were the only reason for outreach, it would be enough. But it’s not. Learning about science teaches us much more. It feeds our curiosity for an increasingly complex world. Its teachings lead to a beautiful sense of delight. It makes us care about one another. Makes us respect each other a little more. And, hopefully, love each other a little more.
I know, it sounds silly. But love is never silly.