Science at the Crossroads: a look back on a NanoBubbles co-led event

From 2 to 4 November 2022, a conference entitled ‘Science At The Crossroads: Intersections Between Academic Research And Journalism On Energy, Environment, And Correcting The Scientific Record’ was held at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris (France).

The conference was organised within the framework of two projects (Managing Scarcity and Sustainability – NWO grant VI.C.191.067 and NanoBubbles) in which Professor Cyrus Mody of Maastricht University is Principal Investigator, and Professor Brigitte Van Tiggelen, Director of the Science History Institute.

The speakers were both researchers from various disciplines (from history to sociology, from physics to climatology) and journalists, popularisers or communicators. Over the course of the three days, different topics were covered by a pair of speakers, with the specific aim of showing how similar events or situations are analysed and studied by academics and journalists. This means showing the points of contact but also, of course, the differences.

For example, how to analyse (e.g. with what tools) the relationship between economics/politics and science regarding environmental policies? And what are the differences between constructing a scientific explanation of this, from telling the general public about it? Or again what is a scientific fraud and what is the scientific community doing to prevent them? How much can all this undermine public trust in research?

One merit of the conference is that it did not think in terms of the need for an agreement to be reached, but allowed for the exploration of these aspects, through the confrontation of perspectives, traditions and points of view, which at times was also intense and, although in a civilised atmosphere of rational discussion, without intellectual discounts.

Take the case of climate change. Anyone who does not believe that the current (and imminent future) situation is the result of specific choices made by the actions of our species is in denial. Not only that, there have been specific actions in the past, involving experts or industry or political groups, aimed at increasing scepticism on these issues. And here it was interesting to see how investigative journalism offers data and elements that academic research could hardly have. But then there is the problem of narrative. Portraying denialism (both journalistically and in the academy) about climate change as the success of doubt merchants in the face of the limpid truths of science may help politically to achieve certain important goals for the survival of our species. But what risks lie behind this approach that sees communication as a form of storytelling? How convincing is telling stories compatible with a scientific analysis of a phenomenon? For example, is talking about the problems with the models used by the IPCC in predicting the bleak future that awaits us, a way of fuelling denialism or can there be a way to do so without running this risk?

The same applies to the problem of research misconduct and the failure of science’s internal mechanisms to correct its errors. Given the magnitude of the problem, it seems undeniable that the scientific community must do something. But how to talk about it and what practical/analytical tools should/could be used? Or indeed, how and in what way to identify the problem? On the one hand, already talking about misconduct in science denotes a focus on the actions of the individual researcher. A site such as PubPeer (which allows comments, studies already published, effectively making a post-publication peer review possible) certainly attacks the problem from this perspective. And it raises the issue of so much poor quality research not only as human error, but instead seems to suggest a deliberate desire to falsify or distort facts. Even so, the social and political relevance is enormous and suggests criterion and caution. But precisely, to ask why (if it is true that many of these mistakes are conscious if not intentional) many researchers go to such lengths is part of the problem or not? And if so, is this a purely ethical/legal issue?

The conference was therefore a valuable opportunity to bring the academy out of its proverbial ivory tower and confront it with the front line that often features journalists, activists and other members of society. On the other hand, it perhaps showed science communicators how academic research is not a monolithic block, a simple ‘datum’ that they can draw on to construct their stories in a robust and grounded manner.
Conferences do not have morals like stories, but if this one had, perhaps, it would have shown more and more the need to confront, to open up.

A problem after all is like the elephant in that well-known parable spread across much of the Indian subcontinent. A group of blind people touches it in order to describe it. Everyone approaches it and describes it but of course, if you start with the ears or the trunk you end up thinking of a completely different animal each time. Whereas the elephant is there, real, summarising in a way, unthinkable from a single perspective, the various bizarre animals fantasised by the various characters.

In this conference, the elephant, perhaps, was the image and nature of the scientific enterprise. Researchers, academics from various disciplines, communicators, journalists and activists are those who try to describe it. The positive thing is that no one believed in their own touch alone, but had to rely on the touch of others as well.

This article was written by Federico Boem, postdoctoral researcher in philosophy of science (University of Twente) and NanoBubbles team member.

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