What is the brutal truth about scientists

Debate about science and politics : Stop hiding!

Knowledge has been central to all of human history. Today, however, we no longer only live in a knowledge society, but in a scientific society. Scientific knowledge permeates all areas of life, personal, professional and social. Science also provides a crucial building block for making politics and society fit for the future: Fortunately, politics is increasingly relying on scientific knowledge in its actions.

However, facts are increasingly being questioned today, especially those based on scientific knowledge. This dangerous trend extends from everyday life to big politics. Children are vaccinated less often, fake news is widespread, and the most powerful politician in the world, the American president, denies reliable scientific knowledge and makes this the basis of his politics.

Whether there is actually such a loss of credibility or trust is controversial. Regardless of whether it can be proven and whether the public questioning of scientific findings can be attributed to it: There are definitely good reasons not to trust science unconditionally. Many aspects are effective here, and it should only be mentioned in passing that the perception of science is also influenced by how the media convey scientific results and how the population receives them. Major problems are primarily the responsibility of science itself, others of politics.

Science gives reason to be suspicious of it

Science produces not only bad but even wrong results, also by its own standards, and unfortunately to a considerable extent. An example of this is a survey among life scientists. Two percent of the researchers admitted to counterfeiting themselves. A third stated that they use “tricks” in their publications and also assumed that two thirds of their colleagues “cheat”, that is, they improve results or - let's call it by their name - cheat. Not least in the life sciences, “bad science” has an ethical dimension that is obvious to everyone: it endangers patients, it leads to unnecessary suffering and death in animal experiments.

Even though not all citizens take in the details, such facts leave their mark and create a mood. The catchphrase “I only believe the statistics that I have falsified myself”, which is attributed to Winston Churchill, but which can probably be traced back to Goebbels, is definitely present in the consciousness of the population. It feeds doubts about knowledge gained through statistics and thus promotes an overall loss of confidence.

Science is therefore urgently called upon to work systematically, consistently and sustainably on its reputation. To this end, it should not put its marketing to the test, but rather its quality assurance structures and bring it up to date with technical and social developments.

Politicians have to negotiate political decisions

However, anyone who expects the one simple truth from science can only be disappointed. Scientists who seem to be able to deliver one can only disappoint others and have to lose trust in the long run. To break down the ignorance about the possibilities and limits of science, to shed light on the difference between conditional knowledge and eternal truth, is an arduous task, especially at a time when many people long for a reduction in complexity in order to find their way around, locate and feel at home to be able to. The findings of science depend on the subjectivity of the question and the method used, and it is anchored in the DNA of science to question its own findings and, if necessary, to revise them. All sides have to face the effort, first science itself, but also those who receive science.

Science must be careful to prevent misuse of its work. It provides facts and not decisions. For political or economic decisions, a value scale is decisive that is structurally alien to science, unless such a scale is exceptionally its subject. Scientific findings are fundamental and indispensable for politics, but they only become a political decision in the course of value-based weighting and weighing by politicians. The discussion in the area of ​​tension between economy and ecology is impressive evidence of this. Climate researchers, economists and sociologists provide indispensable insights into the future of the lignite region in Lusatia; but they would not be legitimate decision-makers.

Germany needs a Chief Scientific Advisor

Politics can also make a contribution to trust in science. The obligation of science corresponds to the obligation of political actors to collect. In the more than 20 years that I have worked at the interface between politics and science, I have experienced an often terrifying ignorance from politicians about the work of scientists and the conditions and limits of their activities.

This finding, which should not be significantly different in other professional groups, is astonishing in view of the claim that our schools convey the basic principles of scientific work up to the Abitur and that more and more young people should actually have worked scientifically with their bachelor and master theses. And it doesn't get better because we tend to have too many doctorates - proof of the ability to work independently in academic research - than too few.

You can also read the following debates on science and political responsibility:

Politicians have to be honest: If they don't have the necessary skills themselves, they have to make sure that they are available elsewhere. If she fails to do so, she is not fulfilling her own responsibility. Here, too, a simple measure at the level of the political executive could be helpful: a personal scientific advisor for the chairman of the cabinet or the Senate, similar to the chief scientific advisor in Great Britain.

This is expressly not responsible for science policy, but has the right to speak to submissions from all departments and communicates and explains whether the decision submissions underpinned by scientific reports are actually plausible and appropriate from a scientific methodological point of view. In view of the importance of scientific knowledge for political decisions and the condensation and haste of today's political decision-making processes, it is imperative that scientific methodological competence is required at this level, which politicians rarely have.

The fine art of compromise

Politics is lobbying and balancing of interests. Their supreme discipline is not the brutal assertion of individual interests, but the fine art of compromise: bringing conflicting interests under one roof, making balanced value decisions. Unfortunately, this art has fallen into disrepute.

Political actors are tempted to assert their position, which they have rightly defended vehemently in the political debate with others, even without losses. A 100 percent implementation of projects is considered a success and is bragged about in a breathless manner. Everything else is considered a defeat and is accordingly annihilated in our rapidly excited world.

The value of a good compromise is more and more misunderstood, one points the finger at Trump - and yet “trumps” oneself. That today, when there is talk of a compromise in politics, one does not think of a great achievement, but rather that of it associating a “lazy” compromise speaks volumes.

Without alternative? Real science cannot participate in this

Where politics weakens in this way, science is often used. If one does not have the strength to compromise, i.e. the ability to see and recognize the interests of the other side, or if one's own arguments are lacking in persuasiveness, politics can easily succumb to the temptation to seek a scientific opinion in order to create supposed practical constraints.

And there are scientists who, against their better judgment, allow themselves to be involved in this way. Looking back on more than 20 years as a minister, however, I cannot remember that once a department presented two reports with decidedly different positions and then justified why it weighted the arguments of an opinion more strongly than the one with a view to the decision to be made the other. On the contrary, the word “no alternative” has become fashionable in politics. Real science is independent and cannot participate in it.

[Jürgen Zöllner is director of the Charité Foundation and was Senator for Education and Science in Berlin from 2006 to 2011. His article is based on a text in the volume “Public Reason? Science in Democracy ”. Editors: Wilfried Hinsch and Daniel Eggers at De Gruyter (2019).]

There is no doubt that social, liberal democracy is in troubled waters around the world. There are many causes. It can be observed that, on the one hand, there is more and more personalization: Strong personalities are called for who combine charisma and professional competence and can lead people, parties, parliamentary groups. On the other hand, the opposite development cannot be overlooked in practice. Politicians are less and less willing to take personal responsibility for content-related positions, to represent them even when there is headwind, and to fight for them in order to win people over, as exemplified by the actors of Agenda 2010: do what is necessary, and even what is unpopular, for the country, which has benefited from it to this day.

A policy of hiding has gained space

A policy of hiding has gained space, if possible with decorative, politically correct fig leaves. In this context, there is also the tendency to transfer decisions that are actually the responsibility of politics to so-called experts, and thus very often scientists. They should not succumb to their own vanity and neither take on the work nor the responsibility of the elected politicians. Scientific policy advice has to face its own and common core problems in the triangle politician-scientist-citizen in order to conduct credible science and to make good politics for the citizens and the future of our society.

It is important for each of these groups to sweep their own door. It is important to clarify roles and responsibilities, to live them and to assume responsibility in cooperation. It will be inevitable for all three groups to acquire basic knowledge, to listen and to undergo the little toil of differentiation. As always, respect, appreciation, calmness, openness and perseverance can help.

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