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Debate: Researchers do not have a patent on the absolute truth either

We must be better at explaining the conditions of science to counter the postmodern blockage of facts.


By Lars Bo Nielsen, Dean of the Faculty of Health at Aarhus University

Thousands of girls and their parents opt out of vaccination against the HPV virus – is this a sign of distrust of established medicine? Do we see the same distrust when parents drop the MMR vaccination together with cow's milk and gluten? Or is it in reality the researchers who are not communicating clearly enough? We live in a postmodern era where facts and science do not necessarily have precedence. Nevertheless, we must maintain that the scientific knowledge that we present is the most probable – but not absolute – truth.

There are more than enough sources of error

As researchers, we no longer have a special patent on the truth. In the eyes of the population. Researchers themselves have always known that science seldom provides ultimate truths. The nature of research is to challenge and verify the old 'truths' and the new, crazy ideas. A process with more than enough sources of error. This is common knowledge amongst all researchers, and there is scarcely a researcher who has not made errors. On top of which comes the requirement to publish results quickly and often, which also increases the risk of errors. Moreover, the quality assurance system for research, in which anonymous experts assess studies and results before publishing, is under pressure. Myriad new electronic journals have appeared, offering publication for payment, where the incentive is profit rather than scientific quality assurance. Researchers are therefore probably more cautious than ever when talking about 'truth', which we often only know the contours of.

Vegetables against autism

The general public have – assisted by information technology – access to vast amounts of alternative knowledge that challenges science. The anti-authoritarian movement which leads people to question the traditional order of things also affects the health sciences. It leads parts of the population to opt out of evidence-based messages from e.g. the Danish Health and Medicines Authority and instead choose to follow – sometimes more sexy and simple – messages from self-appointed health gurus who believe they are capable of curing autism with vegetables or cancer with numerology.

The problem with scientific evidence is that it is very seldom absolute. An element of doubt is therefore a fundamental condition of evidence-based messages because they are based on probabilities rather than absolute truths.

We have a task in front of us

Both information technology and scepticism are here to stay, and we researchers will not change anything by isolating ourselves in an ivory tower. Neither is there a quick fix, only the long haul where we consistently produce robust research that is both sustainable and long-lasting. We also need to acknowledge that we are part of society and that we must take part in the debate in a serious manner, where we constantly explain why we say what we do. The essence of research is precisely that it challenges and rejects old truths. We must maintain that what we understand as the truth is not absolute, but the most probable, and that today's truth can therefore be modified tomorrow. But we must also look inwards and seriously consider whether the pressure to publish and too many preliminary research results that generate sensational headlines where doubt and reservations are absent, is helping to undermine the credibility of science.

The health science researchers' duty is to generate knowledge for the benefit of education, the health of the population and the welfare of society. In step with the development of the information society, we produce research for a population that is no longer simply a recipient of knowledge, but also critical consumers demanding dialogue and explanations. We must therefore practice telling the outside world that we reserve the right to reservations – and to challenge the truth that we know and ourselves believe today. Even when we find our professionalism being overtaken by campaign journalism and populist opinion-makers when it comes to questions about specific treatment methods or medicines. This is the only way for us to help to ensure that people choose science instead of belief and, for example, get their daughters HPV vaccinated.

The column was published (in Danish) in Science Report on 7 November 2017: sciencereport.dk/debat/forskerne-ikke-patent-paa-sandhed/




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