Guest post by Dr David Robert Grimes
Next week, the winner of the 2016 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science will be announced. The prize is unique in that it rewards not just sound science and evidence, but courage and communication. Living in an era recently pronounced to be “post-truth” recognising those individuals who share their work, even in the face of challenge and personal attacks, feels more relevant than ever.
One of the curious paradoxes of our time is that it has never been easier to access information, yet this same freedom allows misinformation to metastasize ever further at a furious rate. This can make it difficult to parse the sea of claims we encounter every day. If we as a society are to make informed decisions, then scientists have a crucial role to play by lending their expertise to public discussions, and helping people understand what the evidence tells us. And equally, scientists have a lot to learn from this exchange of ideas and views.One of the major issues with communicating science is that contentious topics are often divided along ideological lines and impervious to the evidence. And when this bias is an issue, one can be attacked for communicating the scientific consensus if it clashes with strongly held beliefs, be it the subject vaccination, genetically-modified organisms or climate change. In these circumstances, threats, smears and personal abuse are not uncommon reactions.
This can be deeply unpleasant, and sometimes makes challenging dubious science feel like a Sisyphean task. The John Maddox Prize for standing up for science is a way of rewarding contributions to the public understanding of science, and of honouring those who stand fast when the going gets tough. Past winners have lost their jobs or funding, had their reputation and research challenged. But the best of them go on. The prize is also a timely reminder that we must be guided by evidence and the scientific method rather than the sound and fury of strong ideological convictions or invective rhetoric.
In 2014 I was awarded the prize. It was an honour, and on a personal level it was also a shot in the arm which reminded me that despite the occasional hostility such work may receive, communicating science and advocating for evidence-based policy is truly appreciated and ultimately worthwhile.
I continue to engage in science outreach every day because I firmly believe that scientists can help shape the vital discussions we need to have as a society, on issues that affect everyone — from climate change to geopolitics. If we are truly to find pragmatic effective solutions to the towering issues facing us today, we will need to encourage evidence in the public sphere, and help facilitate that dialogue.
Yes it’s tempting to give into despair, and embrace the idea we live in a post-truth society where facts simply don’t matter. But this is unduly cynical – the evidence to date strongly suggests the public at large highly value objective evidence in shaping our decision making.
Sir John Maddox, whom this prize commemorates, knew that better than anyone. As his friend Walter Gratzer said: “His forthrightness brought him some enemies, often in high places, but many more friends. He changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove throughout his long working life for a better public understanding and appreciation of science.” We all have a part to play in continuing his legacy and standing up for science every day.
Dr David Robert Grimes is a physicist and cancer researcher, based at University of Oxford. He writes on science and society for a variety of outlets, including The Guardian and Irish Times and contributes frequently to radio and television. He was awarded the John Maddox Prize in 2014. He tweets at @drg1985