Science is an onion with many layers of truth – by Wolfgang C. Goede

Science is supposed to be objective. However, it is driven by interests and therefore susceptible to manipulation and distortion. A result of this was the denial of climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists now launches a campaign to restore the trust in science and make it part of the democratic process.

The truth always has many layers, in science sometimes a few more. That was the central message of Naomi Oreske’s book „Merchants of Doubt. How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming“. It reviews decades of activities of US scientists who discredited evidence that smoking cigarettes caused cancer and factory emissions led to global warming. Behind that were well-known scholars, practically acting on behalf of industrial interests. The nation listened to them, from the media to the White House.

The result was that effective environmental policies in both, the United States and worldwide, were delayed. Even now, saving energy such as driving less or insulating their homes remains for many US citizens a rather alien word.

The Union of Concerned Scientists UCS wants to change this. It counts 85’000 members, 150 staff members and is dedicated to scientific integrity. These days it launches a new campaign which promotes „Science and Democracy“. According to UCS program director Pallavi Phartiyal the activities are geared towards „the weight of evidence“ which means to point out to the public that science is based on facts.

Furthermore, science has a context, a body, so to speak, which is the society. We want to take everything, she says, „that comes under the broad umbrella of science, technology and innovation and really integrate it into the democratic process, into the governance and policy making process“.

This drive will mobilize the public, scientists and the media and emphasize the importance of science-based decisions in the policy process. This is the intellectual heritage of the enlightenment era, which the founders of the United States felt very much obliged to, stresses Ms. Phartiyal, thus also drawing a clear line between solid scientific thinking and creationists, who deny Darwin and believe in creation taught by the bible.

The UCS campaign shall be implemented with public forums. They will gather all over the United States the stakeholders of a region, policy makers, the public, representatives of the political parties, media, the business communities and churches. The purpose is to discuss topics and issues of common concern, provide scientific evidence and come to science-based decisions.

Scientific truth, even undistorted, is always like an onion with many layers. There has been abuse, of course, but it ususally gets detected. Even if scientific research manages to stay pure and does not get mixed up with selfish interests one question remains: Does the public go along with it?

The UCS initiative is an encouraging one which welcomes and includes citizens in the decision making process. In future, this will decide about sustainable research and whether it can be implemented – with the people, by the people, for the people, as Abraham Lincoln said. This is the most important layer, the ultimate truth.

Transparency and participation in research and science, technology and innovation, not only in the United States is opening a new chapter of democracy. Also Europe is heading into this direction. This EUSJA blog will periodically report on this increasingly important frontier and how we science journalists deal with it. Next week we’ll shift from Washington, D.C. to Brussels and take a close look at efforts undertaken by EU officials.