'Scientists should explain their ways...

... and stop throwing around opinions' - dean Franses

‘Scientists have been mistrusted in the past,’ says Professor Philip Hans Franses, dean of the Erasmus School of Economics. He reacts to an opinion piece in NRC by the president and vice-president of The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), who argue that scientific research is increasingly seen as just another opinion in the bunch, even by politicians like Trump and Wilders – a dangerous development. ‘The mistrust is nothing new’, says Franses. ‘However, scientists should start explaining their methods and make sure that whatever they say in media-appearances has a solid base in research.’

KNAW-president José van Dijck and vice-president Wim van Saarloos argue that we need to start trusting our institutions,  science in particular. Because scientists are bound to rules that help them distinguish right from wrong. ‘It’s important that scientists explain that to people’, says Franses, also a KNAW-member. ‘What are those rules, how did they get to their results, what does their research look like? Media just show the results, but it’s the 60 pages of research that show what’s behind it.’

Mediagenic opinions

‘One of the problems is that scientists debate and disagree with one another on television. People might assume this means they’re just dropping an opinion. If they explain their methods, they can show that their statements are based on scientific research.’

‘That brings us to another problem. In their media-appearances, scientists sometimes get tempted to throw around mediagenic opinions without a scientific basis. They should stick to what they know based on their research, which has preferably been reviewed by peers in a renowned journal.’

Fake news

Van Dijck and Van Saarloos also worry about the tendency of people to rely on fake news if it supports their own feeling or opinion. Franses thinks that education has a role to play in that problem. ‘How do we teach young people how to read papers and news, how to analyse an argument?’

‘It’s not easy, and we cannot stop people like Trump and Wilders to just drop opinions. What we can do, is reanalyse very persistent dubious claims. Take, for example, the vaccination-discussion, whether it is harmful or not to vaccinate children. An institute such as the KNAW could conclude that the amount of doubt in the public opinion calls for a large scientific effort to take away these doubts once and for all. Even if that means putting scientific progress on a hold for a while.’