Facing the Boundaries of Facts and Opinions

Marina Gutierrez (ESR11)

“Contrary to the fashion in most prefaces, I will not add that “all mistakes and shortcomings are entirely my responsibility.” That is sheer bourgeois subjectivism. Responsibility in matters of these sorts is always collective, especially with regard to the remedying of shortcomings.”

Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972)

Science is not about opinion but facts” is a quote that I have heard so many times in my life. Facts can be interpreted as the results obtained from the already well known scientific method, made with the objective of limiting as much as possible cognitive biases of observation through experimentation and peer-review.

But, please, don’t get me wrong, we all want to challenge those facts. Science is in the service of society: it creates knowledge, works to improve lives, and fights misinformation. Although science is a way to provide facts to reality, what we do with those facts is clearly political. Determining whether pollution affects people is a matter of science, but deciding what to do in response to the data is political.

How do we balance the relationship between corporations and citizens? What do we do with our resources? How much weight is given to environmental awareness in our progress? Deciding how to allocate fundings and what type of science is valuable or not, are more political rather than scientific questions.

As consumers expect brands to have not just functional benefits but a social purpose, in crisis times, they expect science to give guidance through fast and transparent information about what is going on. Lately, when outbreaks of new diseases and preventable illnesses are risen up, scientists are on the horn of a dilemma. They have to express their opinion on the facts: there’s a lack of basic research and there’s not enough time in fighting disinformation.

The misinformation had evident consequences: global and local governments act differently, people become skeptical about the seriousness of the virus. All this did not help to contain the outbreak. Also, a possible vaccine is believed to be ineffective or unsafe. However, we should not forget that it also depends on the capacity of each country to ensure the supply of preventive measures such as face masks, and vaccines, when needed.

As scientists, it seems that our work is becoming a long-term race, at a changing pace and with a multitude of obstacles to overcome. During these times, we need to think and work and obtain results without the required meditation, without taking into account the imperative need to contrast all the current information to give a final conclusion. On the other side, most of the current research has suddenly stopped due to lockdown, and scientists have started to take the perspective of their careers.

When the NOWELTIES project started, the premise was clear. We would work together to find out how to remove emerging contaminants from water. That is, in fact, a political statement: we are facing a problem caused by our acts, and we don’t know how to deal with it. Those contaminants are not perceptible to the eyes, we don’t even precisely know which are the consequences of their occurrence in the environment.

But what happens if you need to take part, to express an opinion, and to make a stance of what is currently going in society? Where can you find your space for expressing yourself?

Frequently, scientists keep in silence to social issues beyond science in order to continue their research because there isn’t a safe place for expressing ideas. Political opinions on social issues are not considered adequate in the working space. Meanwhile, protesting in your spare put in risk your career, as if the scientific method while working on research couldn’t be enough to limit your cognitive biases.

The knowledge created through science serves to governments and international institutions to make decisions. On the other hand, scientists are citizens with the right to express their opinions. We, therefore, should think that academia will difficulty be completely apolitical.

This 2020 seems a year where boundaries start to dilute. The pressure of society to obtain fast and transparent information has risen up, while misinformation also increases. The boundaries of workspace and privacy have jumbled due to lockdown. Inequalities affecting gender, ethnicity, and social class are on everyone’s agenda.

Picture: “Destellos” of Juan Genovés, 2019.