By Robert Hickson 15/01/2020


Outrageous, immoral or downright dangerous. That’s a description of the lifestyle of women “flappers” in the 1920s. Could it apply to science (and scientists) in the 2020s?

Actually, you could look back at the past decade and see those, or similar terms, used about some science and scientists. Sometimes justifiably, most times not.

Looking ahead ten years it is presumptive to predict what the most important discoveries and developments will be. Many futurists focus instead on “megatrends” – large global trends and developments that influence many aspects of life. This, however, can often only get you to fairly anodyne statements – “there are going to be more powerful technologies (that are going to change everything)” [AI, robots, nanotech, synbio. Wait, here comes a connected network of nano-sized artificially intelligent cyborgs], or “the pace of technological change is increasing (exponentially)”.

Between the mega (trends) and the micro (discoveries) is the “meso”, which is about how things play out at community and organisation levels. This is where more fruitful insights may be found – or at least conjectured.


A contentious scientific decade

One of the things that strikes me as I read steaming piles of technological entrails is the prospect in the coming decade of increasing tensions associated with science and technologies, both societal and political. Scientific “flapping”, so to speak, has just got started.

Such tensions have always been there, but in the 2020’s they seem likely to be exacerbated by other drivers and trends. Discussions about “ethical artificial intelligence”, “vaccine hesitancy”, and other science and technologies are only early signals to pay attention to.

The tensions are largely related to values and perceptions of value.

In this post I’ll focus on science in society. The next post will look at what tensions science may have with government, business and itself.


Science in society tensions

It is easy to inflate community concerns about specific scientific applications – such as genetic modification, or vaccines – to a wider distrust in science. Steven Shapin, a science historian, discusses the fallacy of this, noting that many areas of science aren’t challenged. A counterfactual to growing distrust in science is the growing interest, and participation, in “citizen science” projects .

What Shapin sees as the key issue is not a paucity but an excess of science:

“The problem we confront is better described not as too little science in public culture but as too much.”

By this he means that it is that scientific information is both more abundant and accessible, making it easier to pick and choose facts to support your contention. What’s declining is what he calls “social knowledge” – the ability to recognize who is knowledgeable and reliable and which institutions are the homes of genuine knowledge.

Shapin suggests that this decline in social knowledge is linked to a decline in trust in institutions. That may be so, but decline in trust in institutions isn’t a recent thing. The Vietnam war, the Springbok tour of New Zealand in the 1980’s, Rogernomics, and the UK’s response to mad cow disease are just a few examples from previous decades that affected institutional trust.

What’s also influential, as Shapin notes, is uncertainty and matters of contention. Interests and values come into play, so science will continue to be used or challenged to support those interests and values. He quotes Thomas Hobbes to illustrate that contention arises when “ambition, profit, or lust” are crossed. To which can be added “other interests”.

As I discussed in my last blog post, there are significant transitions underway, and considerable uncertainties. Science and technologies have important roles in informing the debates and providing potential solutions for many of these – be they related to climate change, sustainability, automation, health, security or governance. The contentions will therefore often be vigorous.

The Royal Society of NZ has already signalled the desire to have further consideration of how genetic modification could help address environmental and health challenges.

Government and industry are signalling the need to have discussions about the ethics of using algorithms and artificial intelligences. Interest and pressure to use of some types of geoengineering to mitigate climate change impacts will increase this decade. And there will be the increasing need to develop and provide effective, safe, and affordable practices, devices and medicines for health and wellbeing.


Shifting from debate to discussion

Such issues won’t be resolved by simple discussions about the strength of evidence on the likelihood and magnitude of benefits and harms. Practice has moved on from informing “the public” about the science, and having formulaic hearings.

At the start of this century NZ made a promising start at discussing values associated with science and technologies by establishing The Bioethics Council – Toi Te Taiao. That became politically unpalatable with a change in government, but there is considerable value in bringing back a similar independent body for this decade, and not just for bioethical issues. What’s uncertain is how to make such an approach resilient to changes in political fortunes.

The Social Investment Agency has more recently undertaken very useful community discussions about data that provide another example of a way to initiate deeper discussions of values, different world views, and technologies.

What won’t be helpful is ad hoc-ery through responding to science-related tensions and contentions too narrowly and too late.

If science is doing one of its jobs then it will be viewed by some as outrageous and dangerous, because it challenges the status quo. It may also be labelled immoral by some. Conversely, not to invest in and use science with wisdom and humility to help avoid or overcome challenges at local and global levels can also be called immoral. Scientists and science organisations will need to prepare for more intense flapping in the 2020s.

Coming up in the next post – science and a new bureaucratic Balboa dance for the decade?


Featured photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash