Research is important in our daily life

Interview about trust in science
Approximation knowledge

Research & Teaching: Science is penetrating more and more into our everyday life, for example if one only thinks of the many new research results in questions of nutrition or health. Does that tend to lead to a feeling of dependence on science or to scientific disgust?

Ute Frevert: Partly, partly - it depends on the type and the culture. Many people in Western societies are downright eager to adopt scientific knowledge in order to optimize and extend their lives. Often they do far too much of a good thing - and fall for businessmen, as in so-called brain jogging, who for their part are not afraid to reinterpret research results on the connection between physical or social activity and aging processes in such a way that it benefits their profit interests. But they are only so successful because many people willingly follow their pseudo-scientific siren call. This also includes the willingness to allow yourself to be talked into technical devices within the framework of the quantify yourself movement that measure the daily step amount or the nightly breaths and always put you on an allegedly scientifically proven standard curb of the best possible lifestyle. Even those who ignore these trends and continue to smoke, for example, even though the harmfulness of their addiction has been clearly proven, refer to scientific evidence for their part - namely those provided by the tobacco industry and its compliant academic assistants and doubts about that harmfulness nourish. In other words: Science permeates our entire behavior, and even where we oppose its design requirements, we do so with reference to contradicting scientific findings.

F&L: How can it be explained that, for example, opponents of vaccinations or supporters of alternative medicine turn away from scientific knowledge?

Ute Frevert: That is an old hat. As early as the 18th century there was massive opposition to the vaccination against smallpox that was propagated at the time, and every death as a result of a vaccination was grist to the mill of those who opposed the vaccination. The opposition is fed from various sources - but a very important stumbling block was and is the gesture of superiority with which scientific or "conventional medicine" advocates its theories and therapies. Such a superiority was and is steadfastly and with verve asserted; however, the actual results often fall far short of the full-bodied promises. The critics derive their ammunition from this difference. "Science would do well with self-criticism and modesty, instead of repeatedly - the most recent example is brain research - come up with performance scenarios that turn out to be less resilient in reality."

F&L: How can a citizen deal with contradicting scientific evidence?

Ute Frevert: The first tip: Try to find out what “service” this evidence is in and what interests it fosters. When scientists get paid by the coal industry and deny man-made climate change, that speaks volumes. The same is true of those who cast doubts about the health hazards of smoking and who are in the wages of the tobacco industry. But things are not always so clear or can be assigned so clearly. Ultimately, the only thing that helps is to find out as much information as possible - and the possibilities increase with the transparency and accessibility of scientific research on the Internet. As a rule, one can rely on the fact that scientists do not deal sparingly with criticism from one another. Science journalists translate such controversies in such a way that we normal mortals can understand and understand them and draw our own conclusions from them, provided we find them important for our lifestyle - keyword health, nutrition, mobility (diesel!).

F&L: How do emotion and science relate to one another?

Ute Frevert: Firstly, feelings are not the "other" of science, on the contrary: they are themselves capable of science, are examined, measured, and analyzed in terms of their requirements and consequences by all possible sciences. More and more people are reluctant to describe feelings as erratic, irrational and anarchic. Instead, they are assigned logic, history and culture. Second, and related to this, feelings are seen as a resource for scientific activity: curiosity is at the top, or even intuition, which allows the scientist to take a rather unusual path in a decision-making situation. Many humanities scholars have an almost libidinal relationship to their research topic. Thirdly, and finally - and this is what you are probably saying with your question - feelings can undoubtedly also have a blocking effect that undermines "science". At the time, opponents confronted the self-assurance of the nuclear industry, behind which there were massive economic interests as well as hasty scientific expertise in the 1960s, with their fear of "atomic death". With this fear they not only took action against the trivializing so-called "residual risk", but also against the still unsolved problems of final disposal. For everything - the safety of the nuclear power plants, the packaging of the nuclear waste, the resilience of the earth tunnels in which the now corroding barrels are stored - there were scientific reports. In contrast, the fears expressed by the anti-nuclear movement were mocked as irrational and ridiculed as childishly naive. And who is laughing today?

F&L: What can be done when facts are no longer enough to convince citizens?

Ute Frevert: It's not that easy. Science does not always and not consistently produce "facts" that are convincing as such. In very many cases it produces approximate knowledge, which is not very different in the humanities subjects than in the natural sciences. The gold standard of this knowledge is its verifiability; scientific experiments must be replicable, and the historian must disclose her sources and argue in such a way that her interpretations are understandable. If you don't want to be convinced of this, you have to use better arguments or other sources. Or do other experiments. That is good scientific practice. A problem arises when scientists themselves neglect or even undermine this practice. Above all, psychological studies regularly fall into disrepute because they cannot be repeated or, if repeated, produce different results. That stirs up distrust, and rightly so.

F&L: How can science create trust in its research results?

Ute Frevert: By observing the standards of good scientific research and applying the greatest possible transparency, by inviting criticism, not making promises that it cannot keep, and by exchanging the gesture of superiority for that of modesty.

Professor Dr. Ute Frevert is director of the “History of Emotions” research area at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.