I was fortunate to be invited to the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, held in Lindau, Germany, June 25 to June 30. I was one of 70 journalists from 20 countries. Each year, about 30 Nobel laureates come to Lindau to meet between 400 and 500 undergraduates, PhD students, and post-doc researchers from all over the world. The goal of the meetings is to foster the exchange among scientists of different generations, cultures, and disciplines.
At the opening ceremony, Countess Bettina Bernadotte, president of the Council of the Lindau Meetings spoke about the need for scientists to respond to those who challenge scientific facts. "Scientists cannot ignore what is happening in the world,” she said. “Some rulers, and people, seem to feel threatened by progress and the fact-oriented power of science.” This was also the theme of the keynote address, "Science as an Insurance Policy to the Risks of Climate Change,” by Nobel laureate Steven Chu. Due to a family emergency that prevented Chu from being present, the speech was read by William E. Moerner, Nobel laureate in Chemistry.
Moerner was also part of the panel at a press conference held June 27 titled "Science in a Post-Truth Era." It was held, perhaps appropriately, at the Marionette Theater in Lindau, where operas are performed by puppets. The panel was moderated by Zulfikar Abbany, science editor of Deutsche Welle and also included Helga Nowotny, vice-president of the Council for the Lindau Meetings and former president of the European Research Council; Arturo Borja, director of international cooperation at the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT); and conference attendees Marian Nkansah, of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana and Melania Zauri of the Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
Moerner began by reminding the audience that "science is not an alternative fact or a belief system. It is something we have to use if we want to push our future forward." As one of the 36 laureates who signed the Mainau Declaration on Climate Change at the 65th Lindau meeting, Moerner said he was frustrated that President Trump pulled out of the Paris Accords. "I am extremely concerned that evidence-based methods are not being used to make scientific decisions. But equally concerned that we have not been able to get this message across to the public."
Nowotny noted that the questioning of scientific information is not new (think Galileo) and that alternative facts can be found throughout history. "We have never lived in a truth era,” she said. She went on to say that while it is true that European governments stand by the Paris Accords, there is still a lot of questioning of science. "We must help people understand the scientific process. We have failed to do that as scientists. We need better outreach to schools, families and the media."
Borja, who is a political scientist, said it is a mistake to expect logic in political campaigns. "Politicians want votes. They don't believe it matters what they tell people to get them." He noted that "the iterative process of science leaves uncertainty that some politicians can use to support their efforts to gather more votes."
Moerner said that scientists have plenty of outrage in their hearts but don't have a great answer to bullying by anti-science forces. "The marches, op-eds and meetings have not worked. We need to do better." Both Moerner and Nowotny noted that scientists must do a better job explaining the scientific method.
"A great example is cold fusion," Moerner said. “It was right until it was proven wrong." He noted that scientists are not priests and their findings are subject to change. "This uncertainty empowers our critics but science acts on maximum probability and that is how we close in on the truth." Moerner said that the media's tendency to give voice to minority opposing opinions on climate change (only two percent of scientists are deniers) confuses the public. "Do we really need to give equal time when we know something is true 99.5 percent?"
Some of the panelists stressed that the media must do a better job as well. Marian Nkansah said although Ghana was not affected by Ebola, many news stories said it was. "Only a few got it right." She also advises that scientists need to speak up. "They should respond quickly to attacks on science and have the confidence to speak loudly."
There was also concern about confirmation bias and that scientists spend too much time speaking to themselves and not the public. Nowotny noted the March for Science and the Long Night of the Sciences that took place in Berlin were steps in the right direction.
During the question and answer period one of the journalists, Vasiliki Michopoulou of Pegasus media publications, noted that there was no March for Science in Greece. "The academic community didn't support it."
I asked several journalists about their experiences. Graziella Almendral, director of Indagando Televisión in Madrid said that "in Spain, the specialized press has a hard battle against anti-vaccine movements. In 2016 a child died of diphtheria. It was the first case of diphtheria in Spain since 1987. The parents acknowledged that they had not vaccinated their child due to the influence of the anti-vaccination movements. This death put on the front page of the newspapers the reality of these movements in Spain and the need to report more continuously
on the need to vaccinate both to prevent the disease individually and to prevent the reappearance of diseases globally."
Manuel Lino, former editor of El Economista and now a freelancer in Mexico City, said, "In Mexico there can be no noticeable movement against science because science is not really important for Mexicans, we don’t have any benefits from the science being done in Mexico, we import them from other countries, mainly the U.S. So, if our president or governor goes against climate change or whatever we don’t really care, nobody asked him. We care, in Mexico City, about air pollution because sometimes you really can’t see 200 meters away or you actually cough the whole morning or your eyes are red and itchy."