Hub Zwart (1960) studied philosophy and psychology in Nijmegen. In 2018 he was appointed Dean of the Erasmus School of Philosophy. His research focuses on philosophical and ethical issues in the increasingly popular life sciences. He is EUR’s project manager for IANUS, an EU project focusing on trust in science. He also serves as the Academic Lead for the Resilient Delta project, in which EUR collaborates closely with the Erasmus MC and Delft University of Technology.
What is your take on this paradox?
“It does sound paradoxical, but from an empirical point of view, it’s correct. A great many people still trust science. I would like to emphasise, though, that no one should have blind faith in science! I’d go so far as to say that scepsis is an integral part of the scientific method. Regular folks are allowed to be sceptical, as well. Scientists can actually learn from that. It’s good for scientists to be modest, particularly since these days, science is increasingly likely to consist of highly complex issues. As a result, individual scientists don’t have enough expertise to be able to understand their entire discipline. With subjects such as climate change, there is not even one individual discipline that is able to understand the issue in its entirety.
“The problem we are facing is polarisation. There is a minority that is growing increasingly radical in its mistrust. Being sceptical is all about asking critical questions, but this group has completely lost faith. I’m not reproaching them, but it does mean we’re facing a different problem and a different solution.”
Could it be that the coronavirus crisis has merely rendered this minority more visible? When Jaap van Dissel first joined a coronavirus-related press conference, he was viewed by 8 million people. That might have been the first time people actually asked themselves whether they trusted scientists. Suddenly people found themselves confronted with questions such as, can I trust Van Dissel when he says I must wear a face mask? Am I getting vaccinated or not?
“Yes, that, too, is true. During the pandemic we could all see that policymakers were depending on scientists’ knowledge. Sometimes it seemed as if scientists were running the country and politicians were following their lead. But science is always controversial, as well. For instance, Van Dissel worked with predictive models. They are highly advanced science, but full of uncertainties. We need to get to a point where everyone fully realises that science is complex. But it’s hard to come up with a way to convey that message.”
Why is it important that this small, polarised group regains trust in science?
“Many scientists are intrinsically motivated to share information. It teaches them things, too. Sharing allows you to get in touch with other knowledge and experiences. I have recently viewed some websites where completely different types of discussions were being held – websites that made me think: this is demonstrably incorrect. Other websites surprised me or alarmed me. I’d like to enter into a debate with these people. That’s basically a natural inclination. If scientists can’t have such discussions, they regret it.
“And perhaps these radical sceptics do have a point in certain matters! Maybe we do have blind spots, and maybe we are insufficiently aware of just how disruptive certain developments driven by science can be. Sometimes, science wipes out ideals, identities and impressions people cherish. But if this results in a society without an identity, without any cohesion, science is likely to be considered one of the causes.”
Do you have anything specific in mind when you say that science has wiped out certain notions?
“I’m thinking of anything related to IT and artificial intelligence. It has radically changed our world. Basically, we’re seeing at present something we saw in the nineteenth century, as well. Around 1840, Friedrich Engels was a major industrialist, and he would sometimes walk through Manchester’s poorer neighbourhoods in the evenings. He was profoundly shocked by what he found there. So on the one hand, he was a booster of the technological innovations of the industrial revolution, and on the other hand, he saw a world full of misery, caused by those very same innovations. And he didn’t respond by saying: stop all these innovations. Instead he said: how is it that science, which should be helping the world, is actually resulting in such poverty and pollution? And how can we ensure that technological innovations cause less misery and that we keep an eye on unintended side-effects? The industrial revolution caused a great deal of polarisation. The class struggle and World War I can both be traced back to this polarisation.”
You are now mainly talking about unintended side-effects. To what extent are scientists themselves to blame for the fact that people no longer trust them?
“There have been many black pages in the history of science. I’ll give you an example: the tobacco industry financed a lot of research that showed that nicotine ‘really wasn’t that bad’ for people. Scientists regularly allowed themselves to be used to promote commercial or political interests, meaning that science became a powerful weapon in the hands of big corporations or political players. On the one hand, you want to be socially relevant, but on the other, you also want to remain autonomous and raise people’s awareness of unwelcome messages where necessary. This continues to be hard, even now.”
For instance, a professor of tax law just resigned in Amsterdam because he was allegedly funded by a lobbying organisation. In Rotterdam, there was a lack of clarity as to how professors were being funded. Shouldn’t professors be radically transparent in such matters?
“Yes, transparency is part of the solution. But let’s touch on the issue first. We don’t want the kind of science that plays out in an ivory tower. That is impossible anyway, as basic research and applied research are closely related nowadays. When that is the case, scientists automatically become parties in that social arena. Integrity cannot be preserved by not having any contact with the manufacturing industry or policymakers, but rather by a collective learning process, an awareness of how to deal with those forces when you are conducting socially relevant research.
“Transparency is very important in all of this. By all means, show how science works, but also tell people if you’re collaborating with political or commercial parties, and show them how you safeguard your independence. This also means scientists have to open up to society. Many scientists still have a tendency to conduct their research first and then present it to the public afterwards.”
If I’m allowed to be cynical for a moment, I’d like to say that we’ve heard many academics say over the last few years that society would be involved in the creation of added value, in the creation of impact, and now the buzzword seems to be ‘co-creation’. But in actual fact, we have often found that while major companies and politicians were involved in these projects, children living in Rotterdam-Zuid weren’t really. How are we going to prevent this from happening again?
“In the past, innovation often resulted in the victors growing even stronger and the losers becoming even more marginalised. So it’s vital that groups that tend to be ignored at present be involved. For instance, we try to do so in our ‘convergence’, the collaborative partnership between EUR, the Erasmus MC and Delft University of Technology. We want to try and create a positive impact in association with the city of Rotterdam. But what does ‘positive impact’ mean to people? To find out, we’ll be talking to the inhabitants of Rotterdam.”
At the start of the pandemic, Minister for Education, Culture and Science Dijkgraaf compared the medical challenge faced by society with the Manhattan Project, i.e. the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. He said that the Manhattan Project caused the position of science in society to be strengthened, and he hoped the pandemic would likewise result in people showing greater appreciation for science. Do you think that is going to happen?
“I completely disagree. Yes, the Manhattan Project did to some extent result in the prestige of physics being boosted tremendously. However, ironically, scientists were side-lined as soon as the bomb was finished. The project leader, Robert Oppenheimer, wanted scientists to be included in discussions as to how the bomb was to be used. Politicians very emphatically stopped that from happening. Worse, from that moment onwards, all physicists were suspect, because just imagine them passing all that dangerous knowledge on to the enemy… So take note. History was a little more complicated in this regard than Dijkgraaf indicated.”
I do see a parallel with the Outbreak Management Team. Many people criticised them, and maybe that was a smart ploy on the part of the Prime Minister, who kept blaming the OMT for each new coronavirus measure that was implemented. ‘We have no choice but to do this, because scientists tell us this is what needs to be done…’
“Scientists are a major source of information, but it is politicians who are responsible and who must balance scientific information on the one hand and other social considerations on the other. You can’t draw conclusions straight from an epidemiological model. It’s common enough for politicians to withdraw from the subject matter and turn into process managers of sorts. To some extent, that’s because the has been reduced. Our political leaders carry much less ideological baggage than they used to. If you do have a view of the world, you know how to balance scientific knowledge against other values.”
The solutions you’ve mentioned so far are slow changes, even though the problem is quite acute. Certain scientists, such as Marion Koopmans, Marc van Ranst and Jaap van Dissel, receive regular threats. What could scientists or society do about that right now?
“I think that a large degree of solidarity with one’s fellow scientists is paramount. Naturally, we have a duty of asking each other tough questions, but when things like this are going on, scientists must stand with each other. That’s why I also signed the letter about Van Dissel that was printed in de Volkskrant last week. If allegations are levelled at someone without that person being given an opportunity to defend themselves, it’s time that we show that we support each other. Expertise merits respect. If not, scientists will lose their autonomy and start saying things that are only half true for fear of threats and repercussions.”
Is that already happening? Scientists avoiding certain topics for fear of repercussions?
“It’s something that has always happened. In the fourteenth century, theology was a very influential branch of science, but it also carried huge risks. We’ve already discussed physics in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a highly influential field, but risky, too, because they were directly involved in world politics. So I definitely think that there are scientists now, too, who are dealing with self-censorship and taboo subjects. Take, for instance, the debate on political correctness, wokeness and cancel culture. It’s a good thing that we are discussing it with so much passion, but that doesn’t mean that we have the right to prevent others from speaking. If an argument is poorly substantiated, you can criticise it, but you can’t forbid scientists to research particular subjects or force them to arrive at different conclusions. That would be the end of academic research.”