We live at a time of unprecedented scientific and technological progress, and, yet, there is widespread concern about the impacts of scientific and technological advances on human health and the environment. Questions about risks pertaining to health and the environment are often subject to controversy, eliciting sharply divergent views and leading to widespread confusion among the public. Owing to their contentious nature, these have been referred to as “wicked questions.” Among the many examples of such vexed problems confronting society are: screening for cancers of the breast and prostate; genetically-modified crops; pesticides and industrial pollutants; the worldwide obesity epidemic; salt intake; smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes; exposure to electromagnetic fields and radio frequency emissions from cellular telephones; particulate air pollution; hydraulic fracturing; energy policy; and climate change.
Few challenges are as important for the future as how we are to use scientific knowledge to devise evidence-based solutions that are acceptable to society. In order to do this, we need to have a realistic understanding of what the science has to say on these questions and place scientific knowledge in a wider societal context.
To arrive at rational solutions we need, first and foremost, to assess the available scientific evidence on a given topic critically. We have to ask: How good is the evidence for a causal association? How does the contribution of the factor under study compare with other factors or alternative processes? What are the impacts of reducing the exposure of interest or adopting a new process across society as a whole (cost vs. benefit)?
Over the past ten years we have become increasingly aware that much of what gets published is wrong or inflated. Methodological limitations and biases, as well as agendas and incentives internal to the science contribute to this state of affairs. When critical tools are used to examine the evidence on a given question, it turns out that much of what we thought we knew is wrong. This new awareness should lead us to be both more rigorous and more modest in making claims to solid knowledge on difficult questions.
To further complicate matters, when the findings on a given question are taken up in the wider society, independent of their solidity, they become subject to a host of other agendas, biases, and incentives. Individual and group psychology, institutional agendas, and political ideology can all play a role in shaping how the science on a given topic is viewed.
Thus, we need to devote much more attention to the interplay between science and society and how different scientific issues are shaped and colored by the many forces and interests that come into play. We can’t afford to take a naïve or blinkered view of either the science itself on complex and difficult topics or how it is “processed” by the many competing parties that invoke the science for different purposes.