Difficult Truth in the Post-Truth Era

 

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There is probably no more pressing question for scientists than the question of truth. All scientists are motivated primarily by an unquenchable thirst for true knowledge. How could we not imagine this to be the source of what drives each of us, when we are engaged in the unexciting activity of research?  As a result, falsifications, cheating and any meddling with scientific integrity seem inconceivable, as they convey a lack of confidence in the truth, incompatible with the very idea of science. Beyond disrespect for others, these things are guilty of corrupting scientists in the search for truth; this is why such misdemeanours should be severely condemned.

 

While sum and substance of scientific work, truth itself is hard-won. Not just because it is complex and difficult to achieve, but also because it is intangible. As soon as we think we are grasping something of it, new unknowns appear... Some deplore the unimaginable effort for an unattainable goal; others take real joy in conducting labyrinthine research, as there is no pleasure to be found in pointlessly acquiring knowledge right under one’s nose.

 

Scientific truth therefore is always to be attained, and attained again, because it can never be absolute. Furthermore, there is nothing unassailable about truth; it must be substantiated while remaining disputable, and able to be contradicted by empirical evidence. Yet at any given time it makes its own strong case for itself, following open discussion in the scientific community, with arguments presented both for and against.  This is the well-known epistemological basis for scientific approach and knowledge, theorised by Austrian science philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994).

 

At a time of tweets, social media, fake news and post-truth; when some contest anything outside their interests; when generalised suspicion reigns; when the frenetic pace of news seems incompatible with taking the time to reflect and patiently develop and establish the truth, scientists seem in an ever more delicate position in the public arena. Despite having accumulated very solid arguments, they can no longer claim to be holders of absolute knowledge.  Scientists today would not be permitted the authority of 19th or early 20th century thinkers, living as they did at a time when faith in the benefits of science was virtually universal. No scientist, however, should accept fake news or the manipulation of information to deliberately contort the body of knowledge we have acquired.

 

Scientists can enlighten on many issues to facilitate important collective decisions, be it in terms of the environment, transport, technological development or public health, to counter coalitions of interests intentionally obscuring the truth for political, doctrinal or financial reasons. Everywhere, scientists must denounce fraud and sound a warning when they deem necessary. Such is the case for the climate, vaccination and many other issues, such as the transhumanist prophecies of believers in technological singularity or the claimed trouble-free use of “genetic scissors” such as CRISPR-Cas9.

 

In this context, researchers must stick to the straight and narrow, stating frankly what they know to be the unvarnished truth, putting it as simply as possible for all to understand, while stating the current limits of this knowledge. Speaking the truth is difficult, but necessary, as a scientist’s moral duty and their very honour relies on it.

 

> AUTHOR

 

Jean-Gabriel Ganascia

Artificial intelligence researcher

Jean-Gabriel is  a professor of IT at the Pierre-et-Marie-Curie University (Paris 6). He chairs the CNRS ethical committee (Comets).

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