Trust in the Sciences Of Uncertainties and a Tentative Shred of Hope

Scientists for Future demonstrators hold up a banner.
Participants from Scientists for Future organise a silent demonstration for the climate. | Photo (detail): POP-EYE/Stefan Mueller © picture alliance

Are there any objective facts and do they help us to combat climate change? Two members of Scientists for Future talk about how society deals with scientists and why they are often reluctant to recommend specific actions.

Ms. Bühler, Mr. Landschoff, would you say that confidence in the sciences, especially with regard to the climate debate, has fallen in recent years?

Janica Bühler: On the contrary – I’ve felt that confidence in the sciences has risen over recent years in particular. During the corona pandemic for instance the podcast by Prof. Dr. Drosten has been relatively successful and many people have been engaging with it. The climate debate has been pushed into the background somewhat during the pandemic, before that I had the feeling that people I knew were increasingly asking me to explain the key facts to them. On the other hand of course it’s also developed more extremely in the other direction. There are people who think that scientists are just talking rubbish. However, the overall feeling remains that there’s a larger majority of people who trust science and fewer voices contradicting that – unfortunately, those voices are loud. 

Jöran Landschoff: I’ll concur with that too. In all honesty, science has been in crisis since the start of the 20th century. Before that, people believed that science was something fundamentally positive. The issue of misuse didn’t arise at all. But with the catastrophes of the 20th century at the latest it became clear how dangerous science can be. The Nazi regime is also seen as a perversion of enlightenment science: scientists and doctors carried out human experiments in the name of science and justified racism. Then the atom bomb was developed. Those are all things that called the trust in science into question for good reason. 

In the post-truth age – is there such a thing as scientific facts?

Jöran Landschoff: The calling into question mentioned earlier revolves around this very issue. Maybe an example: today we have big social debates about gender, racism, but also the truth. There are loads of arguments and research from the most diverse perspectives. The same data can be used to arrive at a variety of conclusions. Science realised that nearly 100 years ago and you might say they made a rod for their own backs with this reflection. That’s where post-truth comes in. But of course we have checking systems. Our academic world is based on the fact that we read what each other writes and make our arguments public precisely so that people can criticise it.

The fact that the results are probable only subject to certain assumptions does not mean that they are incorrect.

Janica Bühler

Janica Bühler: There is more than one type of so-called fact. Firstly there is the hard mathematical “fact” for which at some point certain axioms have been agreed, and other facts are proven on the basis of this. That would be the typical “2+2=4”. But as soon as things move into a specialisation or field of application, there are so many assumptions we have to make, or we’re confronted with uncertainties. These aren’t hard facts anymore and you always have to take the assumptions and uncertainties into account when you interpret the results. That’s precisely the reason why, among other things, we use lots of statistics and error calculation in the sciences, with studies showing probability levels and error bars. However, the fact that the results are probable only subject to certain assumptions does not mean that they are incorrect.  

What would need to happen in society, media, politics and even on the part of scientific representatives themselves to promote the acceptance of scientific research findings?

Janica Bühler: It sounds a bit corny, but everyone just needs to learn how to deal with this kind of data. After coming from quantum physics, I had to learn how to interpret climate data. I would really welcome it if (more) statistics could be taught in schools. Without some basic knowledge, it’s extremely easy for people to be outwitted. Furthermore, the processes in science need to be more transparent. We’re making progress here: Prof. Dr. Drosten’s podcast has also looked at lots of uncertainties and explained that they are absolutely normal and vital to every scientific discipline, and I’m sure that’s why it had so many followers.

Jöran Landschoff: Yes, precisely this transparent treatment of uncertainties is important, and it might possibly even be rewarded with more confidence from the population. In the sciences themselves, I would urge my colleagues to push the limits more with our research and look at which situations the results apply to, and in which cases this is no longer true? There’s a need for more open communication in media and politics as regards the meaning of “scientifically proven”. It doesn’t mean that something’s correct and can never be revoked. 

Because of the urgency, might it be particularly important in the climate debate to listen to scientific research findings and understand them? Is that the only way to initiate change?

Jöran Landschoff: That question could be answered quite simply with “Yes”. But we wouldn’t be scientists if we could make things that simple. People aren’t going to change their behaviour because of temperature graphs. Many still hold the belief that there’s a lack of knowledge, but this information is accessible to almost everyone. We just need to work out from it what needs to be done next. And science can’t afford that at all. Of course, we know that we need to reduce emissions, and for instance that we should stop consuming meat if possible. But every change brings with it a set of attendant problems, and then things quickly become very complex. The difficulty lies in bringing together the research findings from all the different branches of science.

The difficulty lies in bringing together the research findings from all the different branches of science.

Jöran Landschoff

Janica Bühler: For the specific situation of climate research we’ve already known for a very long time that more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere lead to warming, that this increase is manmade, and also that the consequences could be devastating. For this reason, we can’t just stop at listening and losing ourselves in details of research, we also have to act and at the same time weigh up various consequences. Even though in principle I would still always answer the question with yes. 

Scientists For Future expresses recommendations for direct action and also supports some of these approaches. What role does the initiative play in the climate debate, and what role should it play? 

Janica Bühler: We are part of the big climate activism scene in Germany. We see ourselves as a communicator between the different groups. The activists from Fridays For Future have achieved a great deal of change in the past few years. Our role is more of a supporting one. We underpin the strikes with science. Nevertheless, we need to be careful: we aren’t all climate scientists and even they are very specialised, such as me for example. As individuals, we aren’t experts on everything that happens in a climate system either. So my personal opinion in relation to some themes is no more justified in terms of content than the opinion of a well-informed politician, or even a member of the public. That’s why we consider it important for a wide range of scientific disciplines to be present in our network.  

Jöran Landschoff: This policy has developed into a situation where we actively perform educational work. As a regional group in Heidelberg, we have a list of experts we hand out on request, we’d like to go into schools directly and inform the students. We’d also like to raise awareness of climate change in the academic world itself. In this capacity, we’re departing from the traditional scientist role. However, this is something we handle in a very open manner. 

The corona crisis has turned everything upside down. On one hand, emissions are down slightly, but on the other hand consumption of disposable masks, plastic gloves etc. is increasing. How do you think we will emerge from the crisis, are you cautiously optimistic or do you tend more towards pessimism with regard to developments aimed at mitigating climate change?

Jöran Landschoff: Actually I always tend towards pessimism. Despite movement within society, it has become apparent that politics, the economy and society really are extremely rigid systems. Proven traditions are the standard fall-back – even if they weren’t actually proven at all. For instance, we have a huge consumption problem of course. And the answer to that is supposed to be that we need to keep pushing up economic growth? Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in ensuring that goods production is environmentally sound and supply chains are kept local. For me, I think the interaction I had with the industrial-scale abattoirs in the summer was symptomatic of the difficult situation.

A catastrophe in both social and ecological terms that was exposed for all to see - and practically nothing has changed.

Jöran Landschoff

Janica Bühler: I think you have to view that as two separate issues. This year has shown that all the consumption maybe doesn’t make people happy. For many people, the pandemic has touched their existence. We had to realise that it was the interpersonal relationships we miss the most, not the consumption. 

Before that, there were other developments that made me feel positive too – for instance, the hole in the ozone layer. At the first conference on that, the action they decided on was woefully insufficient. Nowadays it’s taken for granted that CFCs are no longer emitted. Obviously, climate change is far more complex in political terms, but things are changing here. There are positive developments regarding the energy revolution too. Investors might not think sustainability matters much, but even here we’re seeing an increasing aversion to funding companies with no realistic risk management or climate change policy. It’s still much too slow, but these developments are there. 

Jöran Landschoff: That’s right, and if I didn’t have a shred of hope left after everything, then I wouldn’t be a member of Scientists for Future. 

The interview was conducted by Natascha Holstein, online editor of the Zeitgeister magazine.