No alternative facts, just alternative hypotheses

Psychologists take part in rally promoting the contribution of science to society. What is it like to be a 'people' scientist promoting science for the people? Sophie Ellis finds out.

On Saturday 22 April, around 2,000 people gathered at the Science Museum to take part in a demonstration. Their shared passion? Science. Their purpose? To defend the vital role of science in benefitting society.

The march was one of over 500 events internationally, organised by the March for Science movement. The organisation describes its mission as celebrating science, raising awareness of the role that science plays in our lives, and calling for protection of scientific activities. It calls for political leaders and policymakers to use robust evidence to create policies that are aimed at improving the common good. British Psychological Society President Professor Peter Kinderman was marching to show his support. I decided to go and see what it was like to be involved when science stands up. 

Before recent changes in the political climate, my activism extended to coffee-break musings about 'if psychologists ran the country' – an often intriguing thought experiment. But the rise in nationalist rhetoric and language of hate/blame rapidly made the coffee-break politics seem inadequate. Our key professional values of human dignity, respect,curiosity, free debate and empirical rigour suddenly don’t seem as universal. What’s a psychologist to do? I chose to march. I chose to march because I believe passionately in scientific values. As psychologists we know, that humans tend to bond with groups with whom they identify (see Tajfel and Turner's' research). This is equally true for scientists and it is all too easy to assume that everyone shares our values. Recent events have been a sobering reminder that this is untrue. Today’s march was a collective opportunity to share our belief in science as a tool for addressing the complex problems of society. The march was open to all who share this belief – scientists and non-scientists. There was no excuse not to go. 

So what is a rally actually like? As it turns out, asking scientists to march was an invitation for them to release their creativity. A sea of placards expressed messages with brevity ('science improves decisions'), shrewdness ('The good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe it or not') and the inevitable scientific humour ('no alternative facts, just alternative hypotheses'). What struck me most was the diversity of voices, disciplines, styles and experiences, which were all united in one thing: they love science and they really love using it to make the world better. Political gatherings are often portrayed as hotbeds of anger and dissatisfaction. These people were friendly, peaceable, but passionate in what they had to say. 

The clear message of the rally was that scientists (and that includes us psychologists) need to share our passion more. Not just with each other: with governments, policymakers, other practitioners, service users and the public. The political environment for science facesmany challenges. This includes ideological challenges, such as the persistent idea that sanctions against the disadvantaged are effective, despite evidence to the contrary. It also includes financial challenges from funding cuts and reluctance to invest evidence based initiatives. One marcher remembered a key moment in his career when he was told by a government minister “I don’t want research, I want good news stories”. The challenge of our disciplines appears to be convincing others that science is good news, even though the news may be uncomfortable to hear.

The importance of upholding science was voiced by inspirational speakers, including Jon Butterworth (professor of Physics), Angela Saini (author and science journalist) and Brenna Hassett (bioarchaeologist and author). Psychology was represented by Pete Etchells (science writer and Psychology lecturer). Non-scientists were particularly well represented by Robin Ince, comedian, writer and broadcaster. His comment that 'science is not about coming up with the right answer, it is about coming up with the least wrong answer' was a simple but effective message about the scientific method.

So, what can a humble psychologist actually do? President Professor Peter Kinderman gave the following advice: 'engage with your Society, engage the public, and engage end-users of your research'. Now that I have attended a demonstration I can see the power of the simple act of engaging. Psychology is not for psychologists, it is for the benefit of humanity. And not just the human beings that we work directly with, but every human being. On my own I can help an individual make the changes they want to make. But by engaging others I can be part of a collective effort to make changes that benefit every individual in society. And that’s very exciting. If you value the work you do, then call for others to value it too. After encouraging them to inspect your views with critical scientific scrutiny of course. 

- Sophie Ellis is a member of the British Psychological Society. Find out more about the March for Science at http://www.marchforscience.com

Fancy using your skills to influence policy? Get involved with the following initiatives:

Psychologists for Social Change: http://www.psychchange.org

Find out more about the influence of the BPS: www.bps.org.uk/what-we-do/our-influence

International Society of Political Psychology: http://www.ispp.org

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