Psychologist Prof. Dr Andreas Beelmann

»Scientific expertise isn’t an opinion«

Why does science communication not automatically create understanding? What’s working in the corona crisis and what’s not working in the climate crisis? And why should scientists stay well away from talk shows? An interview with Prof. Andreas Beelmann. The psychologist is a Professor of Research Synthesis, Intervention and Evaluation and the Director of the Centre for Right-Wing Extremism Research, Civic Education and Social Integration (KomRex) at the University of Jena. As part of his work, he examines how scientific findings are considered in political decision-making processes.
Psychologist Prof. Dr Andreas Beelmann
Image: Anne Günther (University of Jena)

Prof. Beelmann, we’ve seen a lot of scientists in the media over the past few weeks and months, especially virologists, epidemiologists and hygiene experts. Has society become more interested in science as a result of the corona crisis?

The public interest in science is undoubtedly great at the moment, and some experts have become incredibly prominent figures. That’s led to a significant rise in the reputation of scientists, as shown by a very recent study conducted by the Allensbach Institute, where scientists were found to be the most trustworthy professionals after doctors and judges. That obviously sounds great, but a closer look reveals a more ambivalent picture.

How so?

Well, just because scientists have recently witnessed a surge in their social standing doesn’t necessarily mean people now have more trust in science. In the study I’ve just mentioned, 37% of the respondents also stated that they’re sceptical about science. And what I find even more worrying is the fact that over half the people surveyed said that science should only be one of many factors behind political decisions. Scientific expertise is clearly seen as an opinion or viewpoint that should be considered – but without forgetting there are other alternative opinions. I see that as a serious problem.

Should scientists be more involved in political decisions?

Scientists shouldn’t make any political decisions – they haven’t been elected for that – but their voice should be much more influential than that of the general public or other professional groups, and not just in times of crisis like in the current situation. When your car is broken, for example, you take it to a garage and don’t ask an actor or anyone else for their opinion. That’s not to say there aren’t any bad car mechanics or scientists, of course, but a professional expert is much more likely to give you correct and relevant information.

You could argue that scientists should make their voices heard more often, so that their findings can be transferred to political practice and the public.

When it comes to the transfer of findings and knowledge, we have to distinguish between two different aspects. The first is the substantial level, i.e. how specialist knowledge is converted into practical or political action. During the ongoing corona pandemic, for example, virologists are saying it’s helpful to socially distance and wear a protective mask. That’s been taken on board in politics and implemented as a measure – and it’s even been supported by most of the population. So, that side of things has worked quite well in Germany at least. The second aspect of science transfer is on a meta-level and is based on how science is generally viewed by politics and the general public. What’s their view on science? And that’s where there are clear and frequent signs of false perceptions that give rise to misconceptions or even derogatory attitudes.

Like what?

We’ve seen some very good examples in the corona crisis. The virologist Christian Drosten from the Charité in Berlin has tried to explain in his interviews and podcasts that science often produces inconsistent results, studies have to be confirmed by other investigations, and recommendations can’t always be put forward on the basis of one single result. These are all truisms for scientists, but some members of society and the media seem to think that scientists are in dispute or constantly changing their mind.

In that case, why don’t scientists talk more about how their job works, such as with politicians?

There’s already a great deal of communication on a substantial level, but hardly any at all on a meta-level – not just because such communication is laborious and takes a lot of time that politicians don’t usually have, but also because we don’t know whether people will even show an interest. Many people don’t want to hear findings permanently called into question, even though that’s a basic scientific concept.

But we can see that science is still guiding political decisions in the corona crisis.

Yes, but the ongoing pandemic is a big exception. The fact that politics and science have joined forces so quickly is because it’s a true existential crisis that is literally a matter of life or death. Something similar happened when AIDS emerged. But those are just exceptions. It’s not working at all in many other areas.

For example?

The best counter-example is climate change. And even in my own field of research, I constantly see that’s not the case. I’ve been working in the field of prevention research for many years, and the problem with preventive measures – whether it be drug use, violent crime or the more recent issue of radicalization – is that a disaster has to happen before political investments are made in prevention. In Thuringia, for example, the number of school psychologists only increased after the school shooting at the Gutenberg School in Erfurt in 2002. And the number of school psychologists has since fallen sharply.

How could scientific findings be more effectively transferred to the public and political sphere in the long-term?

There’s definitely no silver bullet, but I think it’ll only work if all parties are involved in the communication. And that’s where I’m very sceptical when it comes to politics and the media, because journalists are under tremendous pressure to produce simple messages that can be covered in just a minute or expressed in a headline. And that usually isn’t possible with complex scientific results. We need specialists – science journalists – who can report independently and competently and convey knowledge in a structured manner without resorting to sensationalist results. But science journalism isn’t in a very good state at the moment. I hope the corona crisis will help us realize that we need such experts to transfer knowledge.

What could scientists bring to the table themselves?

First and foremost, they’ll obviously have to do good research work. An important approach that I’ve long taken in my own work is the summarization of individual investigations in meta-studies. It’s completely normal for different studies to produce different results, even if they’re on the same topic, and meta-studies help to arrange the differences and convey the results to the public. In my experience, you also get a much better response if you systematically condense your knowledge on a certain issue than if you present a stand-alone study that has often been selectively chosen. There will always be another scientist who can cite another study with contradicting results.

Nevertheless, I think scientists should think twice about making an appearance on every single talk show. They often do research a disservice by speaking out as one of many voices for the sake of showbusiness. As I said right at the beginning, scientific expertise isn’t an opinion.

What about politics? What are the responsibilities of politicians?

In this global existential crisis, politicians have been willing to be guided by scientific findings without primarily pursuing their own political interests, probably so as not to be responsible for any failures. But that’s by no means the standard procedure. Politicians should actually implement all the scientific reports and recommendations from scientific experts that they often commission and funded themselves. That’s surprisingly rare. I’ve personally worked on a number of commissioned studies that have disappeared in a drawer somewhere because the political situation has changed and something else has become opportune. It’s long been known that political decision-makers around the world have selective hearing when it comes to scientific findings; they tend to favour those that serve their interests. Politicians should be willing to go against their parties’ interests if there are scientific reasons for doing so. It’s their duty to obtain information on behalf of the population, and it’s not the duty of scientists to run around after them. The corona crisis has shown we can work together and contribute to the common good.

Interview: Ute Schönfelder


Related literature:

Bromme, R. & Beelmann, A. (2018). Transfer entails communication: The public understanding of (social) science as Stage and Play for implementing evidence-based prevention knowledge and programs. Prevention Science, 19, 347-357. DOI: 10.1007/s11121-016-0686-8

Beelmann, A., Malti, T., Noam, G. & Sommer, S. (2018). Innovation and integrity: Desiderata and future directions for prevention and intervention science. Prevention Science, 19, 358-365. DOI: 10.1007/s11121-018-0869-6

Beelmann, A. (2014). Möglichkeiten und Grenzen systematischer Evidenzakkumulation durch Forschungssynthesen in der Bildungsforschung. Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaften (Sonderheft: Von der Forschung zur evidenzbasierten Entscheidung), 17 (Supplement 4),  55-78. DOI: 10.1007/s11618-014-0509-2

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