• Round-table
  • Text: Rutger Vahl
  • Picture: VRBLD, Erik van der Burgt

No, science is not just another opinion

In these times of ‘alternative facts’, often limited to the 140 characters of a tweet, the university would appear to be the last bastion of objective knowledge. But even the university’s authority is being questioned as an increasing number of people claim that ‘science is just another opinion.’ Should scientists take a more prominent role in the struggle against fact-free journalism, or do their ‘media moments’ actually undermine academic credibility? We organized a round table discussion about ‘media valorization’.

A greying goatee and a warm smile: Ad Vingerhoets (b. 1953) is professor of Clinical Psychology and a specialist in stress, emotions and quality of life. He has written or edited 19 books, including Why humans weep, Unravelling the mysteries of tears, published by Oxford University Press in 2003. On the other side of the table sits Frank Bosman (b. 1978). His full beard, ‘artistic’ shoes and open-necked shirt suggest that he’s a bit of a hipster. He prefers the title ‘cultural theologian’. Bosman’s research is concerned with religion in unexpected places, such as computer games. He was once contacted by the media when a video game character was heard to say ‘the word has become flesh’ (before spattering his opponent’s flesh all over the screen in a bloody mess). The third contributor to the discussion is Hille van der Kaa (b. 1979), now editor of the regional newspaper BN/De Stem and formerly a researcher at Tilburg University whose focus areas included robot journalism. The discussion is led by Clemens van Diek, editor of Tilburg Research.

Proposition 1: Scientists must aim for media impact.

Vingerhoets: “I research emotions, and in particular why people cry. My work is my passion. I am regularly contacted by journalists from all parts of the world. I don’t mind. It’s part of the job and it demonstrates scientist’s connection with society at large. However, I do not select my research topics because I think they may be interesting to journalists or of any immediate social value. I am a great believer in fundamental research. Media coverage is a by-product, not the objective. It is not a prerequisite of societal impact.”

“A researcher has to know how the media work.”

Hille van der Kaa

Bosman: “Achieving impact, fine. The question is, what sort of impact? The university is trying to be the last defense against ‘utility thinking’, whereby everything is expected to have an immediate use and purpose. Unfortunately, the academic world is also moving in this direction. Even Tilburg is sometimes inclined to judge research in terms of market potential. And it has a growing number of ‘endowed chairs’ funded by private sector organizations. I fear undue influence: the ‘your wish is our command’ culture.”

Van der Kaa: “A researcher should make his or her findings known to the outside world. To do so, you have to know how the media work. For a regional newspaper, applied knowledge is likely to be of greater interest than fundamental research. I don’t think that journalists necessarily choose the researchers they interview on this basis, but they do prefer to speak to people who enjoy talking about their research and can do so in an accessible manner. If you spend half an hour answering one question and then insist on being quoted verbatim, you needn’t expect the phone to ring very often.”

Proposition 2: Scientists are afraid of journalists.

Van der Kaa: “Scientists do appear to be more cautious of speaking to journalists than they used to be. In June, the big news story in this region was the attempted closure of Fort Oranje, a campsite which the local authority claimed was a hotbed of criminal activity. My newspaper received countless letters from members of the public, but we also wanted to get the opinions of a political scientist and a sociologist. We couldn’t find anyone at any university willing to talk to us. I find that surprising.”

Bosman: “Many academics are indeed unwilling to stick their heads above the parapet, and that’s due to various incidents in the past. There are scientists who claim to have been misquoted, or say that agreements were not kept. This is bound to affect attitudes towards the media. A solution demands input from both sides: the scientists should have some media training, and the journalists must do their jobs properly.”

Van der Kaa: “In general, talking with journalists should be perfectly straightforward. My advice is to say in advance that you’re willing to speak openly, but that you would like to check whatever’s written before publication. The vast majority of journalists will have no problem with that.”

Bosman: “That is what I always do. Sometimes I might regret saying something or I realize that I have made a mistake. I have always been able to have it corrected.”

Vingerhoets: “Well, I once changed a journalist’s copy and there was an almighty row. What about? Pfff... let’s not go there.”

Picture of Ad Vingerhoets

“Media coverage is a by-product, not the objective. It is not a prerequisite of societal impact.”

Ad Vingerhoets

Proposition 3: Scientists have an opinion, but science is not ‘just another opinion’.

Vingerhoets: “We are hearing a lot about ‘alternative facts’ at the moment: dubious pieces of information which do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. The academic world must keep calm and explain what is known and not known about the matter in question. Unfortunately, even science can get things wrong sometimes: forecasts which fail to materialize do nothing to bolster public confidence. In the past year, I have been enjoying a frank and free exchange of views with some Israeli colleagues who contend that tears contain pheromones. I say that there has never been any well designed, well conducted research to confirm this. It is not a question of one opinion against another, but of one scientist telling another that he is wrong.”

Van der Kaa: “You could see it like that, but the average member of the public just sees two people having a blazing row. See? Science is just a matter of opinion. I think that ‘alternative facts’ have been with us for a long time. They are just disseminated more easily now. At one time, an individual needed the press to have any sort of personal impact. Today, he can just open a Facebook account and in no time at all he has set himself up as a world expert in this, that or the other. I see this happening in our region. Some of the people expressing their views have some degree of expertise. Others do not.”

Bosman: “Science can never be value-free, but that is not the same as being just a matter of opinion. The scientist sets out a ‘vision’ based on critical research and a disciplined scientific approach that must meet countless conditions and criteria. We must continue to stress this fact in the media.”

Picture of Frank Bosman

“I am known for my opinions. A day without offering an opinion is a day wasted.”

Frank Bosman

Proposition 4: You have to be active on social media

Journalists like to phone a scientist for a quick quote. On the one hand, this shows that the academic world is still seen as a source of reliable knowledge. On the other, it can create the impression that universities are little more than ‘opinion factories’ from which journalists can obtain endless free copy. How do you deal with this situation?

Bosman: “I don’t see a problem. But I am known for my opinions. A day without offering an opinion is a day wasted! If the phone rings and I see the call is from a Hilversum number, I will always answer. If I’m busy, I will ask them to call back in half an hour. And they always do. I have around 150 ‘media moments’ each year. I am a regular contributor to a radio current affairs program, and I write various columns. I have been known to give three or four interviews in a single week. Why? Partly because I enjoy it, and partly because I want to make my contribution to the academic and public debate. It has helped me to build an extensive network, including my publisher.”

Vingerhoets: “A scientist can have an opinion just like anyone else. Personally, I don’t feel any great need to impose that opinion on others. That is why I’m not on Twitter or Facebook. In fact, I don’t even have a smartphone. If anyone wants to ask me something, they can send an email or call me on my landline.”

Van der Kaa: “It is for the scientist to decide whether to comment on an issue. However, you have to realize the impact of social media. Someone with a large number of followers can reach more people in three seconds that I can with my newspaper in a week.”

Proposition 5: You should stick to what you know

Vingerhoets: “In my field, I have known psychologists who would talk to the media at every opportunity, and about absolutely any subject. They were the know-it-alls and their effusiveness was not held in particularly high regard by their colleagues. You will not harm your scientific reputation simply by being in the media a lot, provided you talk about your own research. Not long ago, a national newspaper phoned me to ask about people who work off their frustrations by knocking seven bells out of a punch bag. I do have an opinion, but there is someone at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam whose research is on this very topic. Call him, not me!”

Van der Kaa: “I think you may be selling yourself short. Scientists are clever people. They have learned the skill of critical thinking and can offer a sound opinion on all sorts of topics. If you would be willing to tell a random stranger what you think, you should also be willing to tell a journalist.”

Bosman: “I will always talk to the media. They can ask me about absolutely anything, even football. As a theologian, of course I have an opinion about football. But I do have to exercise caution, especially if I’m taking part in a live discussion program. I always ask myself whether I would feel comfortable discussing this topic with my mother, my dean or the pope. Two out of three is enough.”

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