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18 June 2024

Debunking Science Myths: Preconceptions about science put to the test

How trusting is society towards science? In general, the picture is positive: according to the Science Barometer 2023, 56% of respondents have trust in research and science. At the same time, there is also mistrust in research results and questions about the independence of researchers. But what is the basis of the most common prejudices that researchers are confronted with in their work? We shed light on four popular myths and misconceptions: from dependence on funders and dealing with mistakes to a constantly quarrelling profession and a chronic lack of reality. Discover how research really works.

Myth 1: Researchers are highly dependent on their funders.

More than half of the respondents to the science barometer stated this assumption as a reason to distrust science. According to the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the actual amount of funding for research in Germany in 2020 totalled 106.6 billion euros. The EU also has a funding programme worth billions with Horizon Europe.

How do researchers receive funding? 

There is a distinction between basic research and applied research. Basic research is free to choose its topics and is mainly financed by public funds. It aims to expand our fundamental knowledge of the world without focussing on immediate practical benefits. In contrast, applied research is aimed at solving specific practical problems or developing certain applications. It is often financed by so-called “third-party funds”. These are awarded in calls for proposals, in which research groups compete for funding that is limited in terms of content and time. When awarding third-party funding, political or economic needs can play a role in determining which research topics are put out to tender. Nonetheless, the freedom of science and thus the free choice of research topics and methods without external influence or pressure is not only enshrined in the German constitution, but is also part of how researchers see themselves. In international comparison, Germany is a country with a high degree of academic freedom. 

Myth 2: Researchers are prone to making mistakes.

The claim that researchers often make mistakes is a reason to distrust research for 19% of Science Barometer respondents. Yet, research thrives on mistakes.

Falsifiability as basic principle of natural sciences

In the philosophy of science, Karl Popper describes falsifiability, the possibility that a scientific theory may turn out to be wrong, as a fundamental principle of research. His philosophy of critical rationalism states that theories are only scientific if they can be theoretically refuted. And as long as they are not refuted, assumptions must be tested: Through empirical evidence, surveys and experiments. This understanding applies particularly to the natural sciences. Qualitative social research interprets phenomena with the aim of understanding them comprehensively.

Quality assurance through peer review

For example, when researchers repeat a scientific experiment and get the same results, it is called replication. However, especially in psychology and biomedicine, it is often difficult to replicate the same results. This problem is known as the replication crisis and is a prominent debate within the scientific community about the culture of error. Replication is a criterion for testing the reliability of research results. At the heart of the issue is the question of traceability – in other words, understanding exactly how the results were obtained. These and other questions about methodological quality are primarily asked in the peer review process. This is when other scientists review a scientific paper before it is published to ensure that the new research is reliable. This means that the quality of research is constantly being negotiated and reviewed among researchers themselves.

Myth 3: Researchers disagree. 

In fact, scientists contradict each other. Theories and results are always critically discussed and sometimes refuted. This became particularly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic when new findings led to uncertainty. However, discussing discrepancies is fundamentally important in order to fully understand phenomena. 

Climate change: consensus building and media reception

Disagreement is also perceived in debates about climate change. Until the 1990s, there were still researchers who cast doubt on man-made climate change. But by the turn of the millennium, no scientific publication on global warming disputed its man-made cause. Today, climate scientists agree that the main cause of climate change is human activity, with only few sceptical voices coming from other disciplines. So there has long been a consensus within the discipline. But why does this consensus not reach society as a whole? Minority opinions and particularly loud or controversial views often receive a disproportionate amount of media attention. This creates a distorted picture and the impression of disagreement, even though consensus prevails.

Myth 4: Researchers are disconnected from realworld problems. 

The image of science in an ivory tower has been a familiar one since the 1950s and the question of social relevance is still relevant today. Increasingly, not only the finished results, but also the research process itself is being made publicly accessible.

Is it possible to measure the relevance of research?

In the UK, publicly-funded university research projects must describe in an evaluation process how many people will be reached by their results and how important they are for the economy, culture, public services, health, the environment or general quality of life. Other approaches aim to achieve relevance through greater participation, involving lay groups directly in the research process. Assessing the societal relevance of research remains difficult and is highly dependent on the branch of research, which is being considered. Results from macrosociology are used differently than those from microbiology. For example, the discovery and description of a protein may not contribute to the development of a drug until decades later. And a social science study on the polarisation of society, discussed in a newspaper article, may initially spark a discussion.

What’s next?

In general, myths arise when something is inexplicable. The societal prejudices against science presented here are also based on seemingly inexplicable rules of research and a complex scientific research system. However, it is worth looking behind the myths and understanding how research actually works and the important contribution it makes to society. Demystifying research shows that, despite some challenges, the research community has a strong professional ethos with a high degree of self-regulation and quality awareness. By better understanding research and its methods, we can also have informed discussions about its role and importance in our society.

References

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Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung. (2024b). Wie wird Forschung finanziert? – BMBF. Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung – BMBF. https://www.bmbf.de/bmbf/shareddocs/faq/wie-wird-forschung-finanziert.html

Bundesrepublik Deutschland. (1949). GG – Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland. https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/gg/BJNR000010949.html

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. (2022). Guidelines for Safeguarding Good Research Practice. Code of Conduct. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.6472827

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Uekötter, F. (2019). Kleine Geschichte der Klimadebatte. bpb.de. https://www.bpb.de/shop/zeitschriften/apuz/300412/kleine-geschichte-der-klimadebatte/

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This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact info@hiig.de.

Freia Kuper

Researcher: Knowledge & Society

Lena Henkes

Researcher: Knowledge & Society

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