Why scepticism is integral to science, but not all of it is good

1 Jul 2020

Dr Kabir H Biswas, assistant professor at the College of Health and Life Sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University. Image: HBKU

Dr Kabir H Biswas of Hamad Bin Khalifa University writes about the challenges posed by non-scientific scepticism and why a greater exchange of knowledge is the only remedy.

Human beings are innately curious, often pondering the world around them. Our curiosity begins early in childhood, peaks in adulthood and continues throughout the later stages of our lives.

As children, we are intrigued by phenomena such as the twinkling of the stars or burning of paper, yet as we grow up, changes in weather conditions or disease development will likely pique our interests.

A systematic study of such phenomena is known as the scientific method – one that involves forming and testing hypotheses in the best possible ways known to us. The outcome of this analysis eventually forms the basis of our understanding of the phenomena.

Understanding scientific phenomena

Most often, scientific study is an iterative process in the sense that our understanding of any phenomenon is renewed as updated data becomes available to the research community. This is largely due to the development of technologies that provide better quality data and, thus, offer deeper insights into the phenomenon.

It is imperative to realise that technological advancements are themselves dependent on our understanding of the mechanism of how things work. Therefore, it is safe to say that the scientific understanding of any phenomenon is a cyclic process wherein new insights gained from the utilisation of advanced technologies enable further understanding of the phenomenon.

As technologies progress, we discover deeper nuances of the phenomenon at hand. A case in point would be discoveries as to why certain people do not respond to a specific therapeutic treatment.

For instance, some cancer patients may not respond to an anti-cancer drug, perhaps due to the fact that they do not express proteins that the anti-cancer drug acts on or a change in the protein that renders the drug ineffective.

‘We should be able to distinguish between science-based scepticism and other scepticisms such as those based on political, religious or moral beliefs’

With the advent of various ‘omics-based’ technologies, such as genomics, transcriptomics and proteomics, it is possible to pinpoint these patient-specific reasons.

Scientific phenomena also evolve over time and even the most important of all discoveries can grow increasingly irrelevant. For example, scientists have been treating a variety of bacterial infections for a long time with classical antibiotics, some of which were uncovered decades and perhaps centuries ago.

However, some bacterial species have developed resistance to these classical antibiotics. Therefore, the mechanism of the classical antibiotics discovered previously may not apply to these evolved bacterial species. This brings forth the requirement of novel scientific studies and continues to apply to diseases such as cancer.

Different types of scepticism

If we are to keep abreast of evolving phenomena, it remains important for us to continue asking questions about scientific ideas and know-how.

Scepticism should be an integral part of our discovery process, but we should also be able to distinguish between science-based scepticism (one that helps us make progress) and other scepticisms such as those based on political, religious or moral beliefs. None of these are based on rigorous observation or data, and can hamper our scientific advancements.

Scepticism to vaccine therapy is widespread and it appears to be uncorrelated with the economic and educational statuses of the regions or countries where such reluctance is generally observed. It is more likely to be attributed to religious beliefs or a lack of public awareness about vaccines and how they help us prevent infectious diseases.

Researchers in a lab testing a potential vaccine candidate.

Image: © eldarnurkovic/Stock.adobe.com

Equally, people can be sceptical of cancer research. Scientists have made tremendous progress in treating some types of cancer by prolonging the life expectancy in patients, yet there are several aspects of the disease that remain to be understood in order to develop a definitive cure applicable to all types of cancers.

Genetically modified foods, which are easy to produce with desirable components, have come with their own forms of misrepresentation and scepticism, although no adverse effect on our health has been conclusively established so far.

Shielding ourselves with knowledge

While non-scientific scepticism continues to persist among us, acquiring sufficient knowledge will be key to its resolution. Educational institutions ought to play a critical role as one of the primary sources of knowledge.

Educational institutions also need to instil an appreciation and understanding of the scientific method, not only in students who study these subjects, but also among the public at large. But how can this be achieved?

Greater interaction between researchers in various fields of study and the public is likely going to increase their faith in science. This will require the coordinated efforts of the researcher community as well as professionals in the media.

Importantly, students with exposure to cutting-edge research in various educational institutions will play an essential role in dispelling non-scientific scepticism by interacting and discussing research and current understanding of relevant phenomena with the public.

Overall, scepticism in science and scientific ideas is good for our understanding of natural phenomena around us. However, non-scientific scepticism poses a significant challenge and can dilute much of our efforts as a research community. A greater exchange of scientific knowledge is our only remedy.

By Dr Kabir H Biswas

Dr Kabir H Biswas is an assistant professor at the College of Health and Life Sciences, part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar.