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Talking to a Squamish scientist about the anti-science movement

Physicist and Quest University prof Andrew Hamilton shares his thoughts and predictions about the current mistrust of experts that has been exposed by the pandemic.
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Close-up picture of a microscope in a laboratory.

Physicist and Quest University prof Andrew Hamilton's philosophy about the anti-science movement, which has been on the rise and exposed during the pandemic, is as sensical as it is patient. 

Hamilton has a PhD in a field of physics called particle physics, which measures the fundamental constituents of matter. He worked at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and participated in the discovery of the Higgs boson, back in 2012, which led to the 2013 awarding of the Nobel Prize for Physics to Peter W. Higgs and François Englert. 

The Chief caught up with Hamilton for a wide-ranging chat about the mistrust of science and experts seen in some quarters of Squamish and beyond, what science is and is not, and his ultimate optimism about the public's ability to embrace evidence-based conclusions.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation. 

Q: We have seen a rise in folks who disbelieve science in favour of alternative theories, shall we say. This relates to COVID-19 and vaccines for example, but also to things like the Squamish rockfalls when we saw people doubting the geologists we turned to for explanations. What do you make of it? 

A: The science within my field of expertise is quite difficult to access. It is difficult for people to understand and sometimes when there are things we don't understand, we either get scared of them or we have reactions that allow us to negate them. "I don't understand that so I am going to go this route, which I do understand." So, I think that there is a natural human tendency to veer toward or believe in a truth that you feel like you understand, as opposed to a truth, evidence or a conclusion that maybe you don't understand where it came from. There is a piece of that in what we are seeing now. 

Some of the responsibility lies within the scientific community in making sure we explain things as clearly as possible. And making sure that the population is educated on what the scientific method is. 

Q: So, what is the scientific method? 

A: The scientific method, for me, is best summarized as: we have an idea, we make a prediction, we test to see if the prediction comes true or not. If our prediction does not come true, then our idea is likely wrong. If the prediction does come true, then our prediction was perhaps correct. It doesn't mean it is correct; It means it has some truth to it. And so science is not about telling what is absolutely correct but it tells you the range of observations that have been made and it does tell you about possible reasons for that.

For example, with COVID, if you are observing 10,000 people in a clinical trial who have been vaccinated and 10,000 people who have not been vaccinated and if in those 10,000 who have not been vaccinated, at the end of the month, there's a much higher fraction of them who get COVID, then that is evidence to support that the vaccine does offer protection. Does that mean that if I get a vaccine, I can't get COVID? No, it doesn't mean that. It means that it offers some protection.

Science doesn't give you an absolute answer, but it is based on evidence, and it does give you likelihoods.

Q: Perhaps that explains the anti-science movement a bit during the pandemic. In times of great anxiety, people want concrete, finite truths? 

A: Absolutely. 

Q: With science, there are double-blind studies and studies are peer-reviewed — there are other layers of checking than simply scientists’ standalone theories, right? 

A: Peer-reviews and double-blinding your studies, are ways for scientists to check themselves. Incorrect results can come out of the scientific method, absolutely, but as the science progresses, those incorrect results will get caught and we see that within the evolution of vaccination, even within COVID. We were seeing science happen in real-time and that is something we aren't accustomed to seeing in public. As you heard, the public health officials say continually, as the evidence evolves, our understanding deepens and this is being guided by evidence as opposed to opinion. 

Q: Knowing as much as you do about the whole process, what are you thinking when you hear what geologists say about a rockfall, for example? 

A: The geologists can't say why something happened with 100% certainty. They are saying the rockfall was because of this and here is the evidence that drew me to that conclusion. Here is the evidence and more evidence — and if you keep going deeper, that is what makes that person an expert: understanding the layers of evidence behind evidence that leads them to being able to make their conclusion. Perhaps some of the mistrust sometimes comes from scientists not being able to explain that evidence in a way people will understand. 

Q: What you are saying though, almost leaves holes for what is happening in a sense, because people then create their own solutions. 

A: Yes, one of the most amazing extensions of this is the Flat Earthers. But honestly, look around your daily life. Have you ever seen the curvature of the earth? Of course not. So as a population we rely on this evidence that is not firsthand. And this mistrust of something that we can't see with our own eyes, to me it is really troubling. Because there is so much that we can't see with our own eyes. 

Q: Is there some aspect of anti-intellectual and anti-academic to all this distrust we are seeing in experts, do you think? 

A: I think it is extremely important for people to question things. But they also need to question their own answers, right? When you come up with your solution, ask yourself why do you believe in that solution more than the "experts" solution. What is your evidence and compare that to the scientists’ or the experts’. I think part of the anti-academic, anti-science movement is that there is a sociological need to fit into a group. When we don't feel like we can fit into one group, sometimes we look for another group we can fit into. And when we go online, we can pretty easily find a group to fit into simply by believing something that may not be true. "I am going to believe in the flat earth theory because that is going to include me in this community. I don't feel included in the academic community, so I am going to turn away from the academic community and join a community that I do feel included in." 

Q: What is the answer then to this? I have seen scientific research papers; they are not easy to understand. So if you are saying that we should compare our theory to a scientist’s, I can see people going well, "Mine makes sense, this does not." 

A: I think the answer lies in education. And I don't mean that everybody needs to be able to read a scientific paper. I am a scientist, I am a physicist and I can't even read a paper outside of my own discipline without scratching my head for six hours and battling for two days on Google. It is not to say we need to be educated to the level where everybody can pick up a scientific paper and read it, but I think that the population needs to be educated enough that when there is a scientific conclusion, we can ask questions of it in a scientific manner: "What evidence leads you to that conclusion? You said this vaccine has a 95% efficacy. Can you explain what 95% efficacy means and how did you come to that number?" 

Once folks are able to unpack the result to get to the evidence that leads to the result, then they may, hopefully, have more confidence in the process. 

Q: I want an easier answer, sorry. That sounds so massive. How are we going to get everyone there? At some point, don't we just have to say, "I don't have the years of education of Dr. Bonnie Henry, so I am going to abdicate that to the doctors”?

A: It can be simple things. When a scientific paper is written that includes mathematical equations, many people don't understand the math. If we can get more of the population to a point where they understand a relatively simple mathematical formula then they are going to understand the numerator and the denominator in that 95% efficacy. It is small levels of the fundamental understanding that need to be built up in order for us to even approach the more complicated things. I don't think the answer is blind confidence in science. 

Q: It is hard to be patient, say with the anti-vaccine movement when real people are dying and getting sick from COVID-19. So, when you encounter people who are certain of their own conspiracy theories around some of this stuff, what do you say? 

A: If I choose to interact, it would be questioning why they believe the numbers they believe. Where did they get their information and why do they disbelieve the other information. What criteria are you actually using to decide what to agree or disagree with? If you probe hard enough on that, it usually comes down to wanting to believe the conclusion that you want to believe. 

Q: What about the few nurses, for example, who refuse a vaccine or the odd scientist who denies climate change? What do you think when you hear about those? 

A: Let's take a scientist not believing in climate change. Science is not absolute, but science tells us about likelihoods and probabilities. And when the weight of so much evidence goes in one direction, that is not going to stop somebody from negating or disbelieving all of that evidence. Science is about discourse. Peer review is about finding the holes in an argument, finding the holes in data analysis. That is why we do peer review, to listen to people with other perspectives. But when we do that listening, we are doing it by hearing their evidence, not hearing their conclusion because we have to put the evidence in front of the conclusion. 

Q: I hear what you are saying, but with climate change and with COVID, we don't have time to be so patient, do we? I can see people reading this and going, "See, it is not 100%. I guess it comes back to me asking you how you personally go line up for your vaccine? 

A: What we do know and what the evidence has demonstrated is that there is a much smaller likelihood that I will have some side effects from the vaccine than me having some horrible side effects from COVID. If I am concerned about the small probabilities, I should be getting the vaccine. If I am concerned about the unknowns, we don't know what the long-term impacts of COVID are, so I am going to do my best to not get it. 

Q: How do you not get discouraged? Is there optimism in the face of this mistrust of science we are living through? 

A: I absolutely see optimism in this regard. I absolutely think society is moving toward a more evidence-based thinking process. I think that the internet has opened up a whole new world of access to both evidence and opinion. We are in the learning phases. I know the internet has been around substantially for a while, but we are still in the learning phases as a society about how to distinguish opinion from evidence, and we will figure it out. We are taking a little while, but I think we are going to get to understand where opinion and evidence are very different.