• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.

In a time when alternative facts are peddled as legitimate, a pall has been cast over scientific knowledge. In these circumstances experts have never been more important.

Donald Trump's grasp on certain realities may be ignorant or a purposeful political tool -as a means of distraction or rhetoric - but without question he is assaulting demonstrable facts to a point where truth itself is increasingly seen as optional. But Trump is not the creator of the problem, he is a symptom of a much wider one; the evidence for which is most stark in America, but is just as obvious in New Zealand; that being a desire to selectively turn one's back on science.

I say selectively because all of us believe in science. Science is the understanding that the human body requires oxygen. Let those who peddle alternative facts take that one.


In numerous other areas there are a troubling number of takers.

The television programme Sensing Murder is a show in which psychics seemingly give insight into unsolved crimes reliant on ideas as abject as those suggesting the earth is flat. The fact no crimes have been solved by the team employed is no impediment to its popularity.

Kelvin Cruickshank and his ilk could easily be found out if they were subjected to even the simplest scientific test but they refuse. They are either charlatans or deluded. Take your pick. The makers of the show are contemptible insomuch as they feed an industry targeting those who have lost loved ones and also because they foster a belief that disrupts scientific truth.

People who are desperate will often, and somewhat understandably, grasp for anything they can. The so-called cancer curing water has some high-level endorsements such as All Blacks legend Colin Meads and former television handyman John "Coxy" Cox. Both men will die. But so will we all, that is a fact inescapable through snake oil.

Being saved from dying are native birds because of 1080 poison drops. In fact they flourish because of such drops. Kea sometimes fall foul, the curious bastards, but their chicks have a greater chance of survival because of decreased predator numbers.

What isn't flourishing is polio because of vaccinations against it, yet even here at a celebrated peak of scientific endeavour there are those who seek to derail it. With vaccinations, as with climate change, the consequences of ignorance are not trifling, they will impact in frightful ways.

One area of less impact is in fluoridation of water. While the science around fluoridation is very clear, certain city councils have chosen to either not fluoridate or to remove fluoridation. Seemingly in response, moves are underway to take the decision-making away from councils and place it with District Health Boards.

We need to better explain the science. If the side of truth is losing, it is a signal something is wrong.

I am concerned fluoridation is being taken away from democratic institutions. This isn't a triumph for science, it is a loss. If science is losing the debate, its exponents do themselves no favours by enforcing their will via what might be seen as sneaky means.


Instead we need to better explain the science. If the side of truth is losing, it is a signal something is wrong.

Many people who are anti-fluoridation aren't anti-science they are anti a system they don't trust. We do ourselves no favours by changing the rules of the game when we're losing.

And here we find the crux of the broader issue, that being less about the quality of science and more about the quality of scientific communication. Academics need to be more successful in communicating findings and data. When demonstrably false issues are being peddled there is a responsibility, nay, an absolute imperative, to fight back.

But fighting these reactive battles is not enough; scientists need to focus on broader public education outside of the classroom.

Take as an example "Nanogirl", Dr Michelle Dickinson. Dr Dickinson is without question one of our finest science communicators, especially to children, yet her efforts in these areas are not supported by a government funding model that rewards peer-reviewed publication but not public communication.

More than that, the desire to reach out to wide audiences is an anathema to many academics who have never been incentivised to and perhaps never seen the need to speak outside their circles. The need is now apparent.

Without question this is the challenge of our time. This is a call for the conscription of experts. At a time when science and truth are under attack, the trenches in the ivory towers need to be evacuated. Those who are prepared to charge forward must, those who are unwilling ought make way for those who are.