Can you trust science and scientists?; nanoparticle sludge is a good thing

The recent kerfuffle about scientists, climate change, and hacked emails  (see this story in the UK Guardian for more details) is oddly coincidental with a couple of articles I’ve read recently about trust, science, pr, and scientific claims.

Andrew Maynard (2020 Science) wrote Do scientists dncourage misleading coverage? to explore some of the issues around how scientists get media coverage for their work as he examines a specific incident.

The easiest, simplest way to get coverage for anything is to make a dramatic statement. e.g. First xxxx in history; Huge losses xxxx; xxx possibly fatal; etc. This can lead to overblown claims and/or a snarky, combative communications style. Maynard’s example features overblown claims about possible future applications of a very exciting development. The serious work was published in Nature Physics but someone at the university has written up a news release and produced a video that features the overblown claims as part of their science outreach. Some of this more dramatic material has been picked up and reproduced elsewhere for general consumption.

The reality is that any scientific endeavour occurs over a long period of time and there are many twists and turns before there is any relative certainty about the discovery and/or the implications for any applications that may arise from it.

In the case of climate change, there is strong evidence but as in any other scientific endeavour there are uncertainties. These uncertainties are integral to how science is practiced because our understanding is constantly being refined (theoretically anyway).

The campaign in the popular media to raise concern about climate change is often quite dramatic and has stripped away much of the uncertainty inherent to scientific data. The campaign has been quite successful but an opportunity was created when the evidence for climate change was presented as irrefutable. Opponents were able to capitalize on anomalies and the uncertainty that is inherent in the practice of science. Interestingly, the opponents are just as dramatic and insist their material is just as irrefutable. So, who do you trust? It’s a pretty basic issue and one that keeps recurring.

The point Maynard and Matthew Nisbett (Framing Science blog)  in his posting, Two articles on prediction and hype in science, is that in trying engage the public scientists need to be mindful. Giving in to the impulse to exaggerate or overstate a conclusion for a headline (I do sympathize with that impulse) will do more damage than good to the public’s trust.

Now for something completely different. As more products with nanoparticles enter the marketplace, there’s increasing concern about what happens to them as they are washed off from athletic gear, cleaning products, your body (after using beauty and cosmetic products) and more. According to a newly published paper, scientists may have found a way to remove nanoparticles  from wastewater.  From the news item on Nanowerk,

The new study, details of which are published in Environmental Science & Technology (“Fate of Silica Nanoparticles in Simulated Primary Wastewater Treatment”), simulated primary sewage treatment to show that coating silica nanoparticles with a detergent-like material (called a surfactant) made the nanoparticles interact with components of the sewage to form a solid sludge. This sludge can be separated from the wastewater and disposed of. In contrast, uncoated nanoparticles stayed dispersed in the wastewater and were therefore likely to continue through the effluent stream and potentially on into the environment.

Assuming that nanoparticles entering the environment in substantive quantities is not a good thing, I hope they find some way to deal with them and this research certainly seems promising.

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