‘Don’t focus on what is not possible, but focus on what is possible’ – Belgium

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Marjan Doom, the director of the new Ghent University Museum, is concerned about the growing mistrust in scientists. Politicians and the general public must better understand how scientists work and give them space and time to work, for example on the development of a corona vaccine. “It’s strange that we’re suspicious when the solution doesn’t come quickly enough,” says Doom.

The director of the new science museum considers it important that experts are given the opportunity to communicate in a nuanced and reserved manner, especially during the corona crisis. ‘Science works by questioning things and challenging each other’s findings. By entering into discussion and finding data, ‘says Doom. ‘These are processes that take time. That require investments in energy, space and money. There will be no quick solution. ‘

The lack of simple answers or quick solutions creates unjustified suspicion in many people. “It is strange that we are suspicious if the solution does not come quickly enough,” says Doom. Or when it is clear that the solution is difficult. On the contrary, I am suspicious of things that come very easily or seem very straightforward. ‘

The coronavirus outbreak is putting unprecedented pressure on scientists. This is reflected, for example, in the dissatisfaction of infectiologist Erika Vlieghe about the attitude of certain politicians or the legal proceedings against virologist Marc Van Ranst. “It scares me,” says Doom. “It is a kind of division of powers,” she says. ‘Science is not the policy-making body. It should provide advice to policymakers. ‘

‘Those policymakers must also be transparent afterwards about how they deal with that advice,’ says Doom. ‘As a scientist you can put all the cards on the table,’ she explains. ‘If that policymaker then draws a card from it and is not transparent about why he is drawing that one card, but does communicate that something is happening on the basis of advice?’ ‘That’s wrong. I find it frightening that that is possible. ‘

According to Doom, the political pressure and the demand for certainties create a field of tension with the essence of scientific thinking. “As scientists, we are trained from the start to deal with doubts and uncertainties,” says Doom. “If they are then forced to defend certain choices that they actually did not make, then we are very wrong.”

Doom hopes that in the future people will think more often about how science works. “Scientists can be absolutely wrong,” says Doom. ‘That is why it is important to speak with nuance.’ People, in turn, need to understand that doubt is not a signal of impotence but “an essential part of how scientists work.” Moreover, knowledge and insight are also constantly evolving.

‘The fact that this creates distrust in science worries me,’ says Doom. ‘Perhaps we have tried to communicate science for too long on the basis of the results that were already there and we have also communicated the results as truths for too long.’ The director cites the continental drift as an example, the theory that our contemporary continents used to form a whole but have been shattered over a period of 250 million years.

‘That dates back to the 1950s. Atlases that were used for pupils in the 1950s, and also a long time later, do not contain that theory at all, ‘it sounds. So for those students, the crust of the earth was still neatly motionless on the globe. So you can never tell pupils or students: this is how it is and that will certainly never change. There can always be new findings. By new techniques or for whatever reason, which means that we have to put something aside altogether. ‘

Doom hopes that visitors to the new Ghent University Museum, which opens on Saturday, will learn more about science methodology. ‘We do that by not focusing on what results science has produced over the centuries. But how the method works. We walk through the process step by step and go along in the mind of a scientist. ‘

In the new Ghent University Museum, a selection of 800 objects will be exhibited from the collection of Ghent University, which has over 400,000 pieces.



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