The Last Word: Dr Katherine Woodthorpe AO FAICD

Wednesday, 29 November 2017


    People need to sort real facts from mere opinions, argues the scientist, innovator and startup community chair.

    I have a real concern about the increasing substitution of facts and evidence with opinion. As a scientist, you are trained to work through what you think a situation is and what you need to know to demonstrate it. Then you gather the evidence and make decisions based on that.

    People really question science, choosing what they want to believe. They’re prepared to take paracetamol, because doctors have put it through a rigorous amount of testing. Yet when it comes to, say, vaccinations, they’ll pick and choose.

    We forget how many lives have been saved through science. My generation was the first to get polio vaccines — I remember the people who were crippled with the disease. And let’s not forget that the world has been rid of smallpox. Thank you, science and thank you, vaccinations.

    You can’t pick and choose science; it just is. Of course, science evolves as more experiments are carried out and our knowledge grows.

    The opinion vs fact dilemma

    The opinion-versus-facts dilemma is writ large in the issue of climate change. The scientific community has to overcome a few noisy deniers who crowd out the voices of the rest. Scientists and boards know that climate risk will impact their business soon and they are already working on strategies.

    I think it’s part of the bigger malaise of facts and opinions, with opinions outweighing facts.

    How do we tackle this problem? Scientists are more aware than ever that they have to get out and explain what they do to the outside world.

    We need to start early. I read about a school program that teaches philosophy and ethics. Students learn how to think critically in a solution-focused way and are taught to explore issues through reasoned argument.

    The younger we teach people to think critically, the more they will question information that isn’t supported by fact and evidence.

    I’m listening to... the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage podcast. It has the wonderful mixture of hard science and humour that only the British can do.

    I’m reading… Ancillary Justice, a science-fiction novel by Ann Leckie. There are clever ideas and concepts in there.

    My favourite gadget is... my Sonos sound bar, which I drive off the iPad. The only issue is that my son will sneak in to hijack it and switch it over to his music without being in the room.

    I’m excited about… startup community Fishburners moving to the Sydney CBD. We’ll have twice the numbers and, integrated with other hubs, more opportunities.

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