News - January 16, 2020

‘Avoid public debate’

Tessa Louwerens

In a debate, it is not necessarily the person with the strongest facts and arguments who wins, concludes PhD candidate Bregje van der Bolt. It’s all about persuasiveness, but what if that is not your strongest point as a scientist? That question led her to her proposition: scientists should not participate in public debate.

PhD candidates have to include some propositions with their thesis. In this section, they explain their most provocative proposition. This time it’s Bregje van der Bolt, who received her doctorate on 9 January for her research on the effect of climate change on the predictability of tipping points — see for an article about this.

‘Scientists like to participate in debates in order to discuss topics such as climatic change or evolution where a consensus has been reached in the scientific community but where the general public doesn’t always seem that well informed. But it’s often precisely these politically or religiously charged topics where you wonder whether a debate is the best way to convince people. Research shows it’s not. By entering into a debate you actually create a platform for sceptics. Scientists are often specialized and prefer not to take a stand on topics outside their area of expertise. But that is precisely what opponents in a debate often have no trouble with.

By entering into a debate you actually create a platform for sceptics

I myself do research into climate change and we were warned about this during media training. Young scientists with relatively little experience in particular must think carefully before getting involved in a debate, because they will face a huge army of trolls.

Even so, scientists are still important for debates, not necessarily by getting involved directly, but rather because they explain how to assess information or distinguish good arguments from fallacies. Many people have trouble with that. I think you can start working on that in secondary school, by paying attention in every subject to where you get your information from.’