Response to Occam’s Corner: Questioning Science
Today, I read a blog post that was hosted by the UK newspaper, The Guardian. The blog is in the science section and called Occam’s Corner. The post was titled Science: the religion that must not be questioned. I need to note that there are several authors posting on this blog, so take this as specific commentary, not general.
It’s always tricky to talk about another blog post. Was this article intended to be sarcasm? In which case Poe’s Law comes into play. Was there some bit that I was misinterpreting. In the end, I have only my impression to go on. (Which may provide an answer to a question I asked previously.)
My impression is that the author is deliberately trolling for blog hits. The reason I think this is that I honestly cannot imagine anyone who is familiar with science at anything more than a casual level thinking that the title of this post is appropriate… or even accurate.
Every scientist and science proponent that I’ve talked to knows and has stated that science is tentative. Everything is questionable. That’s part of the point behind anonymous peer-review, so that scientists can be free to question other scientists without fear of reprisal or bias getting in the way.
That’s part of the problem with the public perception of science (which the author of Occam’s Corner post rightly acknowledges). Science is tentative. Idiocy is very, very confident. And people want confidence. They don’t want to hear, “This new medicine has a 90% chance of curing 90% of the people who take it.”. They want to hear “do this and you will be cured”. It’s why con artists and charlatans can make so much money selling bottles of water as cure-alls. They are confident.
Then we start to get into an area where I have issues with the author.
The problem is that we (not the royal we, but the great unwashed lay public who won’t know the difference between an eppendorf tube and an entrenching tool) are told, very often, and by people who ought to know better, that science is a one-way street of ever-advancing progress, a zero-sum game in which facts are accumulated and ignorance dispelled.
Who is telling the “great unwashed lay public” this? It’s not the scientists.
None of this gets through to the news pages. When pitching a science story to a news editor, a science correspondent soon learns that the answer that gets airtime is either “yes”, or “no”.
Oh, so it’s journalists who are doing a disservice here. I think everyone knows that controversy and confidence sell. Anyone who has a blog can show this. One can write a hundred excellent pieces about various subjects, but which post gets the hits? The controversial one, the antagonistic one, the one written with confidence that “This is Truth”.
I think it’s human nature to be antagonistic… or maybe it’s just me.
The author then talks about how the great scientists of the 40s and 50s.
I think it goes back to the mid-20th century, especially just after the second world war, when scientists – they were called “boffins” – gave us such miracles as radar, penicillin and plastics; jet propulsion, teflon, mass vaccination and transistors; the structure of DNA, lava lamps and the eye-level grill. They cracked the Enigma, and the atom. They were the original rocket scientists, people vouchsafed proverbially inaccessible knowledge. They were wizards, men like gods, who either had more than the regular human complement of leetle grey cells, or access to occult arcana denied to ordinary mortals. They were priests in vestments of white coats, tortoiseshell specs and pocket protectors. We didn’t criticise them. We didn’t engage with them – we bowed down before them.
Seriously? The author spends the first part of the article telling us about how tentative science is. How statistical analysis is about probabilities not “Truth”, then we get this.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell if the author is offering this for historical truth or an example of the how scientists are treated or what. None of the things the author mentions here popped out of the mind of a scientist fully formed and ready for production. Everything was a long development process, scattered with a few people who had genuinely unique insights into that subject.
The Nazi encryption systems were cracked as much by spies as by computers. Until a spy got the keys, mathematicians couldn’t figure out the rotor system. One naval version was cracked when the Allies captured codebooks. Radar was initially discovered in the late 1800s, not during WWII. It was researched for 30 years before being used to accurately detect ships and aircraft. I could on and on.
If the author is offering this for truth or historical accuracy, then he’s making the same mistake he’s complaining about. Instead of presenting the actual decades of research and false starts and complete failures, he’s presenting them as popping into existence from the minds of scientists fully formed and ready.
Of course, if he’s presenting this as an example of how scientists are treated, then he’s developing a strawman argument. I wonder if the author has read the history of Leo Szilard or Enrico Fermi. Or the discussions, which creationists promote, when Darwin introduced his ideas that eventually led to evolution.
The author continues
How our faith was betrayed! (This is the great unwashed “we” again.) It wasn’t long before we realised that science gave us pollution, radiation, agent orange and birth defects. And when we looked closely, “we” (oh, I give up) found that the scientists were not dispensing truths, but – gasp – arguing among themselves about the most fundamental aspects of science. They weren’t priests after all, but frauds, fleecing us at some horrifically expensive bunco booth, while all the time covering up the fact that they couldn’t even agree among themselves about the science they were peddling us like so much snake oil. And if they couldn’t agree among themselves, why should good honest folks like you and me give them any credence?
Our faith? First, we shouldn’t have “faith” in science. And this is obviously a major problem in the educational system of the world. Nothing in science should ever be accepted on faith.
And, does the author honestly want to blame scientists for pollution and radiation? These things never existed before science found them?
The author then talks about how other parties (the anti-vaxxers, the creationists, the homeopaths) adopted the trappings of science. Those sciency sounding people, with the confidence of their beliefs (in spite of evidence), have moved into the limelight and made a name for their crazy beliefs.
They are the cowbirds of science, using the work, the effort, and the reputation of science to peddle their own crap for money or power.
And all this because scientists weren’t honest enough, or quick enough, to say that science wasn’t about Truth, handed down on tablets of stone from above, and even then, only to the elect; but Doubt, which anyone (even girls) could grasp, provided they had a modicum of wit and concentration. It wasn’t about discoveries written in imperishable crystal, but about argument, debate, trial, and – very often – error.
Not that you’d see any of this in the above-mentioned public prints, which continue to display a disarmingly schizoid attitude to science.
Again, this sounds wrong to me. All the scientists I know of or have even read about, have talked about their mistakes, their errors, and their problems. But the problem here isn’t the scientists.
As the author mentioned a few paragraphs up, the journalists wouldn’t have printed it that way. So, who is to blame here, the scientists for not lying or the journalists who do?
Should the scientists lie and say, “We are 100% confident.” Of course not. Perhaps, journalists should print the truth. And here I’m referring to general journalists. There are any number of casual science publications (science news, science daily, scitech daily) that present good quality science journalism. However, these are not publications that most people read. And that’s part of the problem too.
I believe there might have been a time when science journalists would engage with scientists, picking holes in their ideas directly, as if throwing traders out of the temple. I yearn for scientific versions of political journalists of the calibre of Jeremy Paxman, James Naughtie or John Humphreys who could take on scientists on their own terms, rather than letting them drop their pearls of wisdom and wander off unchallenged. For that kind of journalism, TV is more or less a desert, though the blogosphere is better. There are more hopeful signs on radio, with the likes of my former Nature colleague Adam Rutherford, who gave Andrew Wakefield – you know, the MMR-and-autism guy – a thorough working over on the Home Service a while back. But, you might argue, Wakefield is too easy a target. And yet, as science journalists such as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre have discovered, even those apparently easy targets whose scientific credentials are challenged resort very easily to legislation in the way that politicians never would.
I too yearn for good science journalism. Of course, I yearn for journalism. That old day when reporters actually looked for truth instead of thinking that it’s not their job to point out lies.
Why is this? The answer, I think, is that those who are scientists, or who pretend to be scientists, cling to the mantle of a kind of religious authority. And as anyone who has tried to comment on religion has discovered, there is no such thing as criticism. There is only blasphemy.
I totally and completely disagree and I think that this conclusion isn’t even justified by the statements in the post. Twice the author directly points out how journalism treats science and scientists. He also spends two paragraphs talking about how science really is tentative and about probabilities and how new data can change previous knowledge.
Then the author says that the public perception of scientists is because scientists think that they are the high priests of science and they are right and there can be no criticism or question. I need to point something out here. Scientists, those who practice science, are people with biases, antagonism, a drive to win, and all those other human foibles. Science is a process of gaining knowledge about the world. The only way to gain correct knowledge is to question.
To repeat, I cannot understand what the author’s intention with this article is. If he’s being a troll, then he did a pretty good job of it. If he’s serious, then I’m not sure what to say. I think he’s made some mistakes in his conclusion. And I think that articles like this are part of the problem. Misrepresentations of science and scientists are rampant in the public sphere. But if journalists, the ones that people routinely read, are those doing the misrepresenting, then how are scientists to defend themselves?