Henry Gee (a Senior Editor at Nature) has written in today’s Guardian on the awkward public status of science, stemming from an ongoing but worsening failure of the general public, the media and the political classes to understand how science really works. Jumbo jets, damp-proofing, the arch, plastic, moon landings and nuclear power – not to mention countless other modern achievements and taken-for-granted features of everyday life – owe their utility, reliability, ubiquity or even existence to science, in one form or another. As a result, we see the pronouncements of science in terms of absolute certainty, unquestionable fact, or “Truth”.
Yet as Gee points out, science is about probability:
Scientific research gets trapped in more box canyons than the Lone Ranger; does more U-turns than the average government; falls to certain death more often than Wile E Coyote; has more women in it than you might at first imagine (though probably not nearly enough); and generally gets the wrong answer… As my learned colleague Dr Sylvia McLain, who is both a scientist and a person of the opposite sex, explained here just the other day, this is business as usual. All scientific results are in their nature provisional – they can be nothing else. Someone will come along, either the next day or the next decade, with further refinements, new methods, more nuanced ways of looking at old problems, and, quelle surprise, find that conclusions based on earlier results were simplistic, rough-hewn – even wrong.
Gee blames an increasingly scientifically illiterate media, opportunistic politicians and naive scientists for misleading (usually inadvertently, sometimes intentionally) an increasingly scientifically uneducated public about the nature of science. It is not a domain of linear, inexorable progress and eternal truths, but the average layperson is profoundly uncomfortable with words like “probably”, “likely” and “possibly”. We don’t like debate, doubt and disagreement between “experts”. And by some unfortunate evolution of semantics, the word “theory” – a most honourable term in the world of science, signifying an hypothesis which has been well tested and stands up to scrutiny – has come in popular usage to mean an insubstantial idea with little evidence behind it.
And if they couldn’t agree among themselves, why should good honest folks like you and me give them any credence?… Witness the rise of creationists, alien-abductees and homeopaths; the anti-vaxers and the climate-change deniers; those convinced that Aids was a colonial plot, and those who would never be convinced that living under power lines didn’t necessarily give you cancer; ill-informed crystal-gazers of every stripe, who, while at the same time as denouncing science as fraudulent, tried to ape it with scientific-sounding charlatanry of their own… If the once-inaccessible scientists had been defrocked, why couldn’t just anyone borrow their robes? Announce that camel turds are the latest miracle super-food; put on a white coat and mumble impressive nonsense about zero-point energy, omega fatty acids and the mystery third strand of DNA; and you’re in business, ready to exploit fool after fool at a bunco booth of your own making… 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.