Simon says…

by endlesspsych

by Keir Liddle

It would be fair to say that Simon Jenkins has some interesting views about science. His latest article “Scientists, you are fallible. Get off the pedestal and join the common herd” is the latest in a series of articles where science comes under the scrutiny of Simon other highlights including: “Swine flu was as elusive as WMD. The real threat is mad scientist syndrome” and “Scientist v statesman: who can call the battle of the bicentennial men?”.

The title of the last article may not seem that objectionable but have a glance at the following quote taken from it:

Science may nowadays enjoy the status of medieval religion.

This one quote seems to sum up Simon’s view fairly well and possibly illustrates why he would so fundamentally misunderstand the reasoning and rationale behind the scientific method that he would think writing something titled: “Scientists, you are fallible. Get off the pedestal and join the common herd” – is somehow valid.

The article opens with the following quote:

So scientists are human after all. They are no different from bankers, politicians, lawyers, estate agents and perhaps even journalists. They cheat. They make mistakes. They suppress truth and suggest falsity, especially when a cheque or a plane ticket is on offer. As for self-criticism, that is for you, not me.

The first sentence isn’t technically wrong: scientists are human and they are subject to the same biases, whims, desires and what-have-you that affect everyone else. A degree in science and a career in research is not a gateway to a life of pure Vulcan-like rationality and blissful logic. Simon is therefore quite correct when he states, and I paraphrase, “Scientists are people too”.  However there is something that sets them apart from bankers, politicians, lawyers, estate agents and perhaps even journalists and that thing is – quite simply Simon – the scientific method.

The scientific method exists as a means of advancing human knowledge and understanding of the Universe (from the most mundane small thing to the very origins of time and space) without falling prey to the biases and whims that beset us as human beings. The scientific method demands hypotheses that can be falsified and evidence to support or refute these hypotheses. The scientific method has been developed and refined with the knowledge of the biases and heuristics that can cloud human judgement and is intended to overcome these.

The central premise of Jenkins article that scientists are fallible is therefore moot. The logic of the scientific method is more than robust enough to cope with the personal biases and egotism of individual scientists. Indeed the motto of the Royal Society is “nullius in verba” – Latin for “take no ones word for it”.

Jenkins article focuses its ire on science and scientists via the well worn battlefields of climate change and AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) with claims that scientists are making unfounded claims with no evidence to back them up (or using dubious evidence) and with no central authority to lend credence to these assertions.

Firstly Jenkins seems to mistake the WWF, a lobbying group, with a scientific organisation and uses this as a stick with which to beat science… the only problem being that it’s not really science/scientists faults if lobbyists dress up their political agendas in scientific language.

If it was, then by the same token we would have to blame modern medicine and pharmacology for pseudosciences like homeopathy abusing scientific terms!

The following quote is highly revealing:

If global warming is as catastrophic as its champions in the science community claim – and as expensive to rectify – its evidence must surely be cross-tested over and again. Yet it has been left to freelancers and wild-cat bloggers to challenge the apparently rickety temperature sequences on which warming alarmism has been built.

This gives me the impression that Jenkins’ views on science and scientists are not really based on an understanding of science and scientists but rather on a flawed narrative of science and scientists common to the media (we’ve seen it before in the Daily Mail’s infamous “Arrogant Gods of certainty” article). The idea that scientists believe they are right and should not be questioned is anathema to the process scientists follow and how science progresses and the use of certainty is also flawed.

Science is, to my mind, a modelling exercise and one that will take us closer and closer to the truth but as necessitated by it’s philosophy and logic it’s stock and trade is not in set in stone and concrete truths. For science to remain valid it can’t adopt dogma and demand that it has discovered the truth – which is why we would have to reject the theory of evolution if we found rabbits in the pre-cambrian.

There are those who seem want to understand and treat science as a branch of rhetoric and the conclusions of scientists as a product of a certain worldview on a par with someone’s opinion.  Jenkins, in his denial of the unanimity of the scientific consensus on climate change, appears to embrace (at least on some weak level) this quasi-relativist streak – particularly as he believes under-qualified “freelance and wild-cat” bloggers are unravelling this consensus.

Now, my use of “under qualified” may make science appear elitist and I make no apology for that: the method is easy to understand and grasp but science at the cutting edge? Not so much. As science advances it becomes more and more specialised and more and more specialised knowledge is required to understand it. There is a gap growing between the layman’s understanding and grasp of science and the experts that may arguably be a chasm that’s beyond Horizon and BBC4 repairing.

The point of highlighting this gap isn’t to say to people that they shouldn’t criticise science but that they should consider their own abilities and level of understanding when they do so.

In general, experts are experts for a reason.

I will leave you with an appropriate quote which has been attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.

Keir Liddle writes for “…and your electron microscope”.