Sunday, 15 December 2013

Scientists are humans too

There is a theme running through a lot of the contrarian strands: scientists should do science. Since I have spent a good deal of this year, and many of the previous ones as well, defending science from those ignorant of it, I must stand up and say something here. 

The argument goes something like this. Scientists make comments about policy or society that are outside of their job description. Therefore scientists should only do science and not make any pronouncements on things as vile and sullied as policy and how their discoveries might be of benefit to humankind in general.

In other words, leave policy to the policy makers.

I'm not convinced, for several reasons.

 1. Scientists are part of the wider society themselves. In some ways they have a bigger appreciation of the impacts of their discoveries than the policy makers. There is reason to believe the IPCC have not been as "scaremongering" over the impacts of climate change as they might have been.

 2. Scientists are human. They want what is best for themselves, their families and humanity in general. They are not stupid, which might be why few of them end up in politics. Why should scientists be excluded from trying the make things better for their families?

 3. Much of science is done with a positive outcome for society in mind. It is in lots of grant application forms in one way or another. Both industry and government want some return on their investment. It's only to be expected, so it is only to be expected that one scientist or another in the team will have to justify the money spent. Tax payers seem to bulk at huge, blue sky projects. They want to see their tax money spent wisely.

 4. It would be totally wrong of scientists to remain silent about some discoveries. Richard Doll could have kept his mouth shut about the link between smoking and lung cancer but he didn't and rightly so. Let's assume a scientist makes a discovery about, for example, a commonly taken over the counter medicine, that is is causing birth defects or something similar. Would it be right for them not to mention anything? To publish their results and not mention the implications? Of course not. The backlash were they to remain silent would be worse than going public.

The reasons for asking scientists to keep out of the policy field seem obvious to me. It is about keeping them in their place. Science deniers don't like the power that scientists have, the power to uncover something new that adds to our understanding of the universe. They also have a power most of us don't have. They can truly make a difference, not for a day or two but potentially for all time. Alexander Fleming did precisely that, Edward Jenner too. A few words on a blog or in a newspaper column, they might bring a smile or a frown but they don't do much to change the world.

This year I've spent much of my precious spare time in the company of scientific illiterates. I've hung out at websites that make my blood boil because of their ignorance and their willingness to misrepresent the science, yet pretend they are still doing science. If people deny science, why do they wear its clothes?

Because science does have power. It has the power to find what it right from what is wrong. Science deniers would like to make up their own universe. Having heard and read the words of such luminaries as Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake, William Tiller and Lynne McTaggart, I did not realise how far removed from reality some alternative thinking actually is, yet it desperately clings to science as a crutch. But only if those scientists are kept in their kennels and not allowed to bark. And especially if those scientists bark that the deniers have got it wrong. Careful because they might proclaim free speech but they don't mean it. Expect to be censored or even deleted.

The longer I have spent reading the words of science deniers (I began years ago with UFO, PSI and other crank claims), the more I have come to realise that the denier wants another truth. They go looking for another truth. And they don't accept alternative explanations or contradictory evidence. But as that builds up, it becomes harder and harder to deny (although clearly not impossible) so other arguments must emerge to keep the denial flame flickering. One of those is the argument that scientists should do science and nothing but. So I guess economists should stick to economics and not venture into the policy field then. And historians should just write history books and not tell us the lessons they learn from studying all those documents.

What rubbish! Scientists, as much as anyone else, should be encouraged to see where their research has a wider benefit to society. Why on Earth not? It would ground some scientists if they had to think about what their research actually means, not just to themselves but to the wider world.

But we should remember that a lot of what looked like pure research many years ago is now part of applied research. Someone is always on the look out for something they MIT be able to apply and make a profit from. Just look at the exploitation of electromagnetic waves, radioactivity from the last century, to quantum computing now. It doesn't take many brains to see that both pure and applied research is important. I doubt we will ever see an application of black holes or the Higgs boson, but you can never quite rule it out. Remember that the greenhouse properties of carbon dioxide were discovered as part of pure research - that bit of science is long since settled. The implications of that discovery might be argued about, but it is hard to see how they are arguable. Some would like the scientists who study it to keep quiet about what it all might mean.

I finish on an optimistic note. Here is a list of all the UK MPs who have worked as scientists:
Julian Hupper (Cambridge).

Perhaps I am wrong to be optimistic.


  1. Paragraph breaks, please!

    1. Sorry, fixed. My iPad gives me headaches when I try to write a post on it. Thanks for alerting me.

  2. Great post. I completely agree with you and have been somewhat perplexed by the idea that scientists should remain mute. I really think it's absurd. I also completely agree with your point about pure research. A British mathematician from mid last century, G.H.Hardy, is an excellent example of the importance of pure research. He described his own area of research - number theory - as completely useless but 50 or so years later it forms the basis of cryptography on which all of e-commerce depends. Without G.H.Hardy's contribution to the field, we'd have no internet shopping today.

    I also just want to point out that in your list of blog links to the right, the wottsupwiththatblog has changed name and address to But it's the same blog and the same author.

  3. Great post. Completely agree.

    This year I've spent much of my precious spare time in the company of scientific illiterates. I've hung out at websites that make my blood boil because of their ignorance and their willingness to misrepresent the science, yet pretend they are still doing science. If people deny science, why do they wear its clothes?

    Sounds like you and I have had pretty much the same type of year. I've actually, at times, had to recognise that I'm sometimes getting frustrated with others (family and friends) because I'm pretty wound up after a discussion with someone online. It takes quite a while for the blood to cool sometimes.

  4. Thanks for the supportive comments. I've updated my blog list thing to add Just hadn't got round to it.

    I am more and more convinced that there are a whole bunch of science contrarians who know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. They aren't seeking the truth, they are selling something. It doesn't have to be a material good, it can be something of a lifestyle or spiritual ideal. But there are still plenty of gullible people out there.

    The most angry I got was when I read a controversial UK health magazine telling me vitamin C can cure cancer and then read the editor telling people that she never said that at all. Difficult to know which is worse, to make a false claim the first time or compound it by being economical with the truth about it.