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Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Follow the science -- up to a point


There is a big push at the moment by senior scientists like Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Patrick Vallance for science to be taken seriously, and for politicians to "follow the science."  It's all over the media.......

The presidents of the Royal Society (who tend to be eminent scientists) say the same thing, all the time.  To a point, I can see where they are coming from.  They feel undervalued, and wish that politicians would pay more attention to them.  But as I have said frequently on this blog, there is no such thing as "the science".  There is good science and there is bad science.  Sometimes there is some sort of consensus, but heaven help those who pretend that the "consensus" tells us what the truth may be.  Scientists are no better than anybody else at being objective, and eliminating bias from their work and their recommendations.  I spend a lot of time on this blog attacking the unscientific approach of the archaeologists, who seem to be preoccupied with ignoring evidence and proving the correctness of their ruling hypotheses. The more untestable their hypotheses are, the better they seem to like them, and the idea of actually seeking to falsify their hypotheses  seems to them to be more than a little ludicrous.  Karl Popper must be turning in his grave as he looks up (or down?) at the attempts to validate the myth of human bluestone transport / bluestone quarrying / lost circle construction and dismantling.  So yes, a plea to archaeologists to "follow the science" sounds like a good idea.......

But I have been just as critical, over the years, about pseudo-science and science that is inadequate in that interpretations and conclusions do not adequately relate to, or explain, the hard facts or the evidence on the ground.  I have spent a good deal of my time criticising Ixer and Bevins for "over-interpreting" their findings or demonstrating bias in their fieldwork or in their presentations of evidence. The "inconvenient" evidence that you may choose not to present may actually be far more important than the convenient evidence that you do include in your text.  But Dr I and Dr B are not the only ones that have deserved careful scrutiny.   I have had many jolly spats on this blog -- and in learned journals -- with fellow geomorphologists over such matters as sarsen stones, ice limits in the Scilly Isles, glacial deposits on Caldey Island and so forth.  

Back to Sir Paul Nurse.  He gave a recorded "essay" a few years ago on the influence of the philosopher Karl Popper on his own work:

This is very interesting listening, and he is a very senior and much respected scientist, but he has his biases and his conflicts of interest just like everybody else.  The other day, in a newspaper article, he went on about "those who are anti--science and deny its findings", maintaining the absurd pretence that there is such a thing as THE science which has findings that are by definition correct.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  You do not become ant-science if you deny or question some of the science coming from some of the scientists -- and indeed this is exactly what Popper proposes as the fundamantal principle of sound science.  Nurse can't be sceptical about scientific findings in theory, when on the radio, and then slag off those who are being sceptical in the real world, when faced with scientific "findings" that may or may not be reliable.........

In the newspaper article, Nurse quotes, as another example of those who are anti-science, "those who attack gene editing as being unsafe - despite it being a highly precise way to improve agricultural crops. These people tend to cherry-pick data, are inattentive to reproducibility, lack scepticism about their own ideas, and are often discourteous and strident in their opinions."  That's hilarious and rather pathetic.  Nurse should know that gene editing is not "highly precise" and has been deemed by the European Court of Justice as "genetic modification" -- sharing the same risks and uncertainties.  GE does not "improve agricultural crops" -- it may, in the future, if it is allowed, change crops, but will it improve them?  How do you define "improvement" anyway?  And the sins that he lays at the door of the "anti-science" opponents of GE are exactly the same sins that can be laid at the door of the labs and the research groups whose interests he is so blatantly promoting.

Pots and kettles.  OK -- follow the science, or some of the science, some of the time.  And above all else, SCRUTINIZE the science, and if it is dodgy, just don't accept it.  You have Karl Popper on your side.


Karl Popper:  Conjectures and Refutations.  See this:

McLeod, S. A. (2020, May 01). Karl Popper - theory of falsification. Simply Psychology. 

1 comment:

Tony Hinchliffe said...

My copy of Radio Times tells me that today is Radio 4's Day of the Scientist. This morning I missed hearing Jim Al - Khalili chairing The Life Scientific at Ten [years old]. This evening I'm recording at 8 p.m. The Patrick Vallance Interview. He says he hopes to put science and technology at the heart of Government policy making. It's repeated Sunday at 5 p.m. (40 minutes long)