There’s a scene in the Netflix series Space Force when Chief Scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory asks, “why do you distrust scientists?” To which General Naird angrily replies, “you scientists say don’t eat carbs one day and only eat carbs the next”. One of the scientists in the room interjects, saying, “because of the sample sizes and long time period, day-to-day science is by nature an imprecise…” Naird cuts in with a frustrated, “shut up, shut up…”
I’ve heard the criticism that science is fickle all too often and you’d certainly get that impression if your sole source of science news was from the daily press. The two philosophies, that of the press and that of science are diametrically opposite. The general press want the sensational, here and now, while science is considered and unhurried. That’s not to say science isn’t competitive and there’s often a rush to publish, but one paper very rarely initiates a scientific consensus. Science works from accumulated information over time and a consensus will only form once there’s a body of consilient evidence all pointing in the same direction. The general press however, are all too happy to pick out a single publication and present it as an uncritical headline.
One of the best examples of science through press release remains how Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced cold fusion in 1989. Amidst a media storm, scientists across the globe tried to reproduce their results based on scant information and even committed the same sin of announcing positive data through their own press releases. It all ended badly, when those claiming to confirm cold fusion found artefacts in their measurements and there was a rush, not to publish, but to retract.
Publishing a single peer reviewed paper will not convince scientists of its truth, as evidenced by Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 press briefing and subsequent paper in the Lancet, that there’s a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This incident did unquestionable harm to medical science’s reputation and the slow retraction and enquiry did nothing to help. Nevertheless, science moved along in the meantime, albeit with its own snail-like pace, with many studies finding no evidence of any MMR and autism link. The Daily Mail however, was still publishing MMR anecdote in 2003 while ignoring the growing body of scientific studies. Wakefield was eventually struck off by the General Medical Council in 2010.
The cold fusion and MMR cases illustrates all too well the difference between scientists, who are human, fallible and sometimes dishonest, and the objective scientific method. I’ve heard the Wakefield case, and other similar instances, given as reasons why we should distrust scientific opinion. I’ve even heard the argument they are reasons to distrust scientific opinion on anthropogenic climate change. This is a false equivalence, of course, because unlike Wakefield, consilient evidence for climate change has been building since the first paper linking carbon dioxide to temperature back in 1896 (1) and it’s no longer an opinion but as close to scientific fact as you can get.
Having said all that, we are living in unusual times, with a viral pandemic taking many thousands of lives. We have suspended the process of scientific consensus at times, with announcements as pre-prints or press releases ahead of peer-reviewed publications, and even retractions after the event. Although our government mantra has been, “we’re following the science,” what they really mean is they are following scientific advice and although the advice comes from of the best in their field, it’s not the same thing as following the science. This might seem pedantic, and a moot point of philosophy, but it really isn’t. Complaints from the scientific community are numerous that the advice, and basis for that advice, is not transparent and unavailable for wider review. The extreme urgency of the situation undoubtedly pushes aside the usual scientific conservatism, which is of course understandable and sometimes on the spot decisions are necessary, without time to weigh up all expert feedback. But they do this at peril, “because of the sample sizes and long time period, day to day science is by nature an imprecise…” and the public interrupts, “shut up, shut up..”
(1) Svante, A. 1886. “On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature on the ground.” Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science.