How do you feel about scientists? Maybe you admire them, especially if they win a Nobel Prize or invent something that benefits all of humanity. But do you worship them? Do you ‘believe’ in them? Science isn’t about worship, it’s about respect, hard work and information. It’s about the facts. It’s a ‘fact’ that some of these men in white coats get put on a pedestal by the general public, but that’s not very ‘scientific’.
I was having a Twitter conversation with a local journalist recently. She said that she greatly admired a science writer in the Guardian newspaper, in London. She asserted that he was the ‘most trustworthy’ person she’d ever encountered. Well, okay, that’s an opinion, and I have little information against such a claim. However, she then went on to say she ‘believed’ in him. That’s not very scientific! (In fact it’s the precise opposite, and part of the reason that science developed so much in the eighteenth century in the first place.) Science isn’t about beliefs, it’s about research and verifiable theories. The problem with belief is that it’s open to test, and every experiment, every test, every experience, has the possibility of nullifying that belief. In this particular case, I happen to ‘believe’ that I have proof the writer in question is wrong about something he has put in his Guardian newspaper. How can I break it gently to my friend, the ‘believer’?
The issue we disagree on is peanuts. You know peanuts, they are a healthy, nutritious snack enjoyed by a huge number of the population. Unfortunately there are a few unlucky people who have an allergy to the food, and suffer grave consequences after eating them, up to and including anaphylactic shock and death. The problem is that the statistics don’t support that fact. I mean, let’s conduct an experiment: let’s take a thousand people and feed them a packet of peanuts.
What we would find is that nine hundred and ninety nine of them would be fine, enjoy the opportunity, and move on with their lives. The thousandth person would be writhing on the floor in agony, and would need emergency medical treatment. That, you might agree, is a fact. Unfortunately, it’s also a statistic, and, to put it simply, the statistic is that ninety nine point nine per cent of the sample are fine with peanuts, and we must therefore conclude that the food is perfectly safe, for everyone, at all times, in all countries of the world.
Crazy? No, that’s what our science writer on the Guardian has done. He’s looked at all the studies on mercury amalgam fillings in teeth. These show that the vast majority of people studied are fine with ‘silver’ fillings and have no medical complications. A few have, but these are a tiny few, a small, “insignificant” number. They might be writhing on the floor and need medical treatment but our science ‘expert’ is not concerned. The findings are, he boldly states, that mercury amalgam fillings are fine for everyone, at all times, in all countries of the world. What about those people who report adverse reactions? They are wrong, he says. They are mistaken. It can’t be their fillings that are making them ill. Well, tell the man with the peanut allergy he isn’t sick, then, (if you can get their attention).
Of course, reaction to peanuts is an allergy, and no one is suggesting that people are ‘allergic’ to mercury in fillings. No, but they could be more sensitive than the average. After all, there is no treatment, no medication, no chemical, in the world that is received in exactly the same way by every single member of the population. It isn’t logical to assert that silver fillings could be accepted by everyone in the same way. It’s entirely possible that there might be people who have an adverse reaction to such fillings, even if that number was nought point nought one of one per cent! That’s still a number. For those people who might have adverse reactions, it’s a tragedy. For science writers, apparently, it’s a small anomaly and can safely be ignored.
I see a picture. It’s from an old BBC science program, made in the 1970s by presenter James Burke. It was a re-enactment of an actual event, way back in the 1880s. This was after the telephone had been invented. An experimenter found that if he listened to a telephone headset, then moved a metal rod through a magnetic coil in his lab, he would get a click in his ear.
He showed it to his colleague. This man walked around the garden and was amazed to hear repeated clicks from the telephone earpiece, while his colleague jiggled with the coil. This was twenty years before Marconi. Now, we might appreciate that the scientists had discovered the first principles of radio, but since such a thing wasn’t known about at the time, the man in the garden kept saying that the whole thing was a ‘coincidence’. The telephone earpiece wasn’t connected, it was ‘wireless’, so there couldn’t be a connection between what his friend was doing and what he was hearing, could there?
My point is that it is a mistake to put our faith in scientists. By all means trust science, and appreciate that things move on, grow and develop. Newton was partly right, but his work was extended by Einstein. The theories are good and we learned a lot. The people, as we have seen, were fallible. To trust one person in science, or even to ‘believe’ in them, is to court the possibility of disappointment. The history of science is a succession of great strides and marvelous developments; it’s also a history of setbacks and failures. People do that, people fail, but the method is good and will take us forward. Believe in science, but don’t, please, believe in the infallibility of one man, however credible they seem.