Bishop Hill has an audio clip of Professor Steve Jones talking about impartiality in science:
SJ: BBC news is driven by the notion of impartiality. And I think that’s very, very important. It tries to give both sides of the argument. If they have a Tory hyena, they have to have a Labour hyena to match. I think that’s just fine, but actually the difficulty is if you apply that to science it doesn’t always work. If you interview somebody – a top mathematician – who’s just proved that two and two is four, BBC’s tendency is then to turn a spokeperson for the duodecimal liberation front who believes that two and two is five. And that drives many scientists round the bend. It particularly drives them round the bend on things like climate change. Now it is the case that within science there is a general consensus that the climate is changing. But again repeatedly you have a rather tongue-tied scientist explaining the latest piece of data, and then you have a person – who’s not a scientist – who is making confident statements in opposition, and they’re given equal weight. And that’s what I refer to as “false balance”.
X: You can’t just have the scientist saying this is the data, this is… I know best. You can’t have 99 scientists saying that the climate is changing and one saying it isn’t in the studio. But is it right not to have a voice on the other side at all?
SJ: I think it’s actually very advantageous to have the one scientist against the 99. Pick one of the 99 and the lone maverick, and talk about the science. But having somebody who has a political and social agenda is not the same.
As I read it, Steve Jones is saying that only ‘scientists’ should be listened to. He doesn’t mind debates in which one ‘scientist’ is pitted against another ‘scientist’. He doesn’t like it when an inarticulate ‘scientist’ is pitted against an articulate layman, particularly one with some sort of agenda. He seems to see ‘scientists’ as a separate, higher caste.
But who are these ‘scientists’? How does one become a ‘scientist’, and get elevated into the ranks of this august social group?
I suppose that in practice, it’s by passing examinations and getting a degree or a doctorate, and working in a university or research organisation. And in the process you will have learnt most of the existing science, and as a scientific researcher you will be trying to extend the science further. You become a recognised ‘scientist’, and you may well be a member of one or two scientific associations, and subscribe to a few scientific journals. And to top it all, you might also wear a white lab coat with a row of biros in the breast pocket, and a thick pair of spectacles.
I think that’s roughly what most people think of as a ‘scientist’.
But it seems to me that what you actually have here is a social club of people who speak the same language, and share the same understanding of the world, which they call the ‘science’ or the ‘scientific consensus’. And it’s rather difficult for anyone to get into this club. They have to jump through a lot of hoops to get there.
And it also seems to me that this idea of a ‘scientist’ is a fairly recent one. It’s something that is the product of universities and schools that teach ‘science’ of one sort or other, and help students to climb a greasy pole into the scientific community, where they become accredited ‘scientists’ who can wear the badge that says ‘Scientist’ or ‘Top Scientist’ or ‘Top Mathematician’.
But it used not to be like this. Most of the early ‘scientists’ were simply people who were wealthy enough, and leisured enough, to devote their attention to matters that interested them. Nicholas Copernicus was a church Canon, with plenty of leisure time in which to ponder the motions of the planets. Isaac Newton was a professor of mathematics with an interest in optics and astronomy and alchemy, and he had plenty of leisure time in which to pursue those interests. Charles Darwin was a man of independent means with a deep interest in biology. Albert Einstein was famously an employee at a patent office. And so on. And they corresponded or talked with friends who shared their interests. And they wrote books, very often at the encouragement of their friends (e.g. Newton, Darwin).
And none of them were accredited ‘scientists’ in the modern sense. In fact, most of them would now qualify as being examples of Steve Jones’ articulate laymen – the sort who he thinks shouldn’t be listened to.
They were really simply people who were interested in the world around them in one way or other, and studied it closely, and thought about it deeply.
If they formed a club or society, it was simply one of like-minded people. And anyone could join the club, simply by conducting some sort of study, and writing to people about what they’d found, and attracting their interest in so doing.
There wasn’t a separate caste of ‘scientists’. They were all laymen. The ‘science’ only emerged when their various ideas and discoveries were drawn together in ‘science’ books, and taught in schools and universities, so that students could quickly get up to speed on the latest thoughts of Mr Newton and Mr Darwin and Mr Einstein.
And now that we have two separate castes – of scientists and laymen – the old open model of science has been swept away, and replaced by a closed model in which you can only do science if you have got the right qualifications to wear the Scientist badge.
And it seems to me that this is the death of science. It’s the death of the kind of leisured explorer who just follows his nose wherever it leads him. The new scientist is someone who has been thoroughly educated in what is already known, and speaks a settled language of science. And very often he is not following his own nose, but being required to work within a particular discipline in a particular direction. For instance, he might be a microbiologist who studies E. Coli, and maybe just one part of E. Coli. And it will not be appreciated if he goes and studies some other bacterium. Because he’s not being paid to do that. He’s an employee. Not a gentleman of leisure. He can’t follow his nose anywhere. And because he doesn’t, he seldom finds out anything new. Or only something that is very slightly new.
In fact the new closed model of science is one that encourages stasis and dogmatic thinking. Because now everybody is being taught the same thing, very often from the same textbooks, and so everybody thinks in the same way, the way that is called ‘science’. And once they have all been taught to think in the same way, they are then employed to perform research along highly restricted lines (e.g. about E. Coli and nothing else) within the existing science.
It’s a wonder if any genuine new scientific knowledge at all can ever emerge in such a restrictive environment. And perhaps it doesn’t, even though the scientific community keeps awarding itself Nobel prizes. I’m trying to think of something that’s been new and big and shocking – work of the order of Newton or Einstein, which changed the way people thought – over the past 60 years. And I can’t think of anything that’s completely new. Almost everything seems to be an incremental development of existing science. The nuclear physicists seem to be arguing about the same set of sub-atomic particles that they were 70 years ago. The epidemiologists seem to have no better idea about the nature of cancer than they did 70 years ago. There don’t even seem to be any more of the breakthrough new medicines that appeared 70 years ago (e.g. penicillin). Not even the weapons of mass destruction seem to have moved far beyond where they were 70 years ago. Nor even new methods of transportation to rival the automobiles, planes, and rockets that appeared 60 – 100 years ago, put together with first with wire and string by Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Wernher von Braun in his back yard.
Everything is just a slight improvement on what came before. But basically, it’s all the same. Even though we have thousands and thousands of ‘scientists’.
In fact, they’re very often not any improvement at all. By any objective measure, smoking bans which are supposed to improve public health are doing the exact opposite, and inflicting grievous social and economic damage, while not improving anyone’s health the slightest iota.
And Tobacco Control displays all the symptoms of dogmatic, ossified thinking. It is their dogmatic belief that tobacco smoke causes (or contributes to causing) more or less every single malady from lung cancer to heart disease. And all their actions proceed from that single assumption. Nobody in Tobacco Control is allowed to think differently. If they do, they’re kicked out, and branded as stooges of Big Tobacco.
Climate science seems much the same. Global warming (or climate change) is held to be caused by CO2 in the atmosphere. No other hypothesis is permissible. Sceptics are branded as “deniers”, and threatened with prosecution.
The only way out of the impasse is to return to the old open model of science, where those people who are interested in something carry out studies of one sort or other, following their own noses, and discussing their findings with whoever’s interested.
Lay people are going to have to return science to its original form. They’re going to have to follow their own noses wherever they lead, and talk to each other. Just like Isaac Newton and Nicholas Copernicus and Albert Einstein.
In this respect, the co-operative ISIS study of the impact of smoking bans on smokers is an example of such a lay-person’s study. We’re not ‘scientists’. And we’re not doing ‘science’. We are just concerned and interested persons who are asking a few simple questions (I was out asking them today) which Tobacco Control never seems to have thought to ask. We just want to find out what’s going on. And we’ll be talking to each other about it. And maybe out of our discussions some new survey will emerge, with new questions. We probably won’t get published in any journals or newspapers. There won’t be any news about us on television. After all, smokers aren’t allowed on TV.
Ordinary people have all the tools available to them to do their own science. They have truly wonderful things like computers. And they have the vast library of the Internet. And the superfast communication of phones and emails. And many of them lead lives of unemployed leisure. It’s almost perfect. Isaac Newton would have been green with envy at the calculating machine I have at my fingertips.
All they need to do is to shrug off the illusion that only ‘proper’ ‘qualified’ ‘recognised’ ‘scientists’ can do science. Particularly if many of these ‘scientists’ are charlatans.
We are on the brink of a brilliant new age of free enquiry and study. It’ll be like a new Enlightenment. And we’ll solve all the problems the ‘scientists’ can’t solve.
All we have to do is get rid of the ‘scientists’. Or just ignore them, like they – as exemplified by Professor Steve Jones – ignore us.