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Are we experiencing a crisis in scientific authority?

Tom Feilden | 13:09 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Judging from recent headlines - about melting glaciers, the resurgence of the debate over Andrew Wakefield and MMR, GM food or the sacking of the Government's chief drugs adviser - you could be forgiven for thinking that public trust in science was in a state of crisis.

Well, not according to Lord Krebs, who argues that the recent hiatus in the press has more to do with a misunderstanding about what science can offer society than any underlying philosophical dysfunction.

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The former chairman of the Food Standards Agency is the keynote speaker at a two-day conference on "Handling Uncertainty in Science" being organised by the Royal Society.

"The ambiguities of science," he says, "sit uncomfortably with the demands of politics and the need for certainty in decision making".

The problem is that scientists are often called upon - as if they were authority figures with some special inside knowledge of ultimate truth - to pronounce on issues where there may be huge uncertainties about the risks involved. While science may be the best way to come to a better understanding of these difficult questions, it doesn't have all the answers.

In the real world, Lord Krebs argues, issues that involve uncertainty or questions of risk are rarely black and white. What might appear to one person like a sensible precaution in the face of climate change or an outbreak of an infectious disease, might to another seem like a gross over reaction.

What's needed, Lord Krebs says, is more maturity - both from scientists in terms of explaining the issues, and from politicians and the public when it comes to interpreting the evidence.

There's a role here for the media too. All too often the press focuses on the most controversial aspects of a problem, presenting issues in terms of the confrontation between opposing views.

In the case of MMR, Lord Krebs argues, the issues were presented as evenly divided between Andrew Wakefield on the one hand and the medical establishment on the other.

In fact he was "a solitary, rogue individual with a story that had no scientific basis whatsoever, and I think that was a very misleading representation".

So no crisis in the authority of science, but a call for more honesty and maturity when it comes to interpreting its results and making decisions based on uncertainty and risk.


  • Comment number 1.

    "no crisis in the authority of science". What planet are you living on? Just take a look around the internet, or read the comments on any article you or the MM produce about Global warming. There's a huge crisis. No one believes what they say anymore.

  • Comment number 2.

    It would be interesting to ascertain the number of people that have tried this drug or even better the number of 'hits' and compare it against the deaths as a result of this drug. I am not interested in the number people think may be as a result of this drug, but deaths purely due to this drug. As I see it we have a situation where parents and officials have yet again made a knee jerk reaction when it comes to their reaction.
    We had the same with ecstacy - which has been proved to cause little to no long term effects with normal usage.
    We have had similar with Cannabis, so I see no reason as to why the government would take a normal view on this and actually do some testing before making a decision.
    I see they have yet to ban Alcohol and smoking, 2 things we know kill people every day.......but is taxable.

  • Comment number 3.

    the problem is not maturity, well at least not where "mature" scientists are concerned and not hyperenthusiastic fresh PhD students, or honesty, but the code in which we speak to eachother, the fundamental tenet of science: probability. P=0.05 means nothing to non-scientists but is our holy grail. We scientists live with uncertainty. In fact that is our stock in trade as "the scientific method" does not allow us to prove anything, only disprove. Incomprehensible to those on the outside.The best way I have ever heard this expressed by a senior academic was, somewhat tongue in cheek:"it doesnt matter so much whether I am right; what matters is that you are wrong". And this will continue as long as we keep communicating thus and ignore in our "hard sciece" all that the social sciences, which deal with the subject of our external communications,have to offer us. As long as we keep thinking that the public needs education and all will be alright. No, we, scientists, need educating.

  • Comment number 4.

    IPCC AR4 2007 Errors:

    1. Himalayan Glaciers
    2. Amazon Rainforests
    3. African Agricultural Production
    4. Coral Reef Degradation
    5. Alps Glaciers Melt
    6. Andes Glaciers Melt
    7. Rising Costs of Extreme Weather Events
    8. Trend In Tropical Storms
    9. Intensity of Tropical Rainfall
    10. Changing Location of Impact of Cyclones
    11. Claim of Netherlands Below Sea Level

    All the above were wrong, and all of the above if correct would have affected over 80% of the world's population directly.

    I'll leave the last word on scientific authority to Prof Phil Jones, CRU-UEA, who admitted that there has been no statistically signficant warming for the last 15 years.

  • Comment number 5.

    Politicians turning to scientists has noting to do with being seen as an authority, but everything to do with being set up as a scapegoat.

  • Comment number 6.

    my my Scottycam what have you been taking your on the wrong blog :D
    Science V politics hmmm couldn't be further apart from each other..
    Politics an aged dinosaur of by gone thought, so antiquated in the belief that only they are right, they ask for guidance and then fail to act upon the paths of knowledge that is taken . Science may only open up truth of matters examined.

    Politics has brought science into question in order to defend its old ways even if it is against the public understanding of a real and urgent problem.

    You only have to look at the misuse of drugs act to see how political belief has run gunshot over the science and the new mess it has created.

    Look at the science on cannabis pouring out of the USA and Canada. If the science is to be believed then cannabis holds a cure all for most ailments and has low impact recreationaly. A lot of people are making good money out of this science in the UK and the USA and many countries across the EU. But because the cannabis has been concentrated and 'purified' its perfectly safe and regulated, why cant public cannabis be sold the same way. The science says its the right thing to do politics say its the wrong thing to do and its better of in the hands of children and criminals. The new community centre we are opening was previously used as a grow op with the electric being run from a council light situated next to the building.

    Ill always trust Science over politicians. politicians create crime and support the chaos in society with ill thought out reactions to sound solid advice.

  • Comment number 7.

    The best way to deal with uncertainty is to examine lots of different views and be cautious about taking any action.

    I am looking forward to skeptical views on climate change being covered fairly by the BBC.

    The only way this will happen is to appoint some new reporters with an objective approach. The current crew - Black, Harrabin and Shukman - operate on the border between reporting and activism.

    Or maybe an editor who asks difficult questions and gets them to cover different stories and different angles.

    Group think is not a good way to deal with uncertainty.

  • Comment number 8.

    Politician listen to Economists as though they are Scientists. So, when a Scientist states, "there is a risk" the reaction is to perform a cost benefit analysis and to seek to manage the risk. Cost Benefit Analysis is a minor technique of the Sciences that has been taken by Economists to drive policies that are - to most serious thinkers - driven by an underlying ideology.

    The entire controversy around climate change centres around risk management, cost benefit analysis and not around the fundamental science. The fundamental science has made statments that Economic thinking claims can be managed. Politicians have not chosen to engage with the actual science and practicing scientists but with "outcomes" and "indicators". The "crisis" is not in scientific authority but in public understanding of Science and how it can make positive contributions to public life. Indeed, the debate about policy is seen to be able to mould and change the underlying science.

    Politicians and economists like to portray science as something obscure or difficult. That gives an astoundingly good negotiating position. That position allows expensive scientific options to be marginalised in favour of cheaper "alternatives". When this is carried out by the National Institute For Clinical Excellence - NICE - there are suddenly human interest stories throughout the media. Suddenly the "banned" drug is vital to all human existence - at whatever cost. Nobody criticises the Economists and Investors driving the drug companies to maximise profit; the critique is all about "science".

    The truth of Science is that the "Laws of Nature" do not negotiate. There is no Cost Benefit Analysis going on in climate. The world will either warm or it will not. It is not a negotiation. It is not a delicate series of agreements that the environment will respect. Politicians of any party and any country are actually a little irrelevant: science is not a negotiation in the same way that setting a tax rate is.

    The repeated "crisis" in science stems as much from crises in politics and a public vagueness about science. Few people engage with science in a very conscious way. People who could engage with science are frequently frightened away by political rhetoric and powerful and persuasive arguments from non-scientists. Lord Krebs is right but should go further and point out that scientists are treated as interchangeable cogs in a machine by policymakers. The lack of reports from scientists to Politicians on legal highs - with the resignation last year of Professor King - suggests otherwise.

    Scientists speak a difficult language. It is all the more difficult for not being common. Policymakers do not like the arcane, technical, mathematical dialect unless it comes out with simple, persuasive, yes or no answers that can be packaged into neat soundbites. It was Science and Scientific Method that suggests the best length of soundbite and the effectiveness of slogans. Perhaps what is needed is more scientists, more scientific education - not necessarily at the level of PhDs - so that the electorate can more readily recognise how scientific debate is being used for political ends.

  • Comment number 9.

    "...the recent hiatus in the press..."

    Hmm - has there been a recent silence on these issues? ...was a word like "rumpus" intended instead?

    "hiatus - A gap or interruption in space, time, or continuity; a break"

  • Comment number 10.

    mark bracewell wrote:

    '"no crisis in the authority of science". What planet are you living on? Just take a look around the internet, or read the comments on any article you or the MM produce about Global warming. There's a huge crisis. No one believes what they say anymore.'

    Really? Anyone who 'does not believe in science' is living in an extremely strange fantasy world.

    Science is simply the pursuit of knowledge. The vast majority of Scientists do this diligently day in, day out.

    Your modern world and all the comforts you enjoy are largely the result of scientific advancements.

    If it was not for scientific advancement we would all still be ruled by an ignorant church that espoused the most ridiculous notions and enforced them with a rod of iron.

    Oh, and your life expectancy would be around 30 years or so.

  • Comment number 11.

    David Edwards.

    You just don't get it, do you.

    The problem with all the hullabaloo about the IPCC, and UEA-CRU, is that it tends to tar all science with the same brush. If the general public do not trust or believe the conclusions these people come to, then they tend to treat all scientific "experts" with some suspicion. That is why there is a "crisis in the authority of science".

    Have a look at comment #4 above.
    Do you understand now?

  • Comment number 12.

    In almost all recent controversies regarding "science" it's been very easy to spot the charlatan by playing the follow-the-money trail. In so-called climate science most parties are failing to decalre their commercial interests, in the MMR affair the same.

    Science is about the pursuit of truth through the rigorous application of reproducable experiments. I am sure there is a more formal definition. The strories that the BBC and other media outlets have salivated over are not really science, they are simply grant applications for public money and for the personal enrichment of the figures involved. If the media, especially the tax payer funded BBC, looked behind the wonderfully worded press releases and the PR spin and took a critical view of these issues then there would be a much better opportunity the educate and inform the public about were their tax money is being diverted.

  • Comment number 13.

    "All too often the press focuses on the most controversial aspects of a problem, presenting issues in terms of the confrontation between opposing views" :Tom Feilden

    Too true. Apart from a minority of science specialists -- such as the BBC's Tom Feilden and Richard Black -- the majority of journalists are scientifically-illiterate, who just don't see any moral imperative to represent science with any accuracy. They seem to want to whip up controversy for the sake of a 'story'. It's self-serving: they pander to the most prejudiced of their audience and then when they have whipped up the silent majority they say they're giving voice to the views of their readers.

    People are right to point to the MMR fiasco. Arguably deaths occurred through the callous ignorance of those journalists who fed and encouraged what bordered on mass hysteria. In time I suspect people will point to well-known climate-denial journalists and columnists and accuse them of similar obfuscation of the scientific evidence surrounding AGW.

  • Comment number 14.

    The crisis in UK science is not really mistrust of the scientists (although "climategate" has been an unfortunate glitch)... instead it is the growing realisation by the public that UK science has been hi-jacked by a horde of worthless bureaucrats... another part of the huge UK public service "jobs for the boys" association of highly-paid, comfortably pensioned pointless pen pushers which our country simply can no longer afford. The new space agency trumpeted to the press is just such a creation... Supposedly sizeable budget, new glossy offices being built in a couple of places, one token astronaut (with no defined mission) and a vague promise of huge numbers of jobs. The reality is different. So far there will be a few comfortably salaried "executives" with friends in the right places, a smattering of pen-pushers to support them, someone producing glossy publicity about how wonderful it all is... and not much else. Beyond that, the growth (yet again) will be in pen pushers... all public servants, all useless, all well paid and with nice pensions... and all un-sackable. That's the reality under this lunatic government we are still saddled with. Call me please when the space agency does something worthwhile... and I don't include claiming someone else's project as "part-British" because there's a UK made component somewhere inside the space vehicle !

  • Comment number 15.

    "Apart from a minority of science specialists -- such as the BBC's Tom Feilden and Richard Black -- the majority of journalists are scientifically-illiterate,"

    i'd propose that they were scientifically illiterate too. Honestly, have you READ their bolgs?

  • Comment number 16.


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