I’m going to go off at a tangent now on a subject I know quite well. Apologies for those looking for something sexy, this isn’t that today. I did my degree in physics, mainly because I enjoy science fiction. Sci-fi aside, I do enjoy science: it’s exciting, discovering new things, understanding how the universe fits together, unfolding he story of how it all works – or at least, I found it exciting.
How it Works
Science is a dual entity, with two sides to it. The first is the process of science: following the evidence and making logical inferences you can test from that evidence; this results in more evidence you can take further. This is how things like the Large Hadron Collider get built, following the trail of sub-atomic particles we are not really sure are waves or physical objects or even entirely there or not. It’s why the Big Bang is described as: “First there was nothing, which then exploded.” To paraphrase Terry Pratchett in his Science of the Diskworld series, you are trying to describe events going on in dimensions we cannot imagine on scales we do not function on using a language descended from the defiant screams of a monkey at another monkey in the next tree. When you try and simplify these concepts, you end up with language that on the face of it doesn’t make much sense.
It probably doesn’t help that scientists are human, and some of them fall in love with their own cleverness and come out with stuff like this just to confuse people, or to make jokes. Just watch The Big Bang Theory if you don’t believe me – those characters are not as fictional as you might think! You have the theoretical genius, the experimenter, and the engineer; the theory expert deals with the concepts, the experimenter grapples with the reality, and the engineer takes the results of the other two and applies them to create something new. All the way down the line, egos clash and jokes are made, and at the end progress happens and a man goes into space.
The second part of science is the body of knowledge we build up from doing this. That body, though, is constantly being updated and added to – and occasionally completely rewritten when we make a big discovery that we didn’t realize was true before. That’s why we have scientific theories – they are always subject to change if scientists find new evidence that doesn’t fit.
How we know it works
Science was originally conceived as a method for dispelling doubts and negating opinions and beliefs that were erroneous, the ultimate arbiter in what was true and what was false. As such it has worked pretty well, though not infallibly. There are some glaring examples of people trying to get the results out that they want to hear, and that’s why science has a self-correcting method: peer review.
When a scientist completes some work, he writes a paper and submits it to a scientific journal. After all, your work may be good but nothing will be done with it unless people know about it. The journal then sends the paper for review by its own experts in that field, who look over that work. They follow through the process and ensure there are no errors and that it’s possible, based on what you have written, for another scientist to follow the steps of your work and come up with their own results that hopefully confirm those of the original scientist.
If they approve the work, it’s then published, and other scientists can test it and either confirm or deny it. Some of these other scientists may well be competing with the original writer for research grant money and prestige, so if they can pick holes in their work, they will in order to leave egg on the face of the original writer. But if they do so dishonestly, other reviewers will pick holes in their work, and they will be the ones with egg on their faces. The whole process keeps science honest and accurate – which is not to say that mistakes do not happen, because they do. They just get discovered fairly quickly, is all.
One accusation that is sometimes made is that science “toes the line” of the establishment, that science that is not what the scientific establishment expects is rejected, no matter how good.
This is, to use a UK colloquial term, bollocks.
Yes, it is true that scientists can be conservative and may not weigh up evidence impartially, but in the greater community as a whole this is not true. While extraordinary claims must be backed up with extraordinary evidence, if the evidence is good and the observations can be duplicated, it usually stands the test of time (and insults, ridicule, apology, and eventually a Nobel prize if it’s good enough).
Some of the greatest scientists have shown us not what we expected to learn, but what we didn’t. Darwin is a good example, as is Einstein. These days the Nobel prize is guaranteed to go not to the person who produced yet another set of data telling us more of what we already knew, but to the person who proves to us that everything we thought we knew was wrong.
There have been some classic failures in the past, for various reasons. Eugenics was one such failure, and it failed because it was untested and based upon flawed assumptions. When eugenics was conceived as a logical extension of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, we didn’t understand the details of how genes worked, and Watson & Crick’s discovery of DNA was still decades away. It was also a fundamental misunderstanding of what Darwin said, in a way that would have appalled him. Darwin himself understood that the different “races” of human were not different species or even subspecies, and that evolution favoured those best suited to survive and that those traits may not be the ones eugenicists thought were desirable. The “thoroughbreds” that eugenicists wanted to create would have been like the thoroughbreds we make of other species – inbred, with hosts of health problems, and deficiencies in other areas that make them less fit in other circumstances.
What eugenicists forgot was that you can breed a thoroughbred racehorse to be a great racehorse, but that same horse might not last five minutes in the wild. Darwin tried to stress that all men are brothers; eugenicists tried to define half of humanity as not even human. Darwin’s theory was taken up because any horse-breeder could confirm his fundamental assumptions about how animals breed and pass along traits, and the genius of the man was not thinking something that no-one else could think of but of realizing something that anyone could have thought of if they’d thought about it for longer than two minutes – a “no-brainer” if you will. Eugenics was dead before we even fully understood the real way that genes work, and thankfully so, for the same reasons that all humans are clearly not separate species.
If we know anything about the long-term survival of the human race, it’s that as much diversity as possible is the best option.
How it’s Reported
Another much more recent success story of the scientific process was the rejection of the allegation that MMR vaccines cause autism. I’m on the autistic spectrum myself, so it’s of particular interest to me, and it shows how the scientific evidence cannot just be embraced but then ignored by the media.
It all started with Dr Andrew Wakefield, who produced a paper published in The Lancet that detailed a study he had done of several children who developed symptoms following their reception of the MMR vaccine shot. He took the very unusual step of holding a press conference on the eve of the publication of his paper warning of the results. This was picked up and carried by many papers, particularly the Daily Express. There was public outcry, and demands for the MMR vaccine to be dropped in favour of separate vaccines.
Now for those in the USA, I shall point out that in the UK most of these vaccination programs are run by our National Health Service, which in turn is run by the government. As the NHS is not a profit organization, it wants costs kept down, and clearly making separate vaccines available would cost a lot. Therefore there was indeed a vested interest in their own scientists not confirming the link Dr Wakefield postulated might be there (he was very careful in his language, making implications without explicit statements).
However, a lot of independent scientists couldn’t verify his correlation either. More and more reports came out that the MMR vaccine was safe, yet some parents still reused to have their children vaccinated, and yes, there were deaths as a result.
The final nail in the coffin of Dr Wakefield came when investigative journalist John Deer dug into his records and discovered that he has falsified his results; some of the children had symptoms before they received the vaccine, others had not gone on to develop any trace of the conditions Dr Wakefield claimed to have found indicators for. His sample group was small, which further reduced its scientific value compared to those refuting his claims.
So why would he invent such a scare, one that cost lives?
It turns out that Dr Wakefield had developed his own MMR vaccine by a different, more expensive process two years earlier, and patented it. However, it being more expensive than the current MMR shot, and no more effective, it was unlikely that anyone would ever use it…unless something wrong was found with the existing vaccine. Then Dr Wakefield would be a multi-millionaire.
Like I said, individual scientists are human, with human failings.
What is worse is that while the claims of vaccine danger have been refuted quite thoroughly, and Dr Wakefield himself has been discredited and struck off as a doctor (meaning he can no longer practice medicine or medical research in the UK), there is now a body of people who believe that vaccines are dangerous. Rumour circulates that they contain dangerous chemicals, that they are part of a plot, that they have dangerous side effects – and some of these are, to an extent, true, while some are not. Attempts to wipe out polio the way we wiped out smallpox have foundered because rumours were circulated that the vaccines used in the third world were also designed to sterilize the people who received them in a nefarious Western plot against Muslims – or in the west, it was said that they were part of a eugenics plot by Bill Gates. It just goes to show that you can make this shit up.
Me? When I have kids, I’ll vaccinate them. They may contain dangerous chemicals, they may have side effects, but the diseases they protect against are much, much worse. But a lot of people will not, and in doing so endanger their own children and those of others.
So science can be very good, and very accurate, but it relies on people to understand it in order for it to work, and that’s hard when there are vested interests in the way. Science isn’t always right, just as the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong – but I think it’s the way to bet.
To be continued in my next post 🙂