The dilemma of science

January 11, 2010

“Science has the answers to all mankind’s problems.”

Do you believe this? Scientists make lots of mistakes, don’t they? For example:

The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson overestimated the number of people who’d contract Swine Flu; he estimated 65,000 would die. Consequently, we as taxpayers, purchased 29 million doses of Swine Flu vaccine from two drug companies, but only used four million doses. Now we’re going to give away millions of doses of vaccine at a potential cost of one billion pounds sterling.

Science is often inexact – or, rather, the pontifications of those high priests of science, the scientists themselves, are often inexact. So we had a “barbecue summer” predicted in the UK this year and a mild winter: the summer weather was wishy-washy at best and parts of Britain were colder than the South Pole this winter.

In fact the Met Office people have predicted mild winters for the past three years in the UK. We didn’t get them. Last winter’s abnormal cold pushed Britain’s death rate up to 40,000 above the average. This winter it’ll be far, far higher.

Scientists advised the Highways Agency and Local Authorities there’d no longer be a need for large stockpiles of salt for frozen roads. The world, after all, is warming. The Transport Minister, Lord Adonis then admits as a nation we entered this latest cold snap with only six days supply of grit! Crazy. But it has been claimed some councils have more “Climate Change Officials” than gritters.

Obviously climate change is something that needs to be studied over hundreds and even thousands of years. There’s been a scientific explanation from the met office about the current cold snap: “regional” phenomenon, due to “natural” factors. Yet it’s affecting the whole northern hemisphere; 1,200 places in the US last week reported record snow, and freezing low temperatures.

In part the advice of Climate Scientists helped dig the graves of those 40,000 people last winter; these would be the elderly, the infirm, the vulnerable. The “scientific” advice given, of course, was incorrect. While scientists talk about “warmer winters” government will take no action to defend against freezing arctic cold, or fuel poverty which is rife in Britain today.

Okay, enough about climate. What other mistakes have scientists made?

Well, what about Thalidomide? Remember that one, do you?

The introduction of the Cane Toad to the sugar cane fields of Queensland Australia to control pests – the Toads went out of control and are killing native wildlife as far away as the Northern Territory. And the Toads are still spreading.

What about DDT?


Scientific errors and controversies inevitably occur in the absence, ignorance, or dismissal of good data, and the promotion of bad data or analyses. We like to quote scientists as experts. We have put them high up on a pedestal. We forget they are human, too.

Take a step back in time and the first scientists, alchemists, believed it’d be possible to turn led into gold. They were wrong. Johann Joachim Becher in the mid 16th century was convinced there was another element beside air, fire, earth and water which he called “Phlogiston”. Most scientists of his time were convinced he was correct in this judgment. He wasn’t. Up until the nineteenth century most scientists accepted the claim that the earth was only 6,000 years old. They were so, so wrong. Until the nineteenth century, doctors didn’t see the need to wash their hands before surgery. They were wrong, too. The huge number of cases of gangrene that resulted were universally thought to be due to “bad air”! Again, they were mistaken in their analysis of the problem.

The list could go on and on and on.

The scientific method is a tool to help people progress toward the truth despite their all-too-human susceptibility to confirmation bias and other errors. It’s the bias and errors we need to watch out for: one day they may prove the death of us all.

In the meantime it would be as well to remember scientists are human. They aren’t omnipotent beings, Gods for the 21st century. They are individuals seeking funding for their projects and ideas. They have all the inconsistencies and frailties of other human beings. They do make mistakes. They do get it wrong. Sometimes spectacularly so.