Brian Deer at Westminster Skeptics. Photo: blahflowers ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/blahflowers/4596824668/)

“scientists are no more trustworthy than restaurant managers – whose kitchens are randomly inspected to protect the public.”

Brian Deer made this assertion in the Guardian yesterday. I knew it was coming: he had mentioned it at a meeting of the Lewes Skeptics in the Pub last month. I was there, as were several senior research scientists. They tore into Deer over the comment.

The scientists were quick to point out that scientists have to be trustworthy because truth will eventually out. When you do research, your reputation will be destroyed by any fraud discovered – and discovered it will be: all it takes is for other people to repeat the experiment and report results.

Deer countered that scientists had not found out Andrew Wakefield: in fact, he said, they had colluded in the fraud, with the journal’s editor doing everything he could to block Deer’s investigation for the Sunday Times.

I was fascinated by the discussion because both sides made good and useful arguments, many of which I had already delved into in researching Free Radicals.

Andrew Wakefield, I would suggest, was much worse than a bad restaurant manager.

When restaurant managers cut corners on hygiene, they are not trying to poison anyone; usually they are simply practising strategic risk-management. Successful restaurants don’t need to take such a risk, but for a new or struggling restaurant, the money saved in the short-term can make a food poisoning outbreak a risk worth taking for the sake of the business. Restaurant managers don’t take risks to make millions, they take risks to keep their business afloat. Perhaps to ensure they can pay the mortgage this month. Or their staff.

Wakefield, on the other hand, was selfishly motivated. He knew his theory had no validity from intuition or supporting evidence. He simply stood to make a lot of money and didn’t care who suffered along the way. It was common or garden greed.

But it is actually hard to find cases of scientific fraud where money is the motivator – they are the exception. Scientists aren’t actually that interested in money; for most, it’s a practicality rather than a motivation. Scientists are largely after discovering the truth – and discovering it first (that’s all they have, after all; there are no prizes for second place). Ambition – not greed – is the source of most cases of research fraud.

In science, fraud is astonishingly prevalent, as noted in this paper where it is referred to as “Normal Misbehaviour”. But it is motivated by frustrations with the real world, where data is not clean, and use of intuition or hunches is essential to discovery but inadmissible as evidence (see this letter to Nature by Fred Grinnell (£)). Sometimes fraud is motivated by a scientist’s over-confidence in his or her abilities: Einstein heinously cherry-picked data for his determination of the gyromagnetic ratio – he wanted the value that matched his theory, which he assumed to be correct. His theory, as it happens, was wrong. (Interestingly, when the right value was discovered years later, no one made a fuss about Einstein’s “normal misbehaviour” – if you commit fraud in a certain way,  when you are exposed it just looks like you got things wrong, which is entirely forgivable).
It was interesting to note that all the scientists in the Lewes Skeptics audience said they would welcome “data-hygiene” inspections on their labs and notebooks, noting that their funding bodies reserve the right to carry them out. As long as the routine still allowed them to get on with their work most of the time, they saw it as a good thing.

But, unlike with restaurants, such inspections would do little to protect the public because in most cases – not Wakefield’s case, admittedly – these Scientists Behaving Badly (£) are not putting people’s lives and health at risk for personal gain. Deer is guilty of a mistake that the scientific process has taught us how to avoid: making generalised statements on the basis of limited evidence.

It’s understandable, though. Deer has judged science on the basis of its public face rather than its true nature. If scientists are upset with him, they only have themselves to blame.

Science has deliberately chosen to clothe itself in a brand image, applied after WWII (more on that in Free Radicals), that is whiter than white. Brand Science is Trustworthy, Reliable, Logical, Rational, a direct path to better lives for all. The reality is rather different, as any working scientist knows. Unfortunately, science has made the mistake of continuing to embrace this branding, rather than throwing it off.

As the spat at the Lewes skeptics meeting showed, scientists are human, passionate and often fierce. Science is for lions, not lambs – if you don’t believe me, try putting a newborn theory out there and see how happy scientists are to rip it to shreds (check Jenny Rohn on this).

It would be better for everyone if science was comfortable with exposing this humanity. With issues such as climate change on the table, Brand Science can no longer afford to hide behind its self-created mythology. There is too much risk of someone like Deer pulling back the curtain and making it easy for its critics to cry shame when there is really nothing to be ashamed of.
(Originally posted 26/1/11 on my WordPress blog, where you can read comments)

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the scientist-for-hire Fred Singer. I only met this odious character fairly recently, in the pages of the magisterial Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway. I don’t often say this, but everyone should read that book. It exposes what scientists are up against when they try to do some good in the world: a well-organised, well-funded, carefully-orchestrated and powerful lobbying system that is carefully designed to undermine scientists threatening political or industrial interests.

The scary thing is, it’s not that hard to do. All that’s required is a few seeds of doubt – public confusion does the rest. I won’t delve into it here; read the book. It’s worth it, I promise, because it will make you angry, and righteous anger is sadly lacking in the world, and especially among scientists.

One of the most startling revelations in the book is actually about the good guys: that good scientists are not angry or combative enough. Oreskes and Conway delve into the details of some of the biggest scientific battlegrounds of the last 100 years – acid rain, climate change, tobacco marketing and the ozone crisis – and find the scientists strangely disappointing. “We would have liked to have told heroic stories of how scientists set the record straight,” they say. But only in a few scant cases were they able to. “Clearly, scientists knew that many contrarian claims were false,” they point out. “Why didn’t they do more to refute them?”

Their conclusion is that scientists are really quite timid when it comes to public exposure. They worry unceasingly about what their colleagues will say, and about personal attacks on their reputation from deniers of all colours. Sometimes scientists (as they don’t put it) can be real pussies.

There was a telling line at the end of this week’s Horizon. Paul Nurse, incoming head of the Royal Society, says scientists must engage more with the public, “even if it does sometimes put their reputation [in] doubt.”

It is a tacit admission of a problem in the infrastructure of science. You might have thought that public engagement only enhances a scientist’s reputation. You would be wrong. Those who involve themselves in efforts to bring the wonders of science to an eager public tend to suffer for that. Whoever you are – Carl Sagan, Lynn Margulis, Brian Cox – there will be colleagues who look down their noses at your attempt to engage the public with science. If those are the wrong colleagues, you can find yourself, as Feynman did, passed over for tenure and denied membership of your national science academy. (This is not a thing of the past: there are those at CERN who don’t miss an opportunity to sneer at Cox, and this Nature piece gives examples of those who are fighting right now to overcome such prejudice).

I don’t know how Nurse is going to fix this problem: the implication of his statement seems to be that you can’t (I disagree, but it needs radical, root and branch change). The trouble is, even just talking to the public is no longer enough. In the face of the threat of climate change, scientists need to be not just talking about it, but getting themselves worked up about it. And this will be another source of censure.

The vast majority of scientists live in a culture where they are told scientists should not get worked up or involved. They should not be activists. They shouldn’t even talk about their frustrations and their concerns.We are in the sorry situation where people like senior climate scientist Susan Solomon get to tell the New York Times that, “If we as scientists go beyond what we know into our personal opinions and values, we begin to engage in the same sort of personal speculation masquerading as authoritative that we dislike when it is done by the sceptics.”

I couldn’t agree less. As Carl Sagan said in The Demon-Haunted World, “It is the particular task of scientists, I believe, to alert the public to possible dangers, especially those emanating from science or foreseeable through the use of science.”

That’s why Sagan not only did the science on the nature of a nuclear winter, but also got himself arrested at an anti-nuclear protest in Nevada. It’s why James Hansen now gets himself arrested on a regular basis: it’s his way of humanising the scientific message of climate change. I’d like to see more of this. And so would everyone else.

In 2009, a Pew Survey revealed that more than three-quarters of the public thought it appropriate for scientists to become “actively involved in political debates on controversial issues such as stem cell research and nuclear power”. But here’s the real shocker. The overwhelming majority of scientists – 97 per cent – also express that view when polled in the same survey. Scientists are champing at the bit, and are only held back by senior colleagues’ weighty-sounding (but vacuous and ludicrous) pronouncements about the “proper” way of doing things.

The proper way of doing things is why it took 13 years to get the Montreal Protocol signed; it actually took the discovery of the ozone hole over the Antarctic before anyone did anything substantial about CFCs and ozone. The climate situation is even more dire, and the scientifically “proper” way of doing things is clearly getting us nowhere. We’ve known what’s happening to the planet for decades. Now scientists have to take the lead in combating this threat – by “scientifically improper” means if necessary.

Even after Montreal, Fred Singer was agitating against the legislation, making it as weak as possible. He had huge reach – Senator Tom Delay, for example, is on record saying he got all his views from Singer. So did shock-jock Rush Limbaugh. Singer and his ilk are still active, sowing seeds of doubt in the public’s mind – now it’s about climate change. It’s a fight scientists won’t win by doing things the “proper” way, with one eye on their reputations and living in fear of the disapproval of their colleagues. If that kind of censure is allowed to continue, we will most likely have to wait for some catastrophic climate-related discovery to force governments to take appropriate action.

(Originally posted 25/1/11 on my WordPress blog, where you can read comments)

In many ways, last night’s BBC Horizon (Science Under Attack) could have been a piece of comedy programming – in the style of The Office, say, or Pineapple Dance Studios. White-haired white male Sir Paul Nurse lovingly strokes a copy of Newton’s Principia in the basement archive of the Royal Society (“I have to touch it!”) while puzzled that some people just don’t connect with scientists.

Nurse goes on to skewer Telegraph climate change denier James Delingpole with a question about whether he would deny medical consensus if diagnosed with cancer, then visits an American man who is living, apparently healthily, with HIV – without taking the medical consensus treatment of antiretroviral drugs. The irony is lost on Nurse.

Luckily, there are other white-haired white male scientists to share the pain of not being understood. Phil Jones, for instance, the man who refused to deal with a co-ordinated set of Freedom of Information requests from climate deniers (designed as a bureaucratic Denial of Service attack) and set the whole climategate scandal in motion. “I wish people would read the peer-reviewed literature,” Jones sighs. No, really, he said that. Out of touch with the general public? Us?

While Nurse’s hand-wringing voiceover repeatedly asks why not everyone believes the pronouncements of scientists, we get to see Nurse in his lab, surrounded by busy young post-docs of varying race and gender (no doubt working at close to minimum wage, but let’s not go there). We are slightly fed up with the self-pity by this stage, and shouting at the TV: “Look at them. They look normal, they look like the rest of us. Ask them! Ask them about how science should connect with the modern world !” But no, we go to Norwich instead, to talk to a white-haired white male scientist who is growing blighted potatoes in a rainy field.

This one doesn’t understand why people won’t accept genetically modified crops. In a Cameron-esque moment, Nurse explains that he met a member of the public once, and they said they “didn’t want genes in their food”. From this he concludes that if people were just better informed about genetics (that is, if they just bloody listened to we scientists), the whole problem would go away.

Perhaps the most heinous moment is when Nurse has tea with another white-haired white male scientist. Professor Fred Singer doesn’t believe global warming is caused by human activity and does his level best to get this point of view heard everywhere he can. Nurse listens politely over some Earl Grey, then goes to a (white-haired white male) NASA scientist who says Singer’s point of view has been examined and found wanting.

What is so heinous is that Singer’s is presented as a valid, independent scientific viewpoint that just doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. There is no mention of Singer’s previous convictions for anti-scientific lobbying. Could this be the same Fred Singer who, in the 1980s, when he sat on the White House’s Acid rain review panel, told us that acid rain wasn’t worth worrying about? Who, as the US Department of Transportation’s Chief Scientist repeatedly denied that CFCs were responsible for ozone depletion? The one who was on the advisory board of Alexis de Tocqueville, an organisation that defended the tobacco companies in their attempt to avoid higher taxes and responsibility for causing cancer?

Nurse is likeable in an avuncular kind of way, and I can’t help feeling his new role as President of the Royal Society is going to be a tough gig. I have always thought the Royal Society to be less like an uncle and more like my grandfather: pre-feminist – slightly misogynistic, actually – and wary of foreigners, especially those with dark skin. Oh, and toothless.

These days we need scientists, and those who preside over them, to bare their teeth. When it comes to public confusion over the truth about climate change, Nurse seems to want to blame the media, mischievious or credulous journalists, or a lazy public who don’t read the primary literature. The reality is, scientists such as Singer – who got off scot-free in this programme –are to blame for the fact that the public doesn’t know who to believe and that, consequently, governments feel no compulsion to take action on climate change. Scientists willing to compromise their integrity for money and positions of power are a much greater threat to climate science than the likes of James Delingpole, who is nothing more than a mouthpiece.

The issue this programme tried to address is of enormous importance – I think it’s the most important issue in science today. Which is why my next post about this programme (hopefully to come later today) won’t be nearly so snide.


(Imported from my WordPress blog,  24/1/11, where you can read comments)

Welcome to my new site. It’s not exactly a blog, because I’m not a natural blogger. I get enough opportunities to write for New Scientist, the New Statesman and other outlets to make writing more stuff seem better left to others. I already have a (much-neglected) blog at my website: www.michaelbrooks.org. But I have a feeling that Free Radicals is going to require a space of its own where ideas, responses and discussions  directly related to the contents can take place. That realisation came partly as a result of its inclusion in the Guardian’s controversial books due for publication in 2011.

I’m not a natural troublemaker either. The book started life as a simple exploration of just how fascinating science is, and how human scientists are. The fact that this has been deliberately hidden from us was  a discovery I made along the way.

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. I hope Free Radicals will at least spark discussion about how we all relate to science, and whether we all need to change the way we make that happen.