The UK Chief Medical Officer is out of favour with members of the government. They need a fall guy for a bad election result, and he’s an easy target.
We assume that science is always right. Maybe so. Scientists, however, are not.
Science has to be interpreted by people – scientists – and people get things wrong. Furthermore, a group of scientists considering the same evidence might well come up with several possible explanations, some contradicting each other. So when scientists “speak science” to us, they are actually speaking science as they interpret it. This is not the samer thing at all.
We observe scientific phenomena. Observations rely on our senses and intellects. We measure scientific phenomena. Measurements rely on instruments and techniques. In biological science we, animals, observe and experiment on other animals. Animals have “personalities”. Personalities influence responses.
There are so many variables in biological science. It is messy. Mathematics may well be pure, but biology is very messy indeed. Messiest of all are things like psychology and social science where all involved – subjects and observers – are likely to be affected by moods, feelings and memories that cloud responses and interpretations.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to draw conclusions in biological science. But it is time consuming and laborious, and it requires meticulous work from researchers whose personalities are well suited to meticulous work: focussed, capable of paying attention to detail and possessed of almost infinite patience.
Egos get in the way. Scientists must be impervious to pressure for their results to conform to expected patterns that suit their own ideas or those of the organisation and funding bodies for whom they work. Scientists need to be uncontaminated by personal bias. Good luck with that.
Scientists – all of us – want to be well thought of. It’s good for the sake of pay, pension, reputation, and self-esteem. But the ego of a scientist can lead to his ignoring inconvenient results, even inventing data. It can lead to a pet model overriding observed data, the latter being squeezed to fit the model just as the ugly sister’s toe was amputated so her foot might squeeze into the glass slipper. Researchers employed by drug companies are particularly vulnerable to such pressures in order that their results will best enhance company profits, and thus reputations and prospects.
In the case of covid we are dealing with a novel virus, the word novel carrying with it uncertainty and unpredictability. When a scientist comes along with a model, people latch on to it. “We need something,” the politicians cry; “this is something; this will do”.
Well, it might not.
We, should assume nothing. We should proceed cautiously, adjusting and refining ideas on the basis of observations, rather than on the basis of preconceived models. Instead we do the opposite: “we have a world expert modeller; we know better than the rest of the world; we know what the virus will do”. We certainly do not know what the virus will do, or how we will respond to it.
We need skeptics and doubters. We need dissenters – people who say “hold on a minute, what if … ?”. We need constant wariness, a readiness always to adjust, refine, and question. As Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman is reported as saying, “Science is the organized skepticism of the reliability of expert opinion.”
Feynman could himself be a skeptic. Former US Attorney General William Rogers said of him “Feynman is becoming a real pain in the ass.”
We need more, many more, pains in the ass.
This is an edited version of an earlier piece.