Sayings of Richard Feynman, Nobel prizewinning physicist:
- There is no harm in doubt and skepticism, for it is through these that new discoveries are made.
- Science is organized skepticism of the reliability of expert opinion.
In our response to covid, we are witnessing the lack of expertise of experts.
We assume that science is incontrovertible. It may well be.
Scientists, however, are not. They are human. When they “speak science” to us, we do well to remember that actually they are speaking not science, but science as interpreted by scientists. Not the same 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 observe and experiment on animals, human and non-human. Animals have “personalities”. They are not predictable. Personalities influence responses.
When a scientist inspects cells or tissues under a microscope, they have been pulverised in all sorts of ways to render them observable. If yesterday’s work is to be compared to today’s and next week’s, you need to be pretty damn sure that all the conditions and chemicals and temperatures that held yesterday are absolutely identical to today’s and next week’s. This can never be.
There are so many variables in biological science. It is very messy. Mathematics is pure. Physics is almost pure, but is a bit messy since it has to be observed. Chemistry is messier still. Biology is very messy indeed, as I explain above. Messiest of all are things like psychology and social science, the latter once defined as the study of those who don’t need to be studied by those who do.
In the biological sciences, it’s necessary to amass a large amount of data. Those data must be tested, time and again, and robust statistical analyses applied, before even tentative conclusions can be drawn.
I’m not saying that it’s not possible 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. A bit anal you might say. Being on the autistic spectrum certainly helps.
Most of all, scientists must be impervious to the pressures from themselves and others to get their results to conform to expected patterns that suit their own ideas or those of the organisation and funding bodies for whom they work.
In short, scientists need to be uncontaminated by personal bias. Good luck with that.
You see, the problem is that scientists—experts—are human.
Back in the 4th century, Evagrios the Solitary said “there are three groups [of demons] who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three.” Evagrios clearly had a profound knowledge of human psychology.
The third of those demons, seeking the esteem of men, is by far the most insidious and dangerous. And that is at the root of the sin of the expert, of the scientist in general, and indeed of humanity.
We all want to be well thought of. It is good for the sake of pay, pension, reputation, self-esteem and ego. But seeking the approval of others requires that we choose those whose approval is worth having. Therein lies the problem.
The ego of an unscrupulous scientist can lead to his ignoring inconvenient results, even fabricating data. It can lead to a pet model overriding observed data, the latter being squeezed and deformed 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.
I need not perseverate. You can see how the demon of seeking esteem infects us all—and in the realm of science, you can I hope see how such pressures and biases can distort the interpretation of biological data.
And that brings us to covid.
In the covid case we are dealing with a novel virus. People use that word, and yet they don’t see that novel carries with it uncertainty and unpredictability, for if something is novel we can not reliably assume or deduce anything on the basis of what we have known heretofore. When a scientist comes along with a model, people latch on to it. “We need something,” they cry; “this is something; this will do”.
Well, it might not do. Indeed, it did not do at all.
They, we, should assume nothing but instead proceed cautiously, adjusting and refining our ideas on the basis of data, rather than on the basis of some preconceived model. Instead we did 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.
What we need is constant wariness, a readiness always to adjust, refine, question. As Richard Feynman is reported as saying, “Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.”
Experts, I repeat, are human and subject to all the deceptions and foibles of human nature. The problem is that we put too much weight on what they say. We treat them as infallible. We do not question them. We should. We need dissenters to say, “hang on a minute; what if … ?” Unfortunately dissenters, whistle blowers, are rarely if ever applauded. Richard Feynman could himself be a skeptic, for 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.
I suspect that Floyd and Colston riots are in part manifestations of frustration and inconvenience of a policy drawn up on the basis of expert opinion insufficiently questioned and now seen to have been ineptly handled. The spark, I’m in no doubt, was anger at the behaviour of the Prime Minister and his adviser.
We are in for months of civil unrest—the rest of the year and possibly more. The privations, unemployment, business failures and shortages of covid will be as nothing compared to those resulting from the now almost inevitable hard brexit. The shysters in government will use the former as serendipitous cover for their treacherous and self-serving pursuance of the latter.
Politically, I have no axe to grind. In my time I’ve voted for everything except the Greens. But I come to the view that the best option for the immediate future would be an early uprising that would replace this morally bankrupt government with a “war cabinet” that includes Mr Starmer who already has acquired the gravitas and discernment that eluded most of his predecessors and that far exceeds anything in the present administration. Quite how this uprising could be provoked is something to ponder.
It’s interesting to note that following the Irish general election months ago, there is still no government in Leinster House. And yet Dr Varadkar remains Taoiseach, the Irish go about their business, and two days ago the lockdown was eased considerably.
Who needs a government? Who needs politicians? We urgently need loyal dissenters.