The recent sacking of Professor David Nutt, head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, marked a moment of extreme importance in our society, as it provided journalists the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how spectacularly witty they are. Of some secondary importance was the implication that science and politics do not make for happy bed-fellows. Something about all that evidence getting in the way of real politicking.
While the internet has spewed forth endless pages of analysis and opinion on the situation (e.g. here and here), I was not stirred to action until coming across a piece by A. N. Wilson in the Daily Mail boldly titled: Yes, scientists do much good. But a country run by these arrogant gods of certainty would truly be hell on earth. Quite frankly, it is a spectacular piece of ignorance in which Wilson succinctly outlines his lack of understanding for the scientific process and an apparent affinity for logical fallacies. In a wonderful show of understatement he not only Godwins his own article*, but also manages to toss in a comparison between scientists and the Spanish Inquisition. He carries on to describe the reaction of the scientific community (being the arrogant gods of certainty that they are) to the MMR-Autism fear mongering campaign as an “assassination” and a “hoo-ha” whilst slipping it in that “[t]he point here is not whether [it] was right or wrong…” to claim a MMR-Autism link. I think, Mr. Wilson, you’ll find that that was very much the point.
However my favourite part of the whole article has to be where Mr. Wilson states: “The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts”. I beg to differ Mr. Wilson. Science requires – at its core – highly creative non-linear thinkers to propose new theories, to try new methods, to challenge what we think we know and to use the evidence gained from these endeavours to try and keep science and society healthy. Do you remember what happened when man stopped being imaginative with his understanding of the natural world? It was called the Dark Ages for a reason.
And, just to clarify, the thing that makes an argument ‘scientific’ is not – contrary to your opinion – that it is based on empirical evidence gathered in a laboratory by unimaginative men in white coats, but rather that the method used to obtain the supporting evidence is itself scientific. Science is a method. It is not perfect, and nor does it claim to be, but it beats the hell out of fumbling around in the dark.
While we cannot put people in petri dishes, we can still use the scientific method – and therefore a scientific argument – to measure as best we can the effects some variable has on society. Ideally, we use this scientifically obtained evidence to try to make informed policy decisions.
Perchance Mr. Wilson was simply attempting to paraphrase that great thinker of our time, one Homer Simpson. “Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true”. Indeed.
Maybe we should be more sympathetic to Wilson’s misconceptions of science considering that during a short lived experience as an atheist he came to realise that “the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat”. Such was the shock of this revelation that he concluded god must be the answer and he abandoned his atheism. Naturally such fundamental issues of existence are tough for us decidedly egotistical apes to accept, but lacking either the intelligence or creativity to understand and appreciate the wonder of the natural world is no excuse for writing such a poorly informed article.
I wonder how Mr. Wilson suggests we decide on societal policies if they are not to be informed by good scientific evidence? Perhaps we should be waiting for a white paper from god?
*the article the Daily Mail originally put up on their website included a rather fetching picture of Hitler. I was disappointed to note they removed this photo during the course of the day, but you can still see the image here. Possibly they realised that having a photo with the caption “Adolf Hitler: The Nazi Germany leader believed in science as the only truth” in an article attempting to delegitimise science might come back to bite them…