Dispatch from the Front Lines of a War on Science


Photo credit: olga.palma via Flickr/CC BY

You may have heard of Simon Singh long before his name rose to the top of the list of those championing sound science: He'd written two bestselling books, Fermat's Enigma and the Big Bang. Despite the wide range of subject matter contained in those books, the topic that ended up casting him into controversy was much different -- a seemingly benign newspaper article about some of the pitfalls of alternative medicine. He ended up defending his career from a powerful group, the British Chiropractic Association, who sued him for libel for having the chutzpah to assert that there was no proof that chiropractic treatment could treat ailments like asthma in children. As he decided to defend his science-backed claim rather than apologize, he became a much needed spokesperson for sound science (he won the suit). There are plenty of lessons to be learned from his story -- and many that hit close to home to anyone familiar with other topics where the science continually faces a PR crisis from outside interests. Here's what he has to say about defending science in the public sphere: Singh sat down with Wired to discuss this very topic, and I think a number of his responses are pretty illuminating. The forces that continually attempt to undermine the vast body of sound science behind climate change, for example, is something that we deal with just about every day here at TH. Because some people don't want to accept the solutions (using less energy, using cleaner energy, consuming less), they find reasons to ignore the scientific consensus. They listen to 'experts' who claim they've uncovered the hoax behind global warming, or find the few outlying scientists who don't think climate change is caused by man.

Here's Singh on what drives such phenomena:

Wired: Do you think that this is part of a broader trend? Is science under assault?

Simon Singh: What shocks me is people who have no expertise championing a view that runs counter to the mainstream scientific consensus. For example, we have a consensus amongst the best medical researchers in the world--the leading authorities and the World Health Organization--that vaccines are a good thing, and that MMR, the triple vaccine, is a really good thing. And yet there are people who are quite willing to challenge that consensus--film stars, celebrities, columnists--all of whom rely solely on the tiny little bit of science that seems to back up their view.

Wired: Yet the celebrities sometimes seem to be winning.

Simon Singh: Part of the problem is that if anybody has a gut reaction about an issue, they can go online and have it backed up. That said, they can also find support for their ideas in the mainstream media--because when the mainstream media gives a so-called balanced view, it's often misleading. The media thinks that because one side says climate change is real and dangerous, the other view is that it's not real and not dangerous. That doesn't reflect the fact that something like 98 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and dangerous. And this happens with everything from genetically modified foods to evolution. But, at the end of the day, all that this misinformation does is slow progress--it doesn't stop it. Antiscientific and pseudoscientific attitudes will get corrected; it's just a question of how painful that process is going to be.

And even more apropos:
Wired: What about nonscientists? How are we supposed to know what's true?

Simon Singh: Don't come up with a view, find everybody who agrees with it, and then say, "Look at this, I must be right." Start off by saying, "Who do I trust?" On global warming, for example, I happen to trust climate experts, world academies of science, Nobel laureates, and certain science journalists. You have to decide who you trust before you decide what to believe.

Wired: Why is it so hard to convince people, even when the science is so clear?

Simon Singh: Science has nothing to do with common sense. I believe it was Einstein who said that common sense is a set of prejudices we form by the age of 18. Inject somebody with some viruses and that's going to keep you from getting sick? That's not common sense. We evolved from single-cell organisms? That's not common sense. By driving my car I'm going to cook Earth? None of this is common sense. The commonsense view is what we're fighting against. So somehow you've got to move people away from that with these quite complicated scientific arguments based on even more complicated research. That's why it's such an uphill battle. People start off with a belief and a prejudice--we all do. And the job of science is to set that aside to get to the truth.

This should provide some insight into why it's been so easy for those with interests in the fossil fuel-studded status quo to mess with the public's understanding of something as complicated and unpleasant as climate change -- and for people to outright reject the idea despite having no scientific expertise on the topic.

Read the full interview over at Wired
More on Climate Science
The Danger of Armchair Pundits 'Investigating' Climate Science
Steel Cage Death Match: Climate Change Science vs. Corporate Interests
Beware False Balance in Climate Science : All Voices Are Not Equal

Tags: Global Climate Change | Newspapers | Television

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