Brutal honesty makes good science


The expression “Never say never” should be a treasured maxim of the scientific establishment. The whole basis of current scientific knowledge is the willingness to doubt, to question, to re-check and re-examine, even the very foundations of an accepted precept. Thus scientific advances have by no means been constant. There have been retreats as researchers made new discoveries that undermined or completely negated established theories. The core quality of good science is brutal honesty.

However, being a research scientist is a career like any other. Unless the discipline is at the sharp edge of investigation into the practical aspects of the likes of nanotechnology or genomes, which attract substantial private as well as public funding, research has to be paid for and the scientists undertaking it must justify their endeavors. Science is little different from other branches of academia. Those involved have career paths that are influenced by the number of papers they publish and, to a growing extent, the attention those papers attract.

The media feasts on a steady flow of research that is, however, often merely a statistical reworking of a number of earlier studies. This tends to agglomerate the previous results without taking into account the different methodologies of the original researchers. In some respects, this is dangerously similar to Wall Street’s subprime meltdown in which the dubious nature of the underlying assets was lost when they were sliced and diced into new securities for investors to buy. And just as the financial markets’ ratings agencies shamefully signed off on those securities as low risk, so some respected scientific journals have published these secondary scientific surveys without the appropriate peer review process that would have assessed the findings.

Thus the general public has been caught up by media coverage of statistical analyses variously announcing that staple foods such as milk, meat and grains were very good or very bad for those who eat them. Clearly one set of researchers has to be plain wrong. But in the First World, particularly the United States, where good health has become an obsession, the warning research has been taken up enthusiastically, so for instance there is now a startling growth among vegetarians and even vegans, who eat no animal products whatsoever.

The most prominent popular cause is global warming. The latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives governments a “final call” to act to contain global warming and avert worldwide environmental and social disaster. In the next 17 years the report estimates $2.4 trillion will be needed to limit greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on sea levels, droughts and floods. It would clearly be foolish to ignore the scientists. However, at the same time, are the scientists who are driving the global warming agenda betraying their calling by denying that this is any longer a debate, subject to research that might still challenge their conclusions?

Science may be pure but scientists are human. An Italian researcher at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has been suspended for telling a female audience that women didn’t by and large “do” physics. His comment may have been fatuous but did it deserve this response and the howl of condemnation from fellow scientists calling themselves “Particles for Justice”? After all, the statistics are clear. There are a few distinguished female physicists but the majority of physics researchers are male.