Updated at 10:30 am
Following my brief and angry post last week about Simon Jenkins’ wayward accusations against scientists in The Guardian, Bill Hanage and I have written a more temperate but no less strongly felt response that has appeared in today’s paper (page 33 if you have a copy).
The article has now appeared online (thanks to Richard for spotting it – see comments) but here below is the copy that we submitted (the printed version was slightly curtailed in the edit). I’ve also restored our original title since I prefer it to the one used by the paper (‘We’re not on a pedestal: peer review keeps scientists grounded.’)
Pedestals are not part of the scientific apparatus
Simon Jenkins is dismayed by reports of the lax behaviour of some IPCC scientists and the allegations of some stem cell researchers that their work is being held up by rivals during peer review. Conflating these stories with his ill-founded distrust of epidemiology he paints a grim picture of science and scientists as corrupting and corruptible: “They cheat. They make mistakes. They suppress truth and suggest falsity, especially when a cheque or a plane ticket is on offer.” According to Jenkins, the profession is a dangerous ‘clerisy’ that “wants the public to regard its role in society and the economy as axiomatic — with no obligation to prove it.”
If Jenkins aimed his rhetorical flourishes to get a rise out of scientists then, judging by the comment thread beneath the online version of his article, he succeeded admirably. The howls of protest are not so much from righteous anger however, as our frustration with his misrepresentation of the scientific process. Jenkins is an intelligent writer with an avowed love of popular science: why then does he have so little appreciation of how science really works? His closing statement betrays the scale of his misunderstanding: “Only when science comes off its pedestal and joins the common herd will it see the virtue of self criticism.”
If he had taken the trouble to talk to some real scientists, Jenkins would have discovered that very few are sat on pedestals—the vast majority live and breathe in a daily scrum with our intensely sceptical colleagues, whom we must convince of the logic and quality of our experiments. The fear of being found wanting by your peers is a powerful incentive for exactly the self-criticism Jenkins claims is lacking. We have no experience of the “two decades of uncritical flattery” that he alleges to have blunted scientific rigour. The peer-review process, unique to science, may be an imperfect and controversial mechanism for weeding out error but it is a powerful one. The great strength of science in the long run is its ability to transcend the acknowledged frailties of individual scientists. This is clearly seen in the fact that most of their mistakes are unearthed not by journalists or sceptical bloggers but by other scientists.
Jenkins might also have learned that scientists are a heterogeneous and rambunctious lot—people in white coats should not be mistaken for sheep. Popular science can sometimes give the mistaken impression that science is a linear progression from ignorance to glossy fact. But no human endeavour ever works so smoothly or can claim to be perfect. Science is not above criticism or argument— it is our stock-in-trade—but if you are going to take swipes at it, Mr Jenkins, you should take a harder look at the evidence.
The fact remains that science offers us the best hope of informing society’s difficult choices in an uncertain world, so it is important that scientific knowledge is communicated accurately to the public. Scientists are not in the business of handing down incontrovertible truths. We deal in observations and theories, couched in uncertainty and bracketed by error bars, to produce our best models of how the world works. Science is a messy and difficult business so the explanations that we have to offer are not always easy to digest. Talk to real scientists about their work and you will frequently find yourself deep within a narrative that is swathed in caveats and unknowns. These complex stories demand good communicators; scientists could do better at this themselves but we also need to enlist the help of talented writers who will take the trouble to engage with the reality of science. Mr Jenkins, we need to talk.