Scientists aren’t gods – quite the opposite: they’re fallible and accountable

I don’t know whether ‘Sir’ Simon Jenkins has acquired the clout to by-pass sub-editors and supply the (sub-)headlines to his own articles. If he has, then he palpably lacks the nuance one might fairly expect from a journalist of his seniority and standing, his recent piece – Scientists aren’t gods. They deserve the same scrutiny as anyone else – suggesting he’s not much better than any outrage-provoking, clickbait-generating hack.

Simon Jenkins

His stance is clear from the off: he being of sound body and mind has no need of science-based medicine, though he still takes an avid interest in it, albeit with decreasing impartiality. Or rather, the news of it. And there’s the crux: terms such as ‘imminent salvation’ and ‘disaster’ are not routinely the utterances of scientists – but of the journalists who, in striving for the human interest angle, report on their findings. If scientists are resorting to such language, warning of the vested recalcitrance of our response to climate change, or of the urgent public health need to address antibiotic resistance, then it’s with good reason and we can be pretty certain we ought to pay heed.

Quite why Jenkins couples the batty prognostication of Noel Edmonds with the real problem of antibiotic resistance in the same paragraph, I don’t follow. Does he suggest that, because doctors are becoming so unreliable, then it is wholly understandable why people turn to quackery? Then he perhaps ought to consider why that is so – because the trade in which he toils is far too ready to provide platform to the deluded and ignorant pronouncements of useful idiots. Celebrities most certainly aren’t gods, but the media renders them such, seizing on their every utterance in order to bait clicks and sell copy – all in the name of ‘balance’, of course.

The anti-medical science propagandists who frequent comment threads under contentious articles drawing attention to some or other quackery are keen to remind those who defend the scientific angle that most published research is erroneous. Well, yeah! And here we have a respected senior journalist supplying grist to their mill. Presumably, then, Jenkins is supportive of the AllTrials campaign, instigated – note, by medical science – in order to compel pharmaceutical companies to be wholly transparent and prioritise patient safety.

But perhaps his revealing that he was a “social scientist” (his quotation marks) reveals a long entrenched antipathy. He asks, ‘Does anyone evaluate the staggering sums devoted to quantitative easing, or the costs and benefits of crime policy or VAT differentials?’  I take his logic to be that, were more money devoted to such “lesser” research – and less spent on cancer research – then society would be better off. Well, aren’t those areas the patch of politicians, (Cough!) bankers, economists, etc? (Many of whom share his Philosophy, Politics, and Economics degree.) Those who, lest we forget, all too often get it wrong.

Ah, but then we find Jenkins contradicting himself – often an indicator that the writer does not wholly believe what he is writing:

‘When scientists argue in public we find it unsettling. We should not. Intelligent people are struggling to solve real problems through open debate. Better that this debate is open so that fads, conventions and vested interests can be challenged. But scientists would help if they stopped posing as gods.’

So, he condemns public scientific disagreements as scraps for cash; then lauds them as necessary part of the process. And goes on to suggest a diminishing of school scientific education and/or endorses the postmodern rejection of scientific authority (“social scientist”, see)? Help me out here, Simon!

Science is riven with disagreements, factions, egos, politics and commercial motives. It is impossible for science to be removed from politics, because it affects – indeed is vital to informing – necessary policy. But no right-minded scientist professes the ‘truth’, a religious term frequently the resort of anti-science lackeys: the homeopathy cultists; the anti-vaxxers; the New Agers, etc. All scientific knowledge is provisional, subject to challenge, revision and change. Properly done, it goes where the evidence leads. Unfortunately, for those embroiled in the practice of this caliginous art, it often leads along meandering and undulating paths, up blind alleys to frustrating dead ends, confusing outcomes/destinations requiring re-evaluation and occasional jettison of pet nurtured hypotheses and a career’s worth of effort. This is difficult for those who labour in a reputation-dependent – highly scrutinised – profession. It can be ugly, it can be cruel, it can be alienating. It is difficult, hard work, collectively practiced by a mixture of types, including some of the most decent, intelligent – humble – people you could ever meet; and, yes, also by some of the most career-minded, manipulative, arrogant shits. Science is imperfect – it is human activity, after all. Far from operating like rarefied gods, scientists – brilliant and mediocre (I was once of the latter) – striving toward an objective understanding of reality, do that striving in the real world.

Jenkins’s argument is hardly new, is it? I mean, it reads like he’s gone through old notes and cuttings, simply to provide some antagonising clickbait to his editor. Not to the credit of either. Perhaps they should occasionally consider more reflexive scrutiny.

3 responses to “Scientists aren’t gods – quite the opposite: they’re fallible and accountable

  1. Simon Jenkins is capable of some damn fine journalism but there seems to be a blind spot when it comes to science. I find it a little baffling because he’s committing an almost schoolboy error of building a straw man and then knocking that down, thinking it’s the real thing. And for someone with his experience … ?

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