Belief in Science

I recently read something from a libertarian who accused people who “believe in science” as followers of a religion. The first point was, how can you so believe when you find well-credentialled scientists on both sides of an issue? The writer claimed that certain people may prefer people do not know this, but dissenting experts exist on many scientific questions that some pronounce as settled by a consensus. It claims credentialled maverick are often maligned as having been corrupted by industry, while scientists who view the established position are pure and incorruptible. So what do you think of that?

One comment lies in “well-credentialled” and “both sides of the issue”. By the time I started science in earnest, so to speak, Sir Richard Doll had produced a study showing heavy smoking greatly increased the risk of lung cancer. At the time, epidemiology was a “fringe” part of medicine but the statistics showed the truth. Naturally, there were people who questioned it, but I recall a review that showed that cigarette smoke contained a large number of chemicals that could be called carcinogens. One, 3,4-benzopyrene, was so active it guaranteed a cancer if a smear was applied to a certain strain of mice. Yes, they were particularly susceptible, but the point was obvious. Cigarette smoke contains a number of carcinogenic chemicals. Yet for years papers were produced that showed cigarette smoke was “harmless” and something else must be doing it. These were published in fringe journals and while the authors had credentials, they were being paid by the tobacco industry. So much for “both sides of the issue”.

A major criticism that comes to my mind is that the author does not understand what he is talking about. Science is not a collection of facts; it is a methodology for attempting to obtain the truth. Like any other activity, it does not always work well, but in principle you do not accept a statement based on the reputation of the speaker; that is the logic fallacy ad verecundiam. Unfortunately, what actually happens is so many are just plain lazy so they do not seek to check but rather accept it. Of course, if it is not important to you the consensus usually makes a lot of sense because you have not examined the details. Further, you accept it because you are only marginally interested. If someone says that a vaccine has passed a clinical trial in which x thousand people took part, there were no adverse effects and the vaccine worked, I take their word. The alternative is to check everything yourself, but you know that a procedure is in place where independent people have checked the statements, so I accept they are true. Science works by recording what we know and building on it. If there was a huge conspiracy to hide some real problems with a vaccine, the conspirators would eventually be found out, and an extended length of time would be spent in a rather uncomfortable cell.

Another criticism was that the “truth” comes down from a set of anointed scientists, and dissenters can be ignored because they are outside the group that matters. There is an element of truth in this. The anointed always get funding, and they get to peer review other funding applications. Dissent from the anointed means it is far more difficult to get funding. Further, the number of citations and publications you get means more funding. This leads to gaming the system, but such gaming cannot work with a dissenter. Sometimes, up to fifty scientists may agree to be authors on a number of papers (If you have fifty, they should produce fifty times the output of one.) But nobody counts the degree of share, and worse, they can keep citing all the papers within the set when one is being written, so automatically the number of citations jumps. Nobody notices they are self-citations or looks to see if they are relevant. That may seem unfair to others, but with money at stake, scientists also do what they can. This funding anomaly does lead to a group consensus.

Another example lies in climate change. Whether there is consensus is irrelevant; the question is, is there a definitive observation? I concede that initially I was suspicious, largely because there was a lot of modelling but not many facts. The theory was known, but the models ignored too many variables, and nothing seemed to have happened to the climate. The theory suggested there was an effect, but at first there was not much evidence for it. Then the evidence of warmer times started to come, but against that is climate has always changed. What was needed was a definitive set of measurements, and eventually they came (Lyman, J. M. and 7 others, 2010. Nature 465: 334-337.) What this showed was between 1993 and 2008 there was been an increase in the heat power delivered to the oceans of 0.64 w.m-2. That may not seem to be much, but multiply that across the area of oceans and you will see the planet is getting a very substantial net power input over a long period of time. We are cooking ourselves, but like the proverbial frog, we seem not to notice enough to do much about it.

One final comment. I wrote a chapter on climate change in my first ebook, which was about how to form theories, and which not only included the reasons why we should recognize the effect is real, but also I listed some previous technologies that could go some way towards reducing our dependencies on fossil fuels. These were all published or recorded in various archives, and one of the interesting things about this is that none of the recommended technologies have been proposed to be used. It is almost as if work done in the 1970-80s might as well not have been carried out. So what seemed to be “state of the art” then is now forgotten. There are problems in dealing with scientific issues and getting value from them, but group consensus is only temporary, and anything that can be forgotten probably will be. You don’t get science funding resurrecting the wheel, but you get somewhere. The question is, do we really want to get somewhere?

The future did not seem to work!

When I started my career in chemistry as an undergraduate, chemists were an optimistic bunch, and everyone supported this view. Eventually, so it was felt, chemists would provide a substance to do just about anything people wanted, provided the laws of physics and chemistry permitted it. Thus something that was repelled by gravity was out, but a surprising lot was in. There was a shortage of chemists, and good paying jobs were guaranteed.

By the time I had finished my PhD, governments and businesses everywhere decided they had enough chemists for the time being thank you. The exciting future could be put on hold. For the time being, let us all stick to what we have. Of course there were still jobs; they were just an awfully lot harder to find. The golden days for jobs were over; as it happened, that was not the only thing that was over. In some people’s eyes, chemicals were about to become national villains.

There was an element of unthinking optimism from some. I recall in one of my undergraduate lectures where the structure of penicillin was discussed. Penicillin is a member of a class of chemicals called beta lactams, and the question of bacterial tolerance was discussed. The structure of penicillin is (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penicillin) where R defines the carboxylic acid to that amide. The answer to bacterial tolerance was simple: there is almost an infinite number of possible carboxylic acids (the variation is changing R) so chemists could always be a step ahead of the bugs. You might notice a flaw in that argument. Suppose the enzymes of the bug attacked the lactam end of the molecule and ignored the carboxylic acid amide? Yes, when bacteria learned to do that, the effectiveness of all penicillins disappears. Fortunately for us, this seems to be a more difficult achievement, and penicillins still have their uses.

The next question is, why did this happen? The answer is simple: stupidity. People stopped restricting the use to countering important infections. They started to be available “over the counter” in some places, and they were used intermittently by some, or as prophylactics by others. Not using the full course meant that some bacteria were not eliminated, and since they were the most resistant ones, thanks to evolution when they entered the environment, they conveyed some of the resistance. This was made worse by agricultural use where low levels were used to promote growth. If that was not a recipe to breed resistance, what was?

The next “disaster” to happen was the recognition of ozone depletion, caused by the presence of chlorofluorocarbons, which on photolysis in the upper atmosphere created free radicals that destroyed ozone. The chlorofluorocarbons arose from spray cans, essential for hair spray and graffiti. This problem appears to have been successfully solved, not by banning spray cans, not by requesting restraint from users, but rather by replacing the chlorofluorocarbons with hydrocarbon propellant.

One problem we have not addressed, despite the fact that everyone knows it is there, is rubbish in the environment. What inspired this post was the announcement that rubbish has been found in the bottom of the Marianna trench. Hardly surprising; heavy things sink. But some also floats. The amounts of waste plastic in the oceans is simply horrendous, and only too much of it is killing fish and sea mammals. What starts off as a useful idea can end up generating a nightmare if people do not treat it properly. One example that might happen comes from a news report this week: a new type of plastic bottle has been developed that is extremely slippery, and hence you can more easily get out the last bit of ketchup. Now, how will this be recycled? I once developed a reasonably sophisticated process for recycling plastics, and the major nightmare is the multi-layered plastics with hopelessly incompatible properties. This material has at least three different components, and at least one of them appears to be just about totally incompatible with everything else, which is where the special slipperiness comes from. So, what will happen to all these bottles?

Then last problem to be listed here is climate change. The problem is that some of the more important people, such as some politicians, do not believe in it sufficiently to do anything about it. The last thing a politician wants to do is irritate those who fund his election campaign. Accordingly, that problem may be insoluble in practice.

The common problem here is that things tend to get used without thinking of the consequences of what is likely to happen. Where things have gone wrong is people. The potential failure of antibiotics is simply due to greed from the agricultural sector; there was no need for its use as a growth promoter when the downside is the return of bacterial dominance. The filling of the oceans with plastic bags is just sloth. Yes, the bag is useful, but the bag does not have to end in the sea. Climate change is a bit more difficult, but again people are the problem, this time in voting for politicians that announce they don’t believe in it. If everybody agreed not to vote for anyone who refused to take action, I bet there would be action. But people don’t want to do that, because action will involve increased taxes and a requirement to be better citizens.

Which raises the question, do we need more science? In the most recent edition of Nature there was an interesting comment: people pay taxes for one of two reasons, namely they feel extremely generous and want to good in the world, or alternatively, they pay them because they will go to jail if they don’t. This was followed by the comment to scientists: do you feel your work is so important someone should be thrown into jail if they don’t fund it? That puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? What about adding if they question who the discovery will benefit.