Simon Jenkins says scientists are presenting themselves as gods. Really?

This scientist is baffled. Not because someone has actually proven perpetual motion or extrasensory perception, but for an entirely different reason. It’s all to do with a journalist who, on the whole, deserves a great deal of respect. Sir Simon Jenkins has written columns for The Guardian, The London Evening Standard, The Times and the Spectator - to name just a few. He has authored a series of highly acclaimed books and is no slouch when it comes to breaking through the superficial in order to reach the detail. I do not necessarily agree with all his views but that doesn’t matter because like any good journalists, he does not necessary invite agreement rather than inspire introspection. 

And yet, despite all this, he seems to have a bit of blind spot when it comes to science.

He wrote a piece in the Guardian recently that left me, as I said at the beginning of this blog post, baffled. It seemed to confuse the issues, misunderstand the scientific process and present an uncharacteristic superficial picture. Was this really written by Simon Jenkins? Sadly it was and it’s not the first time he seems to have got his scientific wires badly crossed

Steven Curry (Professor of structural biology at Imperial College) has responded in the Guardian on more than one occasion but I could not resist a personal view on where I believe Simon Jenkins has got it wrong.

So what am I making all this fuss about? The essence of the article, entitled “Scientists aren’t gods. They deserve the same scrutiny as anyone else,” was that science seems very confused; one minute it says one thing, the next minute the opposite. From fat in the diet to diesel engines. Scientists are squabbling amongst themselves, jostling for the best funding and are guilty of hyperbole as they claim the next “astonishing breakthrough”. Nobody knows what to believe anymore, science is not subject to suitable scrutiny and he goes on to say that, “scientists would help if they would stop posing like gods” (read the article to get the context). 

At first glance he has a point. The media is full of scientific contradiction and sensationalised headlines. The media however, are notorious for getting it wrong in more ways than one. He unfortunately fails to break through this patina of media attention to get to the real story. Firstly, we have to separate science from the scientist. Science, or more correctly the scientific method, is an intellectual tool, a robust, systematic and logical way of figuring out Nature's reality.  It works objectively and removes human bias. And when I say robust and rigorous, I really mean it. Science is the toughest mistress on Earth. Science makes the most sadistic dominatrix look like mother Teresa. If you don’t like to be scrutinised then, believe me, science is not the place to be. Pretensions towards theological immunity could not be further from scientific reality.  Science demands that our starting point is, “we could be wrong.” Imagine what the world would be like if all priests started their sermons with, “I could be wrong but…”

Scientists, on the other hand are people and consequently they have the same human qualities as all of us. They make mistakes, have their own prejudices, egos, successes and failings. Like all people in all professions (journalism included), some scientists are really nice, honest and moral people and some are not.  So why would you expect scientists to be any different to anyone else - journalists, artists or politicians - when it comes to arguing their differences in public? But there is a difference. An assertion by a scientist, no matter how eminent, is not enough by itself to make something factual. The arbiter of what is true or false is science itself, which is independent of the scientist. In this respect a nice scientist is just as likely to be right or wrong as a nasty one. 

Of course, the general public do not necessarily distinguish science from the scientist. In fact several surveys have shown that the public have a rather poor understanding of what science is. I suspect that most people’s perception of science is somewhat like that of economics, few people apart from experts understand its workings but we all recognise its impact, particularly when things go horribly wrong. The aforementioned poll (and others Worldwide) indicate that the majority of people get their information about science from the media and yet, as I have said, the media are notoriously bad at science reporting.

In his blog “Stumbling and Mumbling”, Chris Dillow (economics writer at the Investors Chronicle) argues that bad science reporting is not just a matter of individual incompetence or time-pressures but it’s a systematic problem in journalism.  He points out that many journalists get paid less than their Public Relations counterparts. Some are using journalism as a stepping stone into a career in Public Relations and so are perhaps less critical of their sources than they might otherwise be. Furthermore, as Ben Goldacre says in his book Bad Science, “my basic hypothesis is that the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour”. 

It therefore seems to me that what Simon Jenkins is really complaining about is how science is communicated to the general public. On that we can both agree that there is much to be desired. He somewhat carelessly however, puts all the blame on science or the scientists but perhaps he needs to look deeper into his own profession before coming to that conclusion. Certainly some of the responsibility is on the scientists as they are notoriously bad at communicating to the lay public. There are many exceptions to this in the media, popular science writing, blogs and TV but sometimes the good stuff is hard to track down. University press releases are often to blame as they can misunderstand the nature of the media with which they are attempting to communicate their research.

Nevertheless, if his intension is to improve the public understanding of science, Simon Jenkins fails badly in his analysis. Science is about taking the evidence and then forming an opinion, not the other way round.  A philosophy to which he should give more thought perhaps. But, as I have said, I could be wrong.