One of the things that is almost guaranteed to make me want to set fire to a newspaper is when a story (or worse, a headline) uses the phrase “scientists say”. You can be fairly sure that what follows is going to be spurious, nebulous and any other negative words that end in -ous. However, whilst I do hold papers responsible for crappy reporting as it should be their duty to research their output, I also recognise that there probably is a misconception in the wider public about the “scientists say” myth.
To boil it down, it seems to me that this “scientists say” idea has, at its core, a misunderstanding of how the scientific community gels together and how ideas, experimental data and fundamental concepts all flow around and are interconnected. To be honest, it’s no surprise that people who aren’t scientists don’t just automatically know this. After all, you don’t know how an industry works until you are actually immersed in it yourself.
With that in mind, I though I’d venture out of my ivory tower and give you crazy kids the scoop and hopefully do my part to banish “scientists say”.
Scientists say a lot. Doing a quick search on Pubmed for all papers published in the last year reveals (as of 20/12/10) 863405 publications in the database. That’s quite a lot. Pubmed is an invaluable resource for people in the bio and medical sciences that catalogues most publications in the field. It doesn’t list all the publications, but a good majority. There are also many sciences that aren’t covered in Pubmed. So, it’s justifiable to state that the number of scientific publications in the last year goes well into the millions.
As you might expect, this extensive list will cover the spectrum from brilliant to bland to downright bloody awful. But the point stands that in any given year, scientists, as a group, will say a lot about a range of topics. But this doesn’t really touch upon the significance that is implied when people state a “fact” (or even a non-ironic, accurate fact that lacks the sarcastic quotation marks) with a preceding “scientists say”.
The implication tends to be that the monolith of scientific opinion has decided that said fact is true. This usually misses the reality.
Science, scientists, and scientific consensus are all very different things. Science (with a capital S) is an approach and a mindset with which one can interrogate a phenomenon. Scientists, broadly speaking, are the people who have chosen to spend their lives doing this investigation. Scientists can be, as in any profession, exceptional at their jobs. They can also be awful. And there is a whole range in between. Scientific consensus is usually the concept to which people are really referring when they play the “scientists say” card. It refers to the overall sway of opinion of the scientists working in a given field. That last qualifier is important, because if (for example) every immunologist in the world suddenly decided that black holes don’t exist, that would not be representative of the scientific consensus.
This leads to an interesting dichotomy. One of the most important, and most misunderstood, aspects of science is that it is both highly dogmatic and yet radical. Scientific consensus on a topic can be a prolonged, and often bitter, process to arrive at. It can also be incredibly difficult to challenge the status quo. And yet, it can be done, even with the most mind-blowing and counterintuitive ideas. Some of the most fundamental aspects of modern science would probably be seen as pretty much heretical by scientists from 100 or 200 years ago. And there’s a good reason that it works like this. If you hope to describe and explain a fundamental working of the universe then your explanation better have the evidence to back it up, especially if it seems, at first, nuts. Consensus can be slow to change, especially if the older explanations seems to work pretty well. Newton’s law of gravity worked pretty well until that bloody Einstein came along and ruined the party. In fact Newton’s equations worked so well that for many they are all that’s needed. But Einstein gave us a more complete description of gravity in greater depth.
So the dogmatic aspect of scientific consensus is very important as it acts as a control against just running with the newest idea (though I freely admit that it does present problems too if it becomes overly dogmatic). But radical ideas do come along and they do change things. And eventually, radicalism can become the consensus if the idea can support itself.
So, the phrase “scientists say” really has a very different meaning to the way it is commonly used. More often than not, when you read that “scientists say” that [-insert extraordinary claim here-] and that [-extraordinary claim-] completely overthrows what we previously thought, what you’re normally really reading is that a scientist or a small group of collaborating scientists are claiming (through a press release) that their work is the most exciting thing ever. This is particularly damaging to the public perception of science, if that work is maybe not as rigorous as you might expect. The standard procedure for scientists working in a given field is that if a paper comes out detailing an exciting or controversial result, that community will turn their attention to testing the new claims. This is generally done by examining the paper for obvious flaws in the design of the experiment or errors in the analysis of the data. Other groups will almost certainly try to replicate your results and maybe improve on your original experiment (there’s no shame in that: often you’ll find that exciting but new experiments will be done on a small-scale and eventually refined and then enlarged). This can go on for a long time with results sometimes confirming the original result and sometimes going against. Gradually the evidence builds up and the community of scientists in the field will start to form a consensus opinion. If it transpires that the original, preliminary result was incorrect then it won’t be embraced. And this is the problem. As far as the public are concerned, scientists said one thing and now, almost a whim, they say another thing.
What has really happened of course, is that a handful of scientists tried to promote their idea which, to be fair, they probably did really think was exciting. Then their colleagues across the world investigated further and the evidence mounted that the idea was wrong.
So next time you read or use the phrase “scientists say”, just remember that the consensus might not be as you imagined.
And of course, all this has to be true. After all, I’m a scientist, and I say so. Boom!