It’s time for the priesthood to be taken to task – and journalists aren’t up to the job
You’d think from the way that science tends to be reported in the popular prints, as they used to be called, that Professor Helsing von Frankenstein goes into the dungeon laboratory of his castle one morning, dons his white coat and – by elevenses, and working completely alone – discovers a way to kill all known germs, tautologically. He gets his assistant, Igor, to set up a press conference at lunchtime, at which the professor emphasises that the research raises more questions than it answers. By teatime he has won the Nobel prize and his magic nostrum will be available on the NHS next morning. It’s always a “he”, by the way – received wisdom finds no place for female scientists, unless they also happen to be young, photogenic and, preferably, present television programmes.
Well, as we all know, science doesn’t work like that. Scientific research gets trapped in more box canyons than the Lone Ranger; does more U-turns than the average government; falls to certain death more often than Wile E Coyote; has more women in it than you might at first imagine (though probably not nearly enough); and generally gets the wrong answer.
As my learned colleague Dr Sylvia McLain, who is both a scientist and a person of the opposite sex, explained here just the other day, this is business as usual. All scientific results are in their nature provisional – they can be nothing else. Someone will come along, either the next day or the next decade, with further refinements, new methods, more nuanced ways of looking at old problems, and, quelle surprise, find that conclusions based on earlier results were simplistic, rough-hewn – even wrong. . . [Read more]