I’ve just watched the latest edition of the BBC’s Horizon programme, Science under Attack, in which Paul Nurse, the current head of the UK’s Royal Society goes out to try to understand why there is so little trust in science at a time when our reliance of technical devices and the results of scientific enquiry are greater than ever before.
It’s a fascinating programme, very thought provoking, and a hugely enjoyable one. Paul Nurse also comes across as a clear thinking but very gentle, amiable individual who gets his points across quietly and seems to try as much as possible to let the story tell itself.
In what was for me, the high point of the programme, he goes to meet James Delingpole. If you haven’t heard of him, Delingpole is a blogger and columnist with the Telegraph who has gained a huge audience because he has been responsible for bringing the “Climategate” (his word) “scandal” to a wider audience.
Part way through the interview, unprompted, Delingpole says something quite extraordinary: “Science has never been about consensus”. Pardon me? Did I hear that correctly?
Needless to say, Nurse does not let this comment pass unchallenged. He says that the consensus, rightly or wrongly, is the majority opinion at the time in the light of the available facts. He also adds that for most scientists, to break out of the consensus is precisely the way to make their career and become famous – he doesn’t say that you win Nobel Prizes by stepping away from the consensus view, but that is the sub-text.
And then, Nurse does something very clever (or underhand and devious, if you look at the comments on Delingpole’s blog). He asks whether, if faced with a dread disease, whether Delingpole would be prepared to go against the medical consensus – i.e. the generally agreed best practice in the light of the symptoms and diagnosis. Delingpole is completely blind-sided by this and is left gasping and floundering. All he can do is try to recover his composure and then demand that the discussion be moved back to climate science because medicine, he says, is irrelevant.
And this is where Delingpole is so totally wrong and shows how little he knows about how the science he so criticises actually works. For him, the word consensus seems to be a synonym for the word conspiracy. It is a strangely paranoid world that he inhabits. And in his blog (which everyone should take a look at because he takes the ad hominem attack to a new level) he completely misses the point of the programme. What Nurse is trying to get at is why in so many areas of science, the agreed consensus rejected by so many people. Or rejected selectively. Which is why he has gone to Delingpole.
As a chemist and practicing scientist, “the consensus” is the stuff of textbooks. When I pick up my copy of Cotton and Wilkinson’s Advanced Inorganic Chemistry, I am looking for the broad consensus view and it is worth thinking about what this “consensus” actually boils down to.
I can look up, say, the ionization energy of hydrogen. This is not a number we can know the true value of. The only way we can know it is through measurement. I measure it using a prism, a hydrogen lamp, and some graph paper and get a value. I make an estimate of the uncertainty (what you call “the estimated error”) and then submit that to a journal. They publish it. Of course, that’s not the value. Chances are, someone else is interested in hydrogen and goes off, uses a transimission grating and gets a new value. It’s different from mine. How do we know who is right? Well, what we do is yet another measurement. And then another and then another. The more measurements we make, by different methods, using different assumptions, the closer we are likely to be to the answer. Eventually, everyone converges on a value that satisfies almost everyone. [If you really want to know the ionization energy of hydrogen to six significant figures, the NIST spectroscopy pages are the place to go – the value seems to have converged in the mid 1980’s and the implicit confidence level is close to 1 part in 106]. Coming up with such values for every element gives us trends in ionization energies that help us understand bonding, electronic structure, the colours of compounds, and the oscillator strength of vibrational or electronic absorption bands. In other words, from small measurements, come further hypotheses that, as they are corroborated mutual support each other and end up forming part of an ever wider and higher level “consensus”.
And it is here that Delingpole, in his desire to play to the gallery – should we be surprised that he got 1.2 Million hits on his site in a day when he “broke the Climategate scandal” – completely misunderstands the issues. He has been seduced by the recurrent and romantic meme of the underdog triumphing against the establishment. Of the little guy – Copernicus, Galileo, Koch, Pasteur – who beats the corporate big boys at their own game. He sees himself unsheathing his sword in this battle, doing his bit for truth. He is Erin Brokovich.
But what Delingpole forgets is that Sennert, Boltzmann, Planck and others are the memorable exceptions (some of them anyway). And as historians of science will tell you, the stories of under-doggery that you get in those classic tales of scientific derring-do, like Paul de Kruyff’s Microbe Hunters are just that – tales. The story is always more complicated and the meme is a powerful rhetorical device, but not one that is really justified by statistics.
More importantly that it was the very voices in the wilderness – Tyndall, Arrhenius, Callendar and Keeling – that have slowly become the consensus. Delingpole has missed the revolution. The dialectical process of science is running its course and the only weapon he has left is insult and slander because he hasn’t go the quantitative background to do anything else.
It’s sad. But I’m sure it’s very lucrative too.