Yes, progress has been made: two cheers for science

Opinion – By Dr Richard Trembath

Each piece, or part, of the whole of nature is always merely an approximation to the complete truth, or the complete truth so far as we know it . . .The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment.  Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth”.

I have dithered over writing this piece.  In part that’s due to my normal dilatoriness.  But, also, I was looking for the right extract to bounce off without just setting up a straw man to knock down easily.  In the end I selected two articles from Barney Zwartz, long-term contributor to the Fairfax media on arts and religion and a very public defender of the continued social relevance of Christianity.  Two brief quotes then.  Firstly, one from around 2011.  Here, Zwartz stated that religion claimed a ‘transcendent status’, over and above ‘the human, temporary and contingent.’  Furthermore, ‘for many a belief in science has slipped into that category’ as well.  The other article I refer to comes from February 2018.  Then Zwartz spoke of four ‘secular faiths’ which had to a large extent displaced religion since the 1800s.  The first of these was science which could not now ‘recapture its 19th century innocence’ – a woolly phrase which I cannot clarify – as it had been ‘tarnished’ by eugenics, Mengele, biological weapons, and commercially motivated and bent research.  A grab bag of factors really.  Science is as damaged as religion, it seems, so its claims to some sort of intellectual superiority are tainted too.

My reaction to the above is that ‘religion’ is a silly term to apply to science.  It’s not that religion and science are polar opposites as some might suggest.[1]  It’s that they are different ways of explaining things.  If, for example, we are referring to those three verities of the curriculum, physics, chemistry and biology, science happens to be better at both explaining what is happening and predicting what might happen.  Pretty important really.

That’s my theme really: to reassert the unique status of science, or, more accurately, the scientific method.  I wish you to consider the evidence-based nature of contemporary science, its openness to questioning, modification if necessary, and sometimes, radical revision.  I stress that science is not a quasi-religion, the modern religion, or any form of religion at all.  Some practitioners have religious convictions.  How many, how few, I neither know nor care.  Scientists’ religious convictions, like my belief in the unlimited powers of Winx, the racehorse, shouldn’t influence the way in we interpret data, conduct experiments or posit new laws.  By ‘science’ I pretty much mean the lot – the so-called hard sciences and the social sciences.  A broad church then, my one concession to religion.  In this piece, though, my examples will derive from the health field because that’s the one with which I am most familiar and because it affects so much of our daily life.

According to the science-as-religion view, scientists see their statements as beyond question, its practitioners transmitting immutable truths.  Yet the bedrock of science is proof and the possibility of refutation.  One day some of what see as science now will be junked.  The bedrock of religious belief is faith.  Faith based claims may have the form of scientific statements, but they are immune to evidence as they can neither be verified or disproved.  Hence, the quotation from physicist Dick Feynman with which this article commenced.

Yet the media, old and new, and publishers looking for a quick buck, can seriously damage the public faith in scientific research by trumpeting the fake achievements of such as Belle Gibson or the Wellness Warrior, Jess Ainscough, whose desperately sad story reminds us of the dangers in reanimating pseudo-therapies which, like old bombs, should have been exploded years ago.  The respectable houses may be just as bad as a dodgy website.  The same company, Penguin Australia, who reprinted the famous Feynman lectures also published Belle Gibson’s work when one look at her should have convinced anybody that she had never been near an oncology ward in her life.

But there are other ways in which the media can distort science.  One is to go ‘woo hoo’ too promptly when claims about ‘cures’ are advanced.  I am not referring to the intermittent articles on ‘breakthroughs’ in treating cancer, malaria, flu, as I am to the promotion of therapies which have a doubtful provenance.  This is more common than you think.  For example, in October 2018, the Age published a largely uncritical article on a probiotic (a problematic term in itself?) called Qiara which, apparently, is effective in treating mastitis associated with breast-feeding.  That scourge of untested and doubtful treatments, Ken Harvey, from Monash was quick to point out the ‘dubious scientific evidence on which the probiotic claims are based’.  Science is not assisted by journalism which doesn’t do its research or is looking for a feelgood story about young mums.

What the media does sometimes get right is to expose those occasions when science goes wrong.  Not just individual cases of malpractice, the ubiquitous ‘Doctor Death’, though uncovering these and the systemic failure in monitoring malpractice is important.  More significantly, the media can draw attention to where unscrupulous industries, say, the pharmaceutical companies foist harmful products on the public and then do their utmost to hide their wrongdoing.  (It may shock you but the big pharmas are not always that forward in coming clean.)  The thalidomide scandal was once the most cited of these cases but perhaps is less familiar now to a younger generation.  Vioxx was another example, as was GlaxoSmithKline’s burying evidence about the dangers of prescribing anti-depressants to adolescents.  In recent years though, as the old media sheds its science reporters, it is disinterested researchers and the social media who are doing the investigative stuff.  Newspapers prefer crime and cold cases.

Which leads to a more general point.  In science’s weakness is its strength.  Ignore Zwartz’s silly point about Mengele and biological weapons: scientists can be as venial, frightened, psychopathic or patriotic as any other individuals.  If science gets it wrong it has the DNA which enables it to change some feature, some explanation so that in future it gets it right.  Mistakes, mindsets, paradigms, all can alter.  This does not mean that one takes the relativist road to the post-modernist freeway where all knowledge is in flux and indeterminate.  Social beliefs affect science, of course, as science is not conducted in a sealed laboratory on Mars, but they affect it in subtler fashion than relativist thinkers believe.  Some of those in the humanities might want to get quantum right before they twist it to support the argument that physics or biology are largely social constructs.

I am not asking for science literacy, partly because I am uncertain what that means.  Anyway, I don’t think that it’s achievable in a world crowded out by knowledge systems expanding exponentially.  I would argue for the weaker ideal of science familiarity, which perhaps can be discussed at another time.  In the interim, don’t believe you can by-pass science and its evidence base for what is traditional or natural.  Don’t equate science with belief based on faith and faith alone.  Think about what science has achieved in the last century and a half and thank whoever that there is no short circuiting the painful task of proof.

[1] A strange metaphor anyway.  If you think about it the poles are pretty much the same really, cold, barren etc.  Only the geography is different.

 

Richard Trembath is the author of several books, mostly in conjunction with colleagues. These include All Care and Responsibility: A History of Nursing in Victoria with Donna Hellier; A Different Sort of War: Australians in Korea 1950-53Divine Discontent – The Brotherhood of St Laurence: A History (with Colin Holden);Witnesses to War: The History of Australian Conflict Reporting (with Fay Anderson). His most recent book is Defending Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service Since 1945 (with Noah Riseman) which was published in April 2016. Richard’s current research interests are the history of military veterans’ organisations and the social history of contemporary medicine.

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