Tom Feilden: Are we experiencing a crisis in scientific authority?

I’ve been meaning to point to this essay for the last week or so, but today is only the first chance I’ve had. I’ve written before about the almost pseudo-religious respect that SCIENCE and scientists are given in some quarters of society.

(Which I don’t actually begrudge – better them than clergy.)

But the overly worshipful tone leads one to think that when a SCIENTIST speaks, it is always an infallible pronouncement. And therefore all public policy decisions need to be based on the pronouncement.

The problem is that science, even at the very best level, is only an approximation of reality. And anyone who’s ever done serious science knows that sometimes the approximations are used because no one has any idea of a better or more accurate way.

All of this leads to a certain fuzziness in scientific claims. Ideas are shared, they’re either accepted or rejected. If strongly enough accepted, they might be termed a “law”. Until something greater comes along to disprove them…

And it’s that fuzziness and fundamental contingency to scientific thought that Tom Feilden is writing about in an essay on the BBC website:

“‘The ambiguities of science,’ he says, ‘sit uncomfortably with the demands of politics and the need for certainty in decision making’.

The problem is that scientists are often called upon – as if they were authority figures with some special inside knowledge of ultimate truth – to pronounce on issues where there may be huge uncertainties about the risks involved. While science may be the best way to come to a better understanding of these difficult questions, it doesn’t have all the answers.

In the real world, Lord Krebs argues, issues that involve uncertainty or questions of risk are rarely black and white. What might appear to one person like a sensible precaution in the face of climate change or an outbreak of an infectious disease, might to another seem like a gross over reaction.

What’s needed, Lord Krebs says, is more maturity – both from scientists in terms of explaining the issues, and from politicians and the public when it comes to interpreting the evidence.”

Read the full article here.

The full essay makes the point I’ve tried to make elsewhere on this blog more elegantly and eloquently than I have, so do read it. Perhaps you’ll get the point that I keep prattling on about.

(BTW: There’s been some more developments in the theory that gravity is not a fundamental force but rather a macroscopic effect of quantum information flow. It’s very appropriate that this should come out at the time when this essay is reminding us that all science and scientific thought has an inherent contingency built into it.

I’m hoping to blog on that new theory tomorrow.)

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

2 thoughts on “Tom Feilden: Are we experiencing a crisis in scientific authority?”

  1. Grave stuff indeed. I always thought KBD was glory – but while translating Lamentations 2 this past week – whew – not an easy or cheerful exercise!, I notice that KBD, the same three letters is used for liver – the ‘heaviest’ organ.
    I love the idea that the observed is created as a byproduct of ‘all things upheld’ at a micro level.
    Here is my Lam 2:Kaf
    Knowing tears, my eyes are consumed
    My belly is in turmoil
    Poured on the ground is my liver
    over the destruction of the daughter of my people
    for the babes and sucklings are weak
    in the plazas of the town

  2. Thanks for this, Nick. I have tremendous respect for scientists but I always am frustrated by those who take whatever they say as a given. I’m old enough to have seen several ‘standards’ go by the way – especially in medicine. One of my frustrations is in talking to young seekers, including my own daughters, who blithely assume that all the mysteries will be figured out by the scientists…

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