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Keeping opinions out of science

Boz magazine, 67: 20, December 2000.

Brian J Ford

Last month none of us knew whether beef was safe, and now we do. A committee of experts at Brussels has issued a statement to say that the French have no reason to object to the sale of British beef, because it's safe after all. Oh that's all right, then.

This will come as a surprise to all the other scientists, who know that beef most certainly is not always safe. Nor are eggs. While we are at it, vegetables are full of dubious natural compounds and bread is bursting with gluten. Fruit causes allergies and fat blocks your arteries. The fact is that, like walking downstairs or crossing the road, we take a risk every time we eat anything. There is only one fact upon which everyone agrees - not eating any food poses the greatest threat of all.

The news of the decisions of that Brussels committee marks a further decline in the downward spiral of science. The truth of the matter is that scientists never have held 'opinions'. That's not what we are supposed to do. The modern version of management that tries to seek assurances in this way is giving us bowdlerized and unrealistic expectations.

Scientists are searchers for the truth, or at least they were always supposed to be. The problem is that, in the modern world, scientists are sometimes so insecure in their jobs that they tend to mouth conclusions that will please the employer, or at least not embarrass them. They find themselves making moral decisions, rather than presenting evidence.

The Royal Society is one of the world's great scientific academies, and they used to publish a statement that they did not offer opinions on any issue, since that was not the purpose of science. Years ago that disappeared, and in today's world official bodies are always being asked to issue statements on safety issues. The Royal Society's famously untranslatable motto, nullius in verba, really means 'there's nothing in words' - in other words, it's the facts we address, and not opinions. Passing opinions has never been part of science, and I find it curious that scientific bodies are suddenly taking it upon themselves to issue advice. In future we should confine scientists to divining the reality of complex situations, and not demand that they offer subjective judgments on matters of personal choice.

We often hear of 'the scientist and the public' as two camps. What we need to grasp is that the scientist is a member of the public. The problem is not the supposed gap between, say, the scientist and the cab-driver, but between the nuclear physicist and the haematologist, or between the biochemist and the astronomer. Modern scientists are so driven back into narrow disciplines that they lack the breadth of vision to make judgments anyway.

When it comes to questions of safety, no scientist is better than anyone else at reaching a conclusion. What they can do is determine the facts of the matter and present those as fairly as they can. Scientists regularly berate the media for 'getting things wrong', but at least the newspaper reporters can be forgiven for doing it: they don't know the science, and they have to sell copies. Scientists are also liable to confuse the issues and draw muddled conclusions, yet - with all that training and prestige - they have far less excuse for doing so.

So, was there any reason for the recalcitrance of the French? Were they merely being chauvinists, trying to divert attention away from their own insanitary practices? It remains the fact that the retail sale of beef on the bone is still banned in Britain, because it is not yet believed to be safe, which does little to mollify the objectors. There is also a recent finding that the use of humane killers to stun cattle at slaughter spreads fragments of central nervous tissue deep into many parts of the carcass. To top it all, we will still be reporting about 2,000 cases of BSE this year in British cattle.

Before we condemn the French for being totally unreasonable, let me try to put the problem another way. Just supposing that French Golden Delicious apples had been associated with a disease that destroys the human brain, and 2,000 of their trees still contained the infection: how many Golden Delicious apples do we imagine Britain, Germany or America would be importing from France today?

That's not a conclusion I am drawing, please note, just a question. I wonder how the Brussels scientists would pass judgment on that?

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