As you may well have heard by now, Ben Goldacre over at Bad Science has been involved in a wonderful altercation with both the anti-vaccination people there and with one of London’s big talk radio stations, LBC. And yes, this is happening just as Andrew Wakefield, one of the originators of the whole MMR vaccine flap, is being accused of falsifying data to make his case.
The full story can be found on Goldacre’s blog; see the link above for a starting point. The short version: LBC allowed Jeni Barnett, an outspoken opponent of vaccination, to vent her views for some 45 minutes in a prominent time slot. As Goldacre points out, she seems to have covered every possible anti-vaccine trope, despite the fact that some of them were mutually contradictory and many of them made little sense to start with. The British media – many parts of it, anyway – has not covered itself in glory on the whole vaccine-risk story, and this latest outburst was too much for Goldacre to take.
He posted the entire audio of the LBC show on his website, and that brought on threats of legal action from the radio station. And that move, as anyone who’s hung around the internet can tell you, made sure that the audio was immediately scattered around the world, with commentary, transcripts, and plenty of bad publicity. (You can find plenty of links to all of it here; I’m late to this particular party myself).
Goldacre makes an important point, one that’s been made before but has to be kept in mind when you’re listening to the news coverage of any disputed issue. He quotes Jeni Barnett as:
”. . . explaining endlessly that all she wanted to do was “start a debate” (because in the media everything is 50:50, and the truth lies exactly half way between the two most extreme views)
He's right; you run into that sort of thing all the time – readers who’ve had occasion to deal with Intelligent Design people and other creationists will recognize it immediately. “Teach the controversy” "Let's hear both sides of the debate", and all that. It’s another example of the disconnect between science works (or should work) and the political and social arenas. There are some big differences in the way disputes are resolved.
One of them is that, to a certain degree, questions do not remain open in scientific debate in the same way they do in politics. Fistfights are currently erupting over whether Keynes had a point about deficit spending in a recession (and if he did, how much is appropriate and in what way). Huge, ever-inflamed arguments take place over welfare, regulatory policy, defense spending, and other perennials. There are more than two sides to these kinds of issues. But come over here to the scientific world, where gravity really does diminish as the square of the distance between two objects; bacteria really do cause infections; sodium really reacts with water and yes, living organisms do evolve and change over time. Proclaiming that you disagree with these things just because you don’t like them, just think that they’re wrong, or don’t happen to believe them will get you nowhere in scientific debate. (That’s as opposed to political or religious debates, where those are all-too-common starting points).
But, at the same time, every question in science is potentially open. Look at all those facts I listed above – you can find ways around all of them. Gravity stops behaving in a perfect inverse-square way close to large masses. Not all bacteria cause infections, of course, and not all infections are caused by bacteria - and some bacteria that might kill one person could cause no problems for someone else. Sodium doesn’t do anything spectacular at all when it’s in the plus-one oxidation state, and even the metal probably doesn’t do much when exposed to water at, say, three degrees Kelvin. And organisms evolve at startlingly different rates and through a variety of mechanisms.
These two simultaneous principles – that questions really do get answered, but that the answers are always open to question – are what puzzle a lot of people about science. And they don’t fit well with the way that many people are used to arguing about issues. They can dwell on the first point and whack the scientific community over the head for having closed minds and unchallenged dogmas, or dwell on the second and claim that hey, they're all unproven theories, and here are some more theories to put on the table while we're at it.
But if you’re going to challenge some science that we think we understand, you’re going to have to bring the data. The bigger the topic, the better the evidence you’re going to need. You can do it – all kinds of cherished theories have gone down – but it’s not easy. If you’re going to claim that evolution doesn’t happen, or that we’re thinking about it all wrong, you’d better have some really impressive evidence (and coming up with an alternative with the same kind of explanatory power would help, too). If you’re going to claim that vaccines do more harm than good, or that they’re the cause of a specific terrible condition, you’d better have the numbers to back it up, not a mish-mosh of talking points.
Einstein’s work, for example, has stood up against all comers, taking on all kinds of extraordinarily painstaking experimental tests and passing every single one of them. If you’re going to beat relativity, you’re going to have to show up with absolutely epic skills. And that brings up a last point. When Einstein explained Mercury’s orbit (and more besides), he didn’t come in proclaiming that Newton was an idiot and that he’d gotten it all wrong. Isaac Newton, though an exceptionally weird human being, was very far indeed from being an idiot. No, relativity shows how under “normal” circumstances, Newton’s gravitational laws work wonderfully. Then it shows under what conditions they go off track, and predicts when that will happen and exactly to what degree. If you’re going to proclaim any new way of looking at the scientific evidence, you’re going to have to show how your breakthrough allows for something new to be seen, and you’re going to have to call your shots and be ready for the experimentalists to have a crack at you.
I find all this wonderfully exciting, and I've devoted my career to it. But it doesn't necessarily make for a quick TV or radio segment that will bring in a big audience, stir up a lot of noise and chatter, and (most importantly) raise the advertising rates. For that, you want politics, religion, or some tasty mixture thereof. . .