Refining Einstein

Poor old Einstein. He’s bound to be found wanting in the end, like Newton and Galileo before him. Though their scientific ‘laws’ were correct given the data available to them, and though their work is still used to predict motion on Earth and its surrounds, a better model encompassing the universe—Einstein’s—came along and relegated Newton and Galileo to the status of special case.

That’s the thing about science. It’s a process, with its own built-in error correction mechanism. It’s an endless debate, held in a forum where ideas and arguments can be tested and refined.

But where does that leave science communication? How is science to be reported? It’s mostly work in progress, but can the punters cope with that? Or can they only accept research presented in black and white, just the facts, the results, ‘the truth’? The answer to this question is important to the public support of research.

Archimedes was on the sidelines of such a debate recently. He and several colleagues had been involved in publicising research from a reputable institute, which had been peer-reviewed and published. The work pointed to a potential cause for a common type of cancer. It was preliminary and speculative, but interesting. And the publicity worked. The research was reported worldwide.

However, a well-respected senior researcher from another institute believed the work was flawed, the techniques inadequate and the results not credible. He took not only the scientists to task, but those involved in the publicity. Despite the fact that the work had already passed the examination of others, he thought it was irresponsible to report this speculative research, even when labelled as such. He thought the results would be misunderstood by non-scientists—that they would take them as fact, raising false hopes. Research should only be reported once it was fully proven or accepted, he argued.

Apart from the question of what constitutes fully proven, and by whom does such research need to be accepted, there are other problems with these attitudes. They assume that non-scientists are not only uninterested in science, but also incapable of understanding that it’s a process—that they just want to be provided with facts without any debate or uncertainty. Archimedes finds this view somewhat patronising and arrogant.

Worse, the implication that scientists should not involve or even make others privy to their debates—that they should simply hand down the results of their work as absolute truth—is absurd and dangerous. Whether it be stem cells or climate change, researchers need public support to turn their findings into something meaningful. And that means giving lay people a seat at the debate, so they too can be convinced, so they don’t have to take things on trust.

Just ask the succession of British governments whose handling of mad cow disease and a major foot-and-mouth outbreak, among other issues, has managed to destroy public confidence in government statements on food safety, genetic modification and vaccination.

Far from muzzling researchers, Archimedes votes for better communication and more public debate. Now, let’s get on with finding those flaws in Einstein. ?

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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