Tuesday, 16 August 2011


By Mike Wiggett

On 7 August I wrote about the gulf between the prodigious achievements of science and often negative public attitudes towards it.  Modern prosperity owes everything to science, but we don’t celebrate it: we don’t instil in our children an enthusiasm for the wonder of scientific inquiry or an understanding of the Scientific Method.  

Science still wanders at the margins of popular culture. WW2 sowed the seeds of this alienation.  War is always a major spur to scientific research and development. It leads to great technological advances – computers, rocketry, jet engines – and also, regrettably, to nuclear and biological weapons.  And in wartime, research is conducted in conditions of utmost secrecy. 

Thus the main elements of public perception of science in this era were twofold: fear (of its colossal power) and mystery. In the war movies of the 50s and 60s, the heroes were soldiers and fighter pilots; scientists were mere “boffins”, “back-room boys”, and “men in white coats”.  In science, geekdom reigned, and the less the public knew about it, the better.
Not much has changed.  Ordinary people remain alienated from science, no matter how familiar and cherished its products. How many of us can diagnose the faults of a car engine, are confident of not getting ripped off by the repair man? Who can understand the electronic circuit boards of a computer, or even change a light fitting?

People not only see science as difficult and daunting, they often take pride in their scientific incompetence. An arts graduate might feel embarrassed to expose ignorance of T S Eliot’s poetry in a pub quiz, but that same person will proudly aver utter hopelessness at maths. The implication is that science is only for nerds, and may be safely discounted. How desperately stupid and wrong! 

Of course, most occupations require no familiarity at all with interferometric microscopy or the Higgs boson, but a basic science education offers everybody one of life’s most precious tools: the habit of evidence-based thinking, an earnest desire to see reality as it is, not merely how one would like it to be. Absence of evidence-based thought in human affairs is seriously corrosive.
An example: consider the former doctor (“former” as in “struck off”) Andrew Wakefield. In 1998 he gained wide publicity with an article in The Lancet claiming to have established a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children. However, studies failed to corroborate Wakefield’s “evidence”, which later turned out to be fraudulent. Still the damage was already done: vaccination rates fell sharply, and a number of children have suffered harm or even death in consequence. 

A vivid memory from this period is the BBC News headline on the General Medical Council’s conclusions: “Doctors find the vaccine safe, but we talk to a mother who disagrees.” Appalling!  One can sympathize with a mother who thinks, “My son had the vaccine, my son is autistic, ergo...” but the BBC, as a responsible public broadcaster, should know that the plural of anecdote is not data.
Rejection of science in favour of mere whim is commonplace.  Prince Charles has championed the cause of homeopathy, a quack “alternative” medicine proven in countless clinical trials over 175 years to be utterly ineffectual.  But some people still swear by it.  Fine, swear away!  Only don’t lie about the curative benefits of homeopathic nostrums. The closure of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital in September 2010 was a triumph for reason and the NHS budget.

A hilarious aspect of homeopathy is that, even by its own lights, it cannot work! The pseudo-scientific methodology set in place by its founder, Samuel Hahnemann, ordained that the supposedly active ingredient of a homeopathic remedy be repeatedly diluted – to the point where it is completely absent!  

In the 1990s, homeopaths tried to counter this objection with the time-honoured ploy of the snake oil merchant: make it up as you go along. They enthusiastically embraced a Pythonesque notion from the French chemist, Jacques Benveniste; water memory. OK, there may not be any active ingredient, but the water in the homeopathic solution “remembers” it! OK? Benveniste even claimed laboratory evidence for his hypothesis, but nobody else could reproduce his results. Besides, if water can remember the “cure”, why doesn’t it also remember all the sewage it has ever been part of?

Uri Geller with bent spoon
In the 1970s, a young Israeli illusionist, Uri Geller, achieved worldwide fame with his spoon-bending antics on TV.  The mood of that era was credulous and almost everyone lapped it up.  The difference between Geller and a regular stage magician was that Geller attributed his skill to “psychic” powers. They lapped that up too!
But Geller was called out by the great illusionist and skeptic, James Randi, who said; “Hey, I can do all that stuff too, and it’s just trickery.” Geller repeatedly tried to sue Randi to shut him up, without success. Randi has since offered a $1 million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers. The offer has stood for over 20 years, with no takers. 

James Randi
It is perplexing that so many people are distrustful of science, and yet those same people readily believe all kinds of monkeyshines for which there is no supporting evidence whatsoever! Homeopathy, faith healing, crystal therapy, astrological prediction, palm reading, paranormal and “psychic” phenomena, communication with the dead, reincarnation, Roswell aliens, the Loch Ness Monster...the list goes on and on.

The Loch Ness Monster?...

I have not forgotten our invisible friend in the sky, but religion will keep for another day! Let me close by warmly recommending the animated movie version of Tim Minchin’s beat poem, Storm, much in tune with the theme of this blog and available on YouTube. 

Mike Wiggett retired in 2005 from the mundane business of international trade credit. The foreign business travel was OK, but he now enjoys travelling for pleasure, reading, scribbling and Thinking About What To Do Next.


  1. I've thoroughly enjoyed both your blogs, Mike, but I have to take issue with your claim that there is "no supporting evidence whatsoever" for paranormal and psychic phenomena. Renowned biologist Dr Rupert Sheldrake has been examining these and conducting his own experiments for years and has amassed a huge body of evidence (which I suppose you would call anecdotal) in support of the existence of what he calls "the seventh sense" (which few would dispute exists in animals - for example the "collective thinking" which appears to be the only explanation for why roosting starlings don't bump in to each other).

    I drew heavily on Sheldrake's fascinating and accessible book, THE SENSE OF BEING STARED AT for my novel STAR GAZING and I lifted the well-documented story of the mind-reading African Grey parrot, N'kisi.

    We refer quite readily to "animal instinct". Serving soldiers talk about developing battle awareness which allows them to sense when a gun is trained on them. I therefore see no reason why there shouldn't be parts of the brain that operate in ways we don't yet understand.

    Sheldrake writes: "Historians of science... have recognised that at any given stage in the history of science, phenomena that do not fit into the prevailing model, or paradigm, are dismissed or ignored or explained away. They are anomalies. Yet they refuse to go away. To the embarrassment of the reigning theories, they persist. Sooner or later science has to expand to include them... Meteorites were anomalies in the 18thC. In the perfect mathematical universe of Newtonian physics, there was no possibility of stones falling from the sky seemingly at random. So when people claimed to have seen such things happen, scientists felt they had to deny them, explain them away as illusions, or dismiss them as superstitions."

    Or to put it another way, "There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy." ;-)

    You might enjoy the irony of this quote... Elsewhere in his book, Sheldrake writes: "The phenomena of the 7th sense have largely been ignored within universities and scientific institutes and academies. In spite of the dedicated work of the small band of psychic researchers and parapsychologists, this field of investigation is still the Cinderella of the sciences."

  2. I've thoroughly enjoyed both of your blog posts too, Mike :-)

    Although I agree with Linda that there are many amazing things in the natural world that we do not yet understand, I think it is only a matter of time before these things are explained by science, either as newly discovered/understood phenomena or alternatively as illusions. I also warmly recommend Tim Minchin's Storm: The Animated Movie:


  3. Whatever happened to crop circles? Do they still happen? Or were they exposed as fake?

  4. I don't know much about crop circles, Linda. I do know that following my sharing of a link to this blog on my facebook page, today is providing a great crop of articles and blogs about the status of science, pseudoscience and the misrepresentation of science in the media, for example:

    Ben Goldacre's classic "Don't dumb me down":

    Scientific American blog on Pseudoscience and the London riots:

    And finally...
    The Status of Science: We Have No-one to Blame but Ourselves:

  5. PS. The final link above on the Status of Science is an interesting read, especially the comments. I have to say, as someone who works full-time in Science Outreach, that I am more optimistic about the Status of Science Outreach than the perspective given in this article. What do you think?

  6. It certainly does seem hard to popularise science and be taken seriously. Prof Brian Cox seems to be knocked for his haircut as much as the fact that he's not actually an astronomer. Prof Susan Greenfield is passionate about popularising science, but is derided in the media for wearing mini-skirts.

    Young kids love science. TV audiences love science. Everyone loves science fiction. If you ask me the problem is journalists, or rather their editors. Are they interested in anything other than personalities and adversarial sound bites?

    I don't feel all that optimistic about the popularisation of science. One of the reasons I got out of teaching years ago was because no one was interested in teaching critical thinking as a discrete subject to primary pupils, even though they loved it (young children are natural philosophers) and research proved the teaching of critical thinking raised attainment across the board.

    We get what we settle for. And as Mike points out, most of us are scientifically illiterate.

  7. [Mike Wiggett posting as Anon, since I don't have a Blogger account.]

    Linda, I'm personally allergic to Rupert Sheldrake and his ideas (being very polite here...), sharing the view of many scientists and skeptics that Sheldrake has drifted off into pseudo-science and "woo".

    As you say, there is much about the brain, indeed about the universe, that we don't understand. That doesn't warrant positing paranormal hypotheses like a Seventh Sense.

    If Sheldrake thinks he has discovered paranormal phenomena, then he can take a pop at James Randi's $1 million prize. But I don't think he'll dare. Instead, he tells us all about paradigm shift, but that doesn't mean he's riding on one! Let him stop showboating and produce the evidence.

    Research into the paranormal has been going on for over 75 years in places like the Rhine Research Center without producing one scintilla of hard evidence of ESP and other paranormal ideas. It is ignored because in all that time it has produced nothing of scientific interest.

    Crop circles: a couple of guys in Wiltshire owned up to starting this practical joke, and have demonstrated how they do it. Clever, but no aliens needed.

    Popularisers of science: I wish them well - if the media are talking about their haircuts and skirts, at least that proves their presence is noticed!

    Susan Greenfield has also received much criticism within scientific circles for her courting of media attention to her own ideas. She is adept at producing sound bite hypotheses, but her professional colleagues complain that she doesn't back them up with research papers!

    Paula: I love all of Goldacre's stuff on pseudo-science and the Tim Minchin movie (which I also recommended in Part 1 of by blog here!) I haven't yet read your Status of Science link, but will do so.

  8. Mike, it doesn't seem very *scientific* to dismiss Sheldrake with the words "Sheldrake has drifted off into pseudo-science and "woo"." The fact that other scientists dismiss him cuts no ice with me. Galileo was regarded as a crank and it was a scientist who discovered the "link" between autism and the MMR vaccine.

    I'll dismiss Sheldrake when someone explains to me how starlings roost without ever bumping into each other. It isn't thanks to a form of avian communication. Bird reaction times have been measured and they can't move fast enough to respond to a command from a head bird (and which bird could that be as they move as one body?) But if they are moving with a collective brain, this would account for the behaviour.

    As for the main topic of Sheldrake's THE SENSE OF BEING STARED AT, I've observed in the course of my work that many people can detect that they're being watched *with intent*. (It's almost an occupational hazard for me as a novelist!) I frequently watch people because I want to observe their appearance or behaviour. What happens eventually on far too many occasions for it to be chance is that the person observed looks up. They don't look around, they look directly at me and their expression is not happy. I am forced to break eye contact, but they already know I was observing them because they looked directly at me.

    I was recently reading Steven Pinker on phobias (and I assume you don't think Pinker is a "pseudo-scientist"). He explained that common phobias such as spiders and snakes are a remnant of our primitive brain, a part which fears dangerous animals. (Pinker was very amusing on the subject of why Chicago kids are phobic about snakes which they've never seen except on TV, instead of drug dealers and gunmen who present far more of a threat to their existence.)

    Pinker said we are all born with these fears as a (redundant) survival mechanism, but almost everyone grows out of the fear. In other words, the brain forgets.

    If there is a primitive part of our brain that fears potentially dangerous animals, I have no problem believing that there is another primitive part of our brain that can detect when we are being observed *with intent*.

  9. Linda, you say:
    "Galileo was regarded as a crank and it was a scientist who discovered the "link" between autism and the MMR vaccine."

    There are two major problems with your statement.

    First of all, and most importantly, there is no scientific evidence at all for any link between autism and the MMR vaccine. As Ben Goldacre says in his blog on the media MMR hoax:
    "Even if it had been immaculately well conducted – and it certainly wasn’t – Wakefield’s “case series report” of 12 children’s clinical anecdotes would never have justified the conclusion that MMR causes autism, despite what journalists claimed: it simply didn’t have big enough numbers to do so."


    Ben Goldacre has a lot more to say on this suject and I recommend reading what he has to say if you want more information:


    In contrast, there is scientific evidence showing that there is no link between autism and MMR:

    The key paragraph in this paper for those who are not accustomed to reading academic journals is the first one in the discussion section, which reads:
    "This study provides three strong arguments against a causal relation between MMR vaccination and autism. First, the risk of autism was similar in vaccinated and unvaccinated children, in both age-adjusted and fully adjusted analyses. Second, there was no temporal clustering of cases of autism at any time after immunization. Third, neither autistic disorder nor other autistic-spectrum disorders were associated with MMR vaccination. Furthermore, the results were derived from a nationwide cohort study with nearly complete follow-up data."

    The full academic reference (citation) for this paper is: Madsen, K. M., Hviid, A., Vestergaard, M., Schendel, D., Wohlfahrt,
    J., Thorsen, P., et al. (2002). A population-based study of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and autism. New England Journal of Medicine, 347, 1477–1482).

    Secondly, I don't think it is appropriate to group Galileo and Andrew Wakefield together as though their actions or the way they were treated are in someway similar. The General Medical Council, in considering the MMR case, found that Andrew Wakefield was “misleading” “dishonest” and “irresponsible”. In contrast, Galileo was tried by the Roman Inquisition and placed under house arrest because he refused to stop supporting and defending the heliocentric view (which placed the Sun at the centre of the Universe, and thus conflicted with teachings of the Catholic Church). Thus, Andrew Wakefield was condemned by a group of his scientific peers, whereas Galileo was silenced by the Catholic Church.

  10. A desire for brevity led me to condense my thinking about Galileo and Wakefield. I should perhaps have referred to Wakefield as a "so-called scientist" (or, to borrow Mike's expression, a "pseudo-scientist".)

    The point I was trying to make was not that Galileo & Wakefield had much in common, but that they were both scientists who were condemned for their findings (in Wakefield's case, quite rightly) by scientific authorities. In Galileo's day the Roman Catholic Church would have been regarded as *the* scientific authority. We might not agree now, but that's how the Church was seen then.

    (Btw I'm not sure from your comment whether you think *I* believe there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. I don't.)

  11. [from Mike Wiggett]

    Linda, dismissing Sheldrake as a pseud is no more and no less (un)scientific than saying he's cool. At this point it's just hypothesis and counter-hypothesis. Moreover, Sheldrake is the one who owes a scientific explanation for his views: extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.

    A mark of wisdom is the ability to say "I don't know". Humans have a strong need to explain their world with stories, but sometimes there just isn't a convincing one. Believers in the paranormal often accuse scientific skeptics of being know-all and arrogant. ("There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio...") In fact the boot is on the other foot: scientists are humbly admitting they don't know there is such a thing as (say) ESP - it's the believers who insist they do know!

    Pseudo-science offers pseudo-explanations. If there is a scientific mystery, an unknown - let us call it X - you don't turn it into a known merely by giving it a fancy name in place of X. Referring to a "Seventh Sense" is no more informative than X about this putative phenomenon and the way it connects with the real world.

    Time and again, real world phenomena that seem to defy reason are eventually explained by science in a way that makes clear sense. Richard Wiseman's book, Paranormality, is a fun read that bursts a few bubbles.

    Bird roosting/flocking behaviour is one puzzle that I thought had been largely solved a while ago. Birds don't respond to a command from the head bird (how would that be delivered?), but only need to react to visual input from the next bird on their starboard bow in a chain leading to the head bird. That's all! There are accurate computer simulations of bird flocking behaviour using amazingly simple program algorithms based on the "where is the next bird?" question.


  12. Thanks for the further clarification with respect to Galileo and Wakefield, Linda. I suspected as much, but wanted to clear up the ambiguous statement straight away. Also, yes, I think that in Galileo's day the Roman Catholic Church was considered the authority on most (if not all) matters, including scientific matters, as you say, but that doesn't necessarily make them scientists.

  13. PS. I just realised that I am now the one making ambiguous or easily misinterpreted statements. Sorry! To the best of my knowledge, throughout it's history the Roman Catholic Church (similarly to other religious organisations) has included both scientists and non-scientists. Unfortunately for Galileo, the Inquisition (which I think of as a subset of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole) was more interested in maintaining their authority than they were in discussing new scientific ideas.