Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington is stepping up the war on pseudoscience with a call to his fellow government scientists to be “grossly intolerant” if science is being misused by religious or political groups.
In closing remarks to an annual conference of around 300 scientific civil servants on 3 February, in London, Beddington said that selective use of science ought to be treated in the same way as racism and homophobia. “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality...We are not—and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this—grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method,” he said.
Beddington said he intends to take this agenda forward with his fellow chief scientists and also with the research councils. “I really believe that... we need to recognise that this is a pernicious influence, it is an increasingly pernicious influence and we need to be thinking about how we can actually deal with it.
”I really would urge you to be grossly intolerant...We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems.
“There are enough difficult and important problems out there without having to… deal with what is politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense.”
Beddington also had harsh words for journalists who treat the opinions of non-scientist commentators as being equivalent to the opinions of what he called “properly trained, properly assessed” scientists. “The media see the discussions about really important scientific events as if it’s a bloody football match. It is ridiculous.”
His call has been welcomed by science groups, including the Campaign for Science and Engineering.
Edzard Ernst, professor of the study of complementary medicine at Exeter University, whose department is being closed down, said he was “delighted that somebody in [Beddington’s] position speaks out”. In an interview with Research Fortnight Ernst said that the analogy with racism was a good one and that he, like Beddington, questioned why journalists have what he called “a pathological need” to balance a scientific opinion with one from outside of science.
“You don’t have that balance in racism,” he said. “You’re not finishing [an article] by quoting the Ku Klux Klan when it is an article about racist ideas,” Ernst said.
“This is strong language because the frustration is so huge and because scientists are being misunderstood. For far too long we have been tolerant of these post-modern ideas that more than one truth is valid. All this sort of nonsense does make you very frustrated in the end.”
Ben Goldacre, a science journalist and medical doctor, agrees. “Society has been far too tolerant of politicians, lobbyists, and journalists wilfully misusing science, distorting evidence by cherry-picking data that suits their view, giving bogus authority to people who misrepresent the absolute basics of science, and worse,” he told Research Fortnight. “This distorted evidence has real world implications, because people need good evidence to make informed decisions on policy, health, and more. Beddington is frustrated, and rightly so: for years I’ve had journalists and politicians repeatedly try to brush my concerns on these issues under the carpet.”
Scientists need to fight back, he says.
In closing, Beddington said: “I’d urge you, and this is a kind of strange message to go out, but go out and be much more intolerant.” He asked his audience to forgive him for what appear to have been unscripted remarks, adding: “But it is a thing that has been very much at the forefront of my mind over the last few months and I think we need to do it.”
*This is an update of an article first published on Monday 14th February 2011.
This article was published in Research Professional, the UK’s leading independent source of news, analysis, funding opportunities and jobs for the academic research community.