One scientist can be wrong. But deny the scientific consensus at your peril | David Robert Grimes

The former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove is no stranger to the intricacies of intelligence. But it was his comments about intelligence of the artificial kind, and about science, on the One Decision Podcast, which he co-hosts, that generated a flurry of interest last week. Reacting to grave warnings from some scientists over potential dangers of AI, Dearlove professed scepticism, reasoning that such dire predictions cannot be taken overly seriously given the failures of scientists on Covid. Such comments betray a common and insidious confusion over what science is and how it should be interpreted, and risk emboldening scientific denialists.

Part of the error stems from a mistaken conflation of “science” and “scientist”. Science is not an arcane collection of dogma but an active and systematic method of inquiry. Science pivots on making testable predictions, which are updated as new findings emerge, to reflect the totality of evidence. Scientific positions are always transient, subject to revision when stronger evidence emerges. All scientific knowledge is provisional, therefore scientific advice is prone to change and can evolve at dizzying speeds during periods of intense discovery.

By stark contrast, scientists are people, susceptible to the same human flaws, biases and dishonest conduct as anyone else. Such failures were brought into sharp focus throughout the pandemic, when a small but vocal cohort of fringe figures with scientific or medical qualifications peddled demonstrably false assertions, encompassing everything from Covid conspiracy theories to anti-vaccine propaganda. These positions were profoundly unscientific and readily debunked. Despite a lack of substance, however, purveyors of these misleading positions were frequently buoyed by the veneer of respectability of their medical degrees and doctorates.

But any perceived insight that an individual scientist has stems entirely on them accurately reflecting the totality of evidence. When scientists fail to do this, they are no longer practising science, and any support that their education or credentials might seem to offer for their unevidenced position is entirely illusory.

In Dearlove’s defence, his frustration stems in part from recognition that a false aura of scientific respectability bamboozles the unwary, noting that “when you are an authoritative scientist in this area, and you put forward an extreme view – people listen to you”.

This observation is undoubtedly correct, and a minority of individual scientists can and do make assertions contrary to best evidence. Worse again, as scientists and doctors are among the most trusted members of society, they can do considerable damage when they champion unevidenced positions.

Andrew Wakefield’s campaign at the turn of the millennium falsely linking the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism is an infamous example of precisely this. While such assertions were even at the time utterly unsupported by reliable evidence, Wakefield’s trusted position as a physician-scientist helped his assertions dominate headlines, leaving a legacy of harm that persists even today, long after his work was exposed as fraudulent.

There is a crucial distinction between utterances of individual scientists and the position of the wider scientific community. Dearlove’s statement that “lots of supposedly brilliant scientists, and they are brilliant, said all sorts of things during the pandemic… and we now discover a lot of what they were saying was scientifically off-piste, wrong” betrays this fundamental error. In missing this distinction, Dearlove overshoots healthy scepticism and dives straight into heady cynicism.

There is a world of difference between the sometimes unsupported opinions of individual scientists and the collective consensus of scientific authorities like the World Health Organization or the National Health Service. Scientific bodies carefully assess all available evidence, debating and weighing it to arrive at an informed position. The resultant scientific consensus is far more robust than individual positions, and typically the basis for policy decisions.

Even with a collective of experts, scientific advice is never static. This is precisely how science should proceed, as self-correction is a vital hallmark of scientific endeavour. Advice on masks for Covid is a case in point. In the early stages of the pandemic, shortages of protective equipment and a paucity of evidence saw public health bodies worldwide decline to recommend them for the wider public. As evidence emerged that masks might be beneficial beyond healthcare settings and global supply improved, scientific bodies changed their advice. While a cynical reading of seeming volte-faces like this might be that science “got it wrong”, such interpretations fail to comprehend that science does not profess to offer inerrant truths, but rather continuously adapts with best evidence.

Aside from Dearlove’s implicit failure to differentiate between science and scientists, his remark had echoes of Michael Gove’s infamous line about the people having had “enough of experts”. However Dearlove intended it, his words have been warmly embraced by armchair contrarians. The advent of social media has seen an alarming upswing in political and ideological polarisation, with science often the first casualty of this divide. As the pandemic raged, this manifested in rejection of measures such as social distancing and vaccination along broadly political lines, even when evidence of benefit was overwhelming. Instead, we witnessed an explosion of anti-science conspiracy theories, with scientists unduly targeted for opprobrium for the sin of communicating evidence.

Even as the world swelters and burns, Republican candidates last week denied the reality of anthropogenic climate breakdown, with some decrying it as a hoax by scientists. Despite the incontrovertible evidence of a human-mediated climate crisis, a sizable contingent reject reality by smearing scientists as either fools or liars. Dearlove’s comments simply reinforce a false message that scientists cannot be trusted, and that science itself is a partisan undertaking. With science integral to our collective wellbeing, such comments ultimately serve only to undermine public trust and understanding, leaving us more divided and less informed.

Dr David Robert Grimes, a physicist and cancer researcher, is the author of The Irrational Ape: Why We Fall for Disinformation, Conspiracy Theory and Propaganda

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