2000s >> 2009 >> no-1259-july-2009

Pathfinders: Chimps, Chumps and Cheetahs

As evolved and unintelligently-designed bald chimps everywhere must surely know, this year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. However they may be less aware that it is also claimed to be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the 300th anniversary of the start of the industrial revolution and, perhaps less debatably, the 50th birthday for the Mini automobile (www.culture24.org.uk/history/art66265).

Crowning all these trivial achievements this month is of course the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. What can one say of this historic event? At the time it was hard to overhype. One small step for a man, one giant poke in the eye for the Russians, it supposedly gave us velcro, teflon and digital watches, but more to the point, it promised to launch the bone-throwing chimp species, Kubrick-like, into the galaxy.

And, er, that was it. Apollo the space overture was not followed by the opera. Since then the veterans who knew how to get to the moon have all died or retired, and now the tyro NASA chimps are back where they started, arguing about rockets and facing Obama funding cuts instead of Kennedy largesse.

What did it all mean? Not much, except to show that in science, as in share prices, optimism can overrun the cliff-edge of experience, a fact which often escapes young chimps who imagine that scientific progress is secure, inevitable and limitless. Perhaps this is because, in the non-scientific world, we don’t tend to hear about the null results, the blind alleys or the dead-ends, we only hear the success-stories. This may mean, argues NASA climatologist Peter Dizikes, that we foster unrealistic expectations of science in practice: “The way we teach science is that Newton said “X” and it’s correct, so learn this formula. This promotes the idea that science knows all the answers. Whereas when you look at any actual working scientist, whether it’s in climate change or medicine or building a nuclear power plant, the stock in trade of science is uncertainty; it’s not certainty” (www.salon.com, 19 June).

It doesn’t help that capitalism is all about hard sells not hard truths, a blizzard of con rackets, snake oil cures, kwik-fixes and pseudo-solutions that all too easily make us into chumps who forget to ask the right questions. Too often the media will breathlessly report anything scientists offer them, without any provisos or qualifications, just to grab a slice of reader attention. Grey areas require grey matter, but who’s got the time? To take a random sample of the latest news items, we learn, ‘according to new studies’, that boys who have a ‘warrior gene’ are more likely to end up in violent gangs (Yahoo News, 5 June), that squeamish people are more likely to be conservative (Yahoo News, 5 June) and that engineers are more likely to become terrorists (New Scientist, 13 June). There is not space here to detail all the ways in which these studies may be misleading, misguided or plain wrong, but sample size, experimenter expectation and the possible existence of conflicting studies would be three avenues to explore for starters.

A possible fourth is fraud. When politicians or bankers turn out to be corrupt nobody raises an eyebrow. When catholic priests turn out to be kiddy-fiddlers the world reacts with weary resignation. But when scientists fiddle data everyone throws up their hands in shocked amazement, because scientists are for some reason expected to be above that sort of thing.

Yet there are some legendary cases of scientific fraud, and it turns out that the latest and as yet unnamed addition to the periodic table, element 112, was held back from recognition by years because one member of the team was sabotaging the results by falsifying data (New Scientist, 20 June). Worse, scientific fraud may not be rare but commonplace. A recent survey involving over 11,000 academics found a third of scientists admitting to ‘massaging’ research data and one in fifty indulging in outright fakery: “When scientists were asked about colleagues’ behaviour, 14 percent said they had witnessed research fraud and almost three-quarters said they had seen questionable behaviour”. Socialists won’t be surprised to learn that “misconduct was most common in clinical, medical and pharmacological research, where large grants are often at stake” (TimesOnline, 7 June). Naughty chimps! Me Tarzan, you Cheetah.

Or should that be naughty orang-utans? A new paper that flies boldly in the face of the genetic evidence suggests that humans are biologically closer to the red apes than to chimps or bonobos, an idea which is causing widespread splutterings of derision in the scientific community. Nevertheless New Scientist (20 June) sees fit to lead with a lofty editorial on why we should welcome scientific heresy, even if it’s wrong: “Alternative hypotheses should be given an airing … science that pulls up the drawbridge on new ideas risks becoming sterile.” How true, even if it does sound a little defensive from a journal which is drawing fire for being too sensational and populist.

But heresy is risky, and scientists can be as conservative and risk-averse as anyone else. Privately many scientists could put together the same ‘heresy’ socialists propose, which is that capitalism, once the friend and sponsor of good science, now is more its enemy than its ally. It controls the funds and the fundamentals, it calls the tunes, it forms the corrupting context in which science does its work. In a capitalist world where politicians are vile, bankers are venal and priests are paedophiles, it can hardly be a revelation to find that science is as bent as everything else. But will they speak out against the system which holds them in check? Not while they have a vested interest in not doing so. That’s why we have to do it for them.

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