Science in the dock for ‘biggest failure’

Genius and sage: Einstein (left) and the Dalai Llama (right), a leading Buddhist monk.

Is wisdom truer than science? As a former health secretary accuses the UK of the “biggest failure of scientific advice for a generation”, some are questioning scientific truth itself.

How often have you recently heard the words: “follow the science”?

With the nation’s health on the line – as it is in the current pandemic – academic experts and professional researchers are called to the front-line of the decision-making process.

Most politicians know the limits of their knowledge, so they ask for guidance.

In the UK – where one in 400 have the coronavirus and more than 33,000 have died from it – commentators are asking what went wrong.

This week, the former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, went further. He criticised the government’s failure to follow the countries that had dealt most effectively with the pandemic and described it as “one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes”.

Sir David King, the chief scientific adviser to several former prime ministers, pointed out that the countries that successfully curtailed the pandemic all followed the WHO’s advice. He suggested that the UK failed to do so because of an “arrogance in the British scientific community”.

So, did the scientists get it wrong? And If the advice received by the government was not kept secret, would other scientists have set the record straight?

Some say more openness would make a huge difference. But this still assumes that there is such a thing as a scientifically “right answer” – a foolish assumption. Many experts have pointed out that science is actually a subjective discipline – if it weren’t, why would scientists disagree so much?

Despite this, many assume that some kind of science is the ‘ultimate truth’. This is a very new idea. Historians point out that, for most of history‘, the highest form of truth was religious. The modern respect for data and evidence is not impregnable. Apparently objective facts can turn out to have been subjectively selected and interpreted.

“Society implicitly acknowledges this for it does not want to be run by scientists. We want to be run by human beings who have qualities of wisdom and judgement,” one best-selling historian told The Day.

Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of physics and astronomy, suggests that scientific knowledge is analogous to an island, whose shores expand and recede along with our discoveries. But there is no final destination – no theory of everything.

“As the island of knowledge grows,” he says, “so do the shores of our ignorance – the boundary between the known and unknown.”

The French thinker, Michel Henry, argued that putting too much reliance on science reduces the importance of simple human experience. He credits pre-scientific societies with having “a fundamental knowledge of life”, which allowed them to produce art and religion more remarkable than anything possible in our modern age.

Recent elections have shown that democratic elections often choose politicians who seem to understand something general about human nature rather than something specific about how the world works.

Indeed, as the UK government now suggests, sometimes we just need to follow “common sense”. Many define this as a form practical wisdom.

So, could wisdom be truer than science?

Mind over matter

No. Though it cannot be applied to every situation, scientific reasoning has allowed our species to conquer countless diseases and transform the face of our planet. Faced with foes like the current outbreak of Covid-19, there is no better bet than siding with the scientists. They are the only ones trying to get it absolutely right.

Yes. By definition, no scientific knowledge can ever be absolutely true. Theories are only correct until they are proven wrong. Models will never fully predict the future. Though harder to pin down or prove, a higher wisdom drives most of the decisions we make. It is present in the stories we tell ourselves, the knowledge we learn from our parents, the laws made by our leaders.

You Decide

  1. What is something that you know that could not be proven by science?
  2. Would you rather live in a world run by Albert Einstein or the Dalai Llama?

Activities

  1. Design a scientific experiment to prove if going to school is good for you or not.
  2. Write a short story (one side of paper will do) imagining a world where scientists – disastrously – make all the important decisions.

Some People Say...

“The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.”

Karl Popper (1902-1994), philosopher of science

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
For most of human history, science has been a niche pursuit appealing only to a small section of society. The truth that defined most people’s lives was religious. Science should be open to criticism and debate. Both Jeremy Hunt and David King have challenged the secrecy of the UK government’s scientific advisory group. Hunt argued that “because its advice is not published, it cannot be subjected to scientific challenge”.
What do we not know?
The interesting debate is around how much of our own learning of the world we sacrifice by outsourcing our pursuit of knowledge to a limited number of experts.

Word Watch

Curtailed
Limited; stopped; reduced in extent or quantity. From the Latin word for a horse with a shortened tail.
WHO
The World Health Organisation recommended that countries test, track, and trace in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Impregnable
Unable to be captured or broken into.
Subjectively
Based on personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
Analogous
Something that is similar to another thing.
Recede
Move back or further away from a previous position.

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