Friday, 13 May 2011

Precautionary sirens

As a professional scientist, it gives me no pleasure to say that much of the science reporting we see in the media is poor quality. Too much is garbage.

Science-based scare stories seem to have become routine tools of policy-makers with the assistance of lazy or scientifically incompetent journalists. Natural systems are dynamic. They also tend to be unquantifiable in their behaviour and even boundary conditions tend to be uncertain. The two go together – dynamism and unquantifiable behaviour. This is chaos theory looming large.

For 40 years too many scientists and science journalists seem to have been in denial about the practical implications of the non-linearity of most natural systems from the climate to bird populations to epidemiology to economic trends. These systems are unpredictable and may quite possibly remain so. Often we can’t tell the difference between:-


Too many scientists and science journalists use uncertainty to promote the drama of the unknown, touting the most dramatic outcome as possible, probable or in extreme cases, certain. Remember the BSE scare? Remember SARS ? Recall the wildly skewed estimates of human fatalities?

The so-called precautionary principle is the lever - and it works because we don’t know how to assess accurately events that lie somewhere between improbable and impossible. As a result and with the malign help of funding pressures, political interference and poor journalism, exaggerated claims have become routine in numerous areas of scientific endeavour. There is always some screwball scientist prepared to spout a bit of shroud-waving nonsense in exchange for some funding and a headline or two. We know it because we are exposed to it. It’s all there in the data of daily life.

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