Letter: Ask science the wrong questions and you get no answers

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your editorial on science and BSE (30 March) is so loaded with misconceptions that it is hard to know where to begin. You contrast the recent achievements of the physicists with the inability of science to answer our questions about Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

"It's all very well", you say, to explain the origins of the universe, "but if science cannot help us to explain why and when a hamburger is unsafe, we are bound to ask what use it is". This classic statement is followed by another: "We have not called them [the scientists] to account ... but we should". For exactly the same reasons Newton and Faraday should have been called to account. They were preoccupied with gravitation, planetary orbits, electricity and magnetism in a world beset by smallpox, plague, cholera and much more.

The refutation of your argument is contained within your own article. You quote Sir Peter Medawar's dictum that "Science is the art of the soluble", ie scientific success depends on asking questions that can be answered. But it should have been obvious that this cannot happen without the techniques that make it possible. Newton and Faraday, for all their genius, could not have answered questions about infectious disease. These were not in the category of "the soluble", nor would they be for decades, until scientists could stain bacteria with the new dye-stuffs of the organic chemist and look at them through the improved optics of the high-powered microscope.

If rational decisions are to be taken, the current problem needs to be seen in perspective. We are faced with a new disease, recognised only months ago. We do not know the infective dose, or the relationship of susceptibility to age, and we are not even certain of the mode of transmission. Since the incubation period is 5-15 years, a picture of the epidemic - and indeed whether there is one at all - will emerge only over a period of years. The technology does not exist that would make these problems "soluble" in weeks or even months and it does not help for you to complain that "after days (!) of deliberation, the top scientific brains ... are no closer to telling us for sure what risk we might face ... and what we should do to make ourselves safe".

Joel Mandelstam

Emeritus Professor of


University of Oxford