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

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your leading article of 30 March exhorts us to "adopt a more balanced, informed and realistic attitude toward the scientific world". That would be easier if the ignorance of science expressed there was less widespread.

Science is a way of thinking: it tries to answer questions about how we and our surroundings tick. It does so by using evidence to test ideas on what the answers might be (hypotheses). Where evidence does not fit, the hypothesis is modified. If gathering that evidence takes much effort and time, and is open to the charge of being "grindingly boring" to some, then so be it.

Science does not have a set of answers waiting for every question. Moreover, there is never a sure answer, only one that is useful, so long as it works.

Science cannot tell us when a hamburger, or anything, is "safe", because nothing is safe. Life is risky. The problem lies in assessing the size of risk in any activity. With the possible (but undemonstrated) link between BSE and CJD, is the risk of life-long driving to the supermarket to get beef greater than the risk of contracting CJD by consuming that beef? Or greater than the risk of early death from cigarettes or alcohol got at the same time?

Scientists are no more "sorcerers" or "masters" than are, say, politicians. They should not be held in awe any more than others whose advice is worth heeding. But advice has to be assessed before it is accepted or not. That implies a two-way understanding between scientific adviser and advised, including an appreciation of what science is.

David Pedgley

Crowmarsh, Oxfordshire