LETTER: Science cannot give political answers

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The Independent Online
Sir: John Gillott (letter, 28 March), berates Ulrich Beck for talking about the "mistakes and shifting stages of scientific knowledge". Mr Gillott seems to think that there is a single rational approach to scientific issues which will lead us to social progress. Science works in terms of probability, not certainty. The knowledge it gives is essentially provisional.

A glance at last summer's issues of Nature or New Scientist shows scientists adopting a range of positions over the proposed sinking of Brent Spar. Within the past ten days we have seen some scientific experts in the BSE- CJD field tell us that they have stopped eating beef, others that they are even prepared to let their children eat it.

The widespread misunderstanding that science gives certainty is dangerous because it opens us to the misuse of science as rhetorical tool. This was done by ministers when for the best part of a decade they invoked science as proof of their assertion that British beef was completely safe.

David Packham

School of Materials Science

University of Bath