Sorry, but there is no simple truth

The media comforts the public with the suggestion that science proceeds in a realm of facts and certainty. Scientists know that it just ain't so

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Since it seems to be open season in blaming the media, and as editors up and down the land are wearing sackcloth and ashes, maybe I should make my own modest admission. Let me therefore say here: the media's coverage of science is gently misleading you, dear reader. We are not giving you the whole picture. Even our blanket coverage of this week's British Association for the Advancement of Science, at Leeds University, will omit important aspects of the science on show.

But surely science coverage is one of the few areas in all the media where facts are clear, where one can be sure that bias will not intrude? Not so. One of the most consistent sounds that will be heard this week, and any other week, is of science journalists pursuing scientists to try to get them to say "We know that ..." when the scientist will only say "The evidence suggests ..." or "Further research might tell us if it's correct that ...".

For example, yesterday morning Professor Roy Harrison, who works at the University of Birmingham's Institute of Public and Environmental Health, was asked after his lecture on "The Urban Atmosphere: Composition and Consequences" to say where the best place was to live if you have asthma - the countryside, or the city?

It seems like a simple question that modern science should be perfectly equipped to determine. We can measure ground ozone levels. We know what sorts of things trigger asthma. So what did the professor reply?

He adjusted his spectacles and said, "There's no simple answer." He explained that ground-level ozone (which can trigger asthma) is actually higher in the countryside, because the nitrogen oxides emitted by car exhausts destroy ozone near the point of emission (the city) but help to generate it further away (the countryside). But other aspects of city living may make it hazardous for asthma sufferers too.

"In fact, the Department of Health is very cautious about whether to tell people to stay indoors on days with high ozone levels," Professor Harrison explained. "Should asthmatics stay inside, where there might be house mites which could cause an attack?" Trying to turn complex ideas like that into comprehensible, instructive soundbites for non-scientists leaves experienced journalists feeling as if they have spent an afternoon wrestling well-soaped eels. It is not at all like dealing with politicians, who purposely use language to obscure their motives and aims, but not accomplishments. Nor does it resemble the treasure hunt of investigative journalism, the pursuit of facts and events that someone has purposely kept hidden. Rather, it is a world where the city of scientific proof merges into a hinterland signposted "Fairly certain", whose border is marked "Don't know".

Professor Frank Close, of the Daresbury Laboratory in Oxfordshire, and one of the most articulate particle physicists in the country, describes the moment in 1967 when he found himself at that border. "The first day I started as a research student my professor said to me, `Before today, everything in the textbooks was definite and known. After today, you'll never feel as happy with the work and the results you get. You will always feel it's not as true as the work of Pythagoras and Archimedes.'"

But what now feels strangest, Professor Close comments, is that "things that I have experienced over the years as uncertain results, to be confirmed, students today now read as definite in their textbooks." The process of science has turned the unknown into the indefinite, and then into the definite - the known.

That is what you tend not to hear about: the process by which the uncertain becomes the understood. If you like, it is a bias against misunderstanding, since people can so easily take scientific dispute to mean that the whole edifice of science is flawed. Derek Roberts, the outgoing president of the Association, said last week: "I don't think we want to portray debates in science. It could undermine public confidence in science." You will not find any sessions about scientific uncertainty at the BA this week; you have to recognise it in the way that answers are hedged with "evidence suggests" and "we're fairly certain that".

Yet with all that science can offer - from subatomic particles to the Big Bang - it still seems perplexing that first, we must represent it as offering certainties that it actually does not provide; and that with so much proven science, many people prefer "parascience" such as astrology, crystal healing or claims of alien abductions.

"People are looking for certainty," Professor Harrison noted. "But the press has a lot to answer for, especially at the lower end by peddling as near-certainties things that are actually very uncertain." The trouble is, humans love it. Our highly developed ability to reason - discerning cause and effect - means we will seek it even when it is not there. Superstitions emanate from that ancient need to control what we cannot understand. It is so deep-rooted that scientists spend years learning the procedures drawn up over centuries that will erase that fallacious seeking for certainty.

But what about the non-science, the "pseudoscience" and "parascience" that so many people are moving towards amid the pre-millennial tension? Personally I find it hard to believe that anyone bothers with horoscopes; now, surely the events of the past week have shown that they are utterly useless for forecasting the future. Equally, I was certain enough before last week of the absurdity of the "Bible Code", which claims that when analysed by mathematical techniques, the original Hebrew version of the Bible predicts all the significant events of the 20th century. The fact that the Daily Mail had to delay by a week the publication of extracts from this absurd trash, because of a sadly unpredicted accident, should put the wrap on it.

But I know that it won't. People will still want to believe in the unbelievable. Frank Close recognises it, and sounds indulgent when he considers the fact.

"You know, I sometimes wonder what would happen if, for example, science actually proved that there was something like, say, ESP. You know, experiments that said how strong it was, when it worked and when it didn't, so we knew it all. You know what? All those people who believed in it when it wasn't science wouldn't then shift their belief over to the science of ESP. They'd move onto something else that science hadn't got to yet."

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