Tuesday, 3 April 2007

The science of scaremongering

Here's Dr Vincent Gray on what he calls Premature Science:

Our entire civilisation is dependant on past discoveries of science and technology. Where would we be without electricity, the motor car, television, telephones, computers, modern medicine.
All of these discoveries and developments went through long processes of ideas, prototypes, snags, and impossible obstacles before bcoming reality. Maybe somebody claimed too much too early some time but most of us did not know about them until they were actually on sale, and known to actually work.
All this seems to have changed. Every day our TV programmes and newspapers are full of claimed "breakthroughs", new discoveries which "might" or "could" change or destroy our lives, but which never seem to actually do so.
It all seems to derive for the current scramble for funds. It seems you are unlikely to get next year's grant unless you make an extrvagant claim through the media, or even by employing a public relations consultant, that what you are doing is world shattering and will perhaps solve all the world's problems.
It is even more effective if you are able to claim that the world is heading for disaster, and unless I get my money to save it you will all suffer.
I recently cancelled my subscription to the New Scientist, which used to report genuine scientific advances, but is now content to impress us, and scare us, with what might happen, or what disaster is awaiting us unless we "conserve" or stop breathing.
The Scientific American is almost as bad. Every issue seems to consists of yet another speculative theory about the origin of the universe, or about forthcoming disasters, with beautiful coloured illustrations.
What has brought this on is a request I have had to comment on the use of stem cells to cultivate human organs in other organisms for transplant purposes. What about the dangers? they keep saying.
All the above discoveries had tremendous potential and actual dangers before we actually got around to taking them for granted. The first motor cars had to have a man with a red flag walking in front of it because it was dangerous. Cars are even more dangerous today, but where would we be without them? Railways, airplanes are also dangerous, particularly in the early days.
There was the famous contest between Thomas Alva Edison and George Westinghouse (assisted by Nikola Tesla) about alternating versus direct electric current. Edison used to demonstrate the danger of AC by elctrocuting dogs. But Westinghouse won, and we take the dangers in our stride. In The US and Japan, they even went for a lower voltage than the rest of us
The people promoting stem cells, and all the others, should carry out their development work to sort out potential dangers before they talk about what "could be" achieved and the people funding it should have enough confidence to go ahead without all this premature publicity. Let us see some actual achievement.
Which, of course, brings me round to the greatest "could be, might be" of all, global warming. Global warming is not actually happening, and although fluctuations always happen, no warming has taken plave for eight years. New Zealand has had an undoubted cold spell for the past few years. Yet they have escalated scare stories about how it is not true, that the ice is melting (except New Zealand glaciers) and unless we stop using our cars or our electricity the world will come to an end. When will we wake up to reality?

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