Science in the real world
Science is logical and objective – mostly. But let’s get real…
Hypothesis–test–revise is an idealised view of science. Like learning to drive, we all know what we should do, but after our test do we all drive perfectly?
Scientists are human too. The majority are honest, conscientious, hard-working and fair. Some, a tiny minority, cheat: they make things up, or fudge ﬁgures.
South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk was briefly lauded for his apparent creation of human embryonic stem cells by cloning. In 2006, he was charged with embezzlement and bioethics violations after it emerged he had faked his results.
Remarkable work on simple ‘acid bath’ methods to reprogramme adult cells into stem cells, published in 2014, has also been called into question, leading to retractions, official investigations, resignations and even suicide.
Alongside outright fraud, scientists also tend to be attached to their own theories. They can be tempted to ignore a bit of data that doesn’t ﬁt. Occasionally, commercial interests may, directly or indirectly, cloud their judgement.
There is always a natural desire to be proved right, and perhaps a tendency to look for evidence that supports a theory, rather than contradicts it. Sometimes, believe it or not, scientists make mistakes.
Should we disregard everything scientists say? Is all scientiﬁc knowledge tainted? In fact, unlike many other human activities, science has many safety checks.
Illustrations © Glen McBeth
Scientists can be maddeningly cautious. But certainty only comes when ‘new’ science has stood the test of time. At early stages, uncertainty is the rule.Lead image:
BRICK 101/Flickr CC BY NC
Questions for discussion
- What do you think the key processes in science are?
- What are the strengths of the scientific approach? And its weaknesses?