Reclaiming the Sceptic

This was a BBC Radio 4 programme first broadcast on 11 July 2012. Text in quote marks following names is verbatim.

All scientists are sceptics, doubting both their own and others’ research, and weighing the evidence carefully to produce the most robust conclusion. Scepticism runs through the culture of science like the word Blackpool through a stick of rock.

The way scientists apply this concept is usually very specific, even-handed and based on a prior understanding of the principles behind the work under consideration. But in recent years there have been increasing examples of scepticism applied in a very different way to science, often based on ideology or political viewpoint. Examples include scepticism of nanotechnology, the safety of mobile phones and genetically modified crops.

Professor Philip Stott explores how scientists use scepticism and doubt in their work and how the proper application of these tools helps produce reliable and valuable information. He talks to working scientists as well as philosophers and sociologists of science, exploring the importance of this fundamental scientific principle.

He also discovers how the scepticism of science differs from the scepticism within science – and how the principle of scepticism can be abused by those who wish to undermine an area of science, applying the principle unevenly to doubt what they don’t like yet remaining uncritical of that which matches their personal prejudices. This presents a challenge to science itself, one that researchers of the future will need to understand and work alongside.

Philip Stott: “For the scientist, scepticism is an essential tool. But how far is scepticism in science the same as scepticism in wider society? Scepticism lies at the heart of science, and it feeds most discussions about science and, more importantly, about how science works and progresses. In examining the concept of scepticism, I will assess its value as a powerful driver of scientific discovery but also review the challenges posed by a wider form of scepticism, one that doubts not just scientific data and results but science itself.”

Tim Wilkinson summarized the development of scepticism from the ancient world through the scientific revolution, culminating in the work of David Hume, which addressed the question: what can we know? Hume argued that the proper application of scepticism can cut through superstition and woolly thinking. He quoted the following from the Enquiry:

Accurate and just reasoning is the only catholic remedy, fitted for all persons and all dispositions; and is alone able to subvert that abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon, which, being mixed up with popular superstition, renders it in a manner impenetrable to careless reasoners, and gives it the air of science and wisdom.

Tim Wilkinson: “Scepticism has to do with doubt. To be sceptical about something is to doubt it. The most general form of scepticism is one that doubts all claims to knowledge.”

Philip Stott: “We can thus see that doubt concerning what our senses tell us about the world has evolved and matured into a strand of critical self-doubt which runs through science like the word Blackpool through a stick of rock. This particular form of scepticism was first described by the American sociologist, Robert Merton, who is credited with developing the sociology of science.”

Jack Stilgoe (senior research fellow at the University of Exeter Business School) outlines Merton’s key concept:

Jack Stilgoe: “There are a number of unwritten rules that are supposed to describe science as it’s ideally practiced, and these were described by Robert Merton. And Robert Merton had, as one of his norms of science as he called them, this norm of organized scepticism, which he said was one of the organizing principles of scientific research. So scepticism is one of the threads that runs through science, one of the threads that makes science scientific. … There isn’t enough communication of scientific process, of scientific practices, of scientific cultures, because if we were to open up the black box of science and let people see in rather than just assume that what people are interested in are the products of science, all the whizz bang technologies or new findings…, that’s not what science is at all. Science is a process, a way of dealing not with facts but with uncertainty.”

Philip Stott: “Here then we have an idea, scepticism, which originated with the Greeks, developed by Hume and Merton, and is now embedded in the culture of science. Yet, because of a media focus on outcomes rather than on process, we hear surprisingly little about it.”

Dame Nancy Rothwell emphasized the importance of the weight of evidence supporting a conclusion, which can mean that it would be unreasonable to be sceptical about it. This is a transient state, based on how things are now, and there may be some breakthrough that changes the way we look at the evidence or that tells us it’s only a small part of the story.

Philip Stott: “So, science is always provisional, never done and dusted. Every researcher knows that a more powerful idea, or a more refined experiment, will come along. Part of a scientist’s training is to hone their sceptical skills. What divides scepticism from being just pedantic or pessimistic is your questioning but the answer can sometimes be yes, this is right.”

Scientific journals are where scientists publish their work for the scientific community to judge, and are hugely importance. J. M. Ziman (1968:105):

The invention, therefore, of the scientific journal is of far greater importance than the other activities of the Royal Societies and National Academies which began to publish this new form of literature.

Andre Geim hones his sceptical senses on the wealth of published research.

Fiona Godley is the Editor in Chief of the British Medical Journal.

Fiona Godley: “In my work as an editor I’m very conscious of the need to be sceptical, but I recognize the need to have an organized approach to scepticism, taking on board the notion of Mertonian organized scepticism. In a medical journal, what organized scepticism means is having a process for evaluating content as it comes in, for making decisions about what to commission, and to bring in help from external experts — exposing an idea to organized, independent, external scrutiny. I have to be particularly wary of ideas that resonate with me personally, or with members of the team or with the journal as a whole, and it’s those where you immediately think, yes that sounds right, that perhaps you have to be most sceptical and apply the most objective scrutiny.”

Philip Stott: “There is another challenge which I encountered during my own 18 years as editor of an international journal. In biogeography, the study of the distribution of plants and animals, there are two broad schools of thought. One based on centres of origin and dispersal, the other on areas. Papers from one school would be all too readily rejected out of hand by reviewers from the other, sometimes with almost religious fervour. Reviewers did not seem to employ Merton’s organized scepticism, more a disorganized scepticism based on ideology.”

Organized sceptical scrutiny is especially important in medical research, because of the close ties to both funding and public policy, and of course to our health and wellbeing. Elselijn Kingma, a Wellcome Trust research fellow at King’s College, studies the philosophy of medical science, thinks that a big problem is a lack of transparency. (This reminded me of Ben Goldacre’s proposal to register all drug trials to ensure that they are all published, even if their results are negative.) “Here scepticism might lead to quite a good constructive strategy to make the science better.” For example, scepticism played an important role in uncovering the risks of the drug Vioxx, a painkiller licensed for use in 1999.

Philip Stott: “Doubts began to emerge about its safety as evidence built up that it carried a risk of heart attack. It was voluntarily withdrawn in 2004 as a direct result of expert researchers being sceptical about its safety.

“This power of scepticism to make to make science better is a recurring theme, but that is the specific scientific use of the concept — the organized scepticism of Robert Merton. There are, however, other ways of being sceptical, especially in wider society. … The cuckoo in that particular nest was Ryanair chief, Michael O’Leary, who claimed there was no evidence of any volcanic ash. He’s the cuckoo not because he isn’t a scientist but because he was offering weak evidence for his position. He had put up a single exploratory flight to test the assertion from the Met Office and the CAA that the ash cloud was there and that it was a problem. Any scientist will tell you that one observation is never enough, and yet O’Leary felt confident to use this to argue his sceptical case. He may have been right, but his scepticism was based on shaky foundations, a long way away from scientific, organized scepticism. And O’Leary is not alone. There are always risks to be balanced. There are many groups sceptical of John Krebs’s views on badger culling. There is considerable scepticism about nanotechnology — will it harm the environment? And what is one to make of research that suggests that alcohol might protect against heart disease but also cause ailments such as cancer and cirrhosis of the liver? Scepticism of science abounds.

“Here is someone else being sceptical about science, neither of data, nor of an inconvenient observation, but of the very fabric of science itself:

It’s not complicated. It doesn’t take mathematics. I disagree with these experts. Somebody’s got to stand up to experts that are… I think … I don’t know why they’re doing it, they’re wonderful people, the fossil record… why take it out, if evolution is so true…

“That was US Senator, Don McLeroy, declaring his scepticism of the science of evolution. `I disagree with these experts’ is certainly a sceptical viewpoint, but it is markedly different to that of the scientists we have spoken to. They were at pains to apply scepticism to their theories, data and results to ensure that they had really got them right. On the other hand, the kind of scepticism that McLeroy expressed is of a whole branch of science, nay of science itself, to dismiss it, rather than to refine it.”

Jack Stilgoe: “The interesting thing for me, as a studier of science, is not so much whether science is or isn’t sceptical but whether it is as sceptical as it promises to be, as it pretends to be, and how that’s changing over time. So I’m interested in relationships between scientists and the public, between scientists and policymakers, and there you see this question of scepticism start to mean rather different things from the original pure scientific sense. … Let’s take the example of genetically modified crops, which have become controversial, were originally fantastically interesting science, and there was a set of sceptical questions that scientists asked themselves about those crops. And I think it became when those crops started moving into the field and moving into the marketplace in the 1990s that the sorts of questions scientists were asking were very different indeed from the sorts of questions members of the public and in particular interest groups were asking about those things. So they weren’t asking necessarily, are these crops good for you, are they risky… often this language was a proxy for other sorts of things… the real questions were, who benefits from this? What’s this going to do to farmers in the developing world? The organized scepticism that would define scientific research started to look increasingly disorganized.”

Very often broad level scepticism just latches on to one or two examples. Merton’s notion of organized scepticism is being challenged by a new disorganized scepticism coming from the public sphere. So can scepticism be taken too far, abused even?

Tim Wilkinson: “I think there is an abuse of scepticism, which has to do with its selective application on the basis of prior political or religious prejudices. One way you can get the results you want from being sceptical is by being extremely sceptical about any piece of science that doesn’t suit your beliefs about… whatever but at the same time applying much, much lower standards to any piece of science or pseudo-science that happens to suit your prejudices.”

Philip Stott: “This is a position with which Nancy Rothwell is familiar.”

Nancy Rothwell: “Well, it’s sometimes a position of belief, and it’s sometimes a position of not liking something, actually just personal prejudice. I think there all I could do… is say look at the body of evidence, and how would you counter it?”

Philip Stott: “It would be easy to see this ideological scepticism as an attack on the power of science, but that is not how Jack Stilgoe views it.”

Jack Stilgoe: “It’s not just simply a case of pro versus anti science… it’s a discussion about what different sorts of science need to feature and what different sorts of visions of the future.”

Philip Stott: “Is it the difference between private scepticism and open or public scepticism?”

Jack Stilgoe: “The private scepticism of science, of scientists, is becoming public in all sorts of chaotic and difficult ways… So if you take scientific uncertainty, for example, scientists see uncertainty as a sort of resource, it what drives their research, it’s what excites them. But science hasn’t in the past been very good at talking about uncertainty in public. The assumption has been that non-scientists can’t be trusted with uncertainty, and actually evidence from the social sciences is that members of the public are actually quite good at dealing with uncertainty. Science has got to get better at talking about uncertainty in public, and at publicizing its scepticism a bit more.”

Philip Stott: “Science should always tell the world just how sceptical it is. As a scientific tool, scepticism sifts the strong ideas from the weak, ensuring that the science which survives is robust. However, there are those who, as Tim Wilkinson described, abuse scepticism, to push ideology, ignoring facts they don’t like, and exaggerating those that fit in with their particular viewpoints. It seems that not all scepticism is equal. We need to reclaim the true role of the organized sceptic.”

Nancy Rothwell: “It’s basing your scepticism or your acceptance on what’s in front of you, not necessarily accepting something just because it is the dogma, but at the same time accepting that the weight of evidence is so great that actually it would be unreasonable to be sceptical about it.”

* * *

You don’t have to read much science to come across examples of scepticism in practice. Here’s Steven Pinker (2011:620–21):

The Warrior Gene theory has not fared well in warfare with skeptical scientists. … So while recent biological evolution may, in theory, have tweaked our inclinations toward violence and nonviolence, we have no good evidence that it actually has.

One of the great exemplars of scientific scepticism is Charles Darwin, who wrote in a letter to J. D. Hooker:

…as I am writing my Book, I try to take as much pains as possible to give the strongest cases opposed to me, & offer such conjectures as occur to me…

A hard thing to do!

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