Does science need intolerance?

Did the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser just tell me to be a dick? Last week, ResearchResearch revealed comments made by Sir John Beddington at the Annual Conference of Scientists Working in the Civil Service on 3 February 2011:

“We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality…We are not–and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this–grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method”

I really would urge you to be grossly intolerant…We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems.

It’s difficult to get a clear view of Beddington’s rationale when relying on second- or third-hand reports. The unscripted remarks came at the end of the night, and it seems that Beddington was moved to make them having grown frustrated by the misuse of scientific evidence by the press. A video of the conference, briefly available on the BIS website, has since disappeared, and it seems unlikely that Beddington will expand on what were supposed to have been private comments. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot of interesting ground to be explored here, some of it treacherous in places.

Beddington isn’t the first high-profile figure to have off-hand comments make it into press, he certainly won’t be the last, and I’ve no interest in holding him to account for words warmed by brandy. Predictably, though, he elicited a chorus of approval from skeptics and science fans across the spectrum, and it’s worth pointing out what’s wrong with the Beddington programme of intolerance.

The comparison of bad science to homophobia or racism is particularly problematic. For a start, these are moral absolutes, and we can afford to be intolerant of them because of this. There’s precious little room for doubt over what is racist and what is not. Certainly there is not going to be a discovery tomorrow that will throw doubt on our notions of equality. That’s not the case for science. Science by its very nature is about uncertainty, and the march of progress into previously unknown areas means that science will always, forever, be a tide lapping on the shores of uncertainty. Science that tries to establish an absolute position, and is intolerant of dissent, is not worthy of the name.

The factual landscape is constantly shifting thanks to scientific inquiry, and what is today might not be tomorrow. If we are going to treat bad science like racism or homophobia, does that mean we’ll be prosecuting those falling short of what we expect? Who decides where that consensus lies, and how far from that does someone have to go before they commit a crime? I don’t think anyone wants to see scientific positions decided in the court room. It didn’t work well in Tennessee in 1925 and it won’t work well now.

Edzard Ernst is right to be frustrated by the media’s flawed attempts at providing balance by giving a stage to a scientist with 100 years of research backing them up on one side, and a lobby group or lone idiot on the other. I don’t like that practice any more than he does, and I think it is damaging to public understanding of scientific issues. But trying to dismantle that practice could backfire terribly. The science that matters will always be political. As a culture we are accustomed to hearing a variety of viewpoints on factual issues and being given the choice to make our own minds up. Anything presented to us in a single, immutable voice of authority, especially from the government, feels like propaganda. To someone without the skills to unpick the subject, it is indistinguishable from propaganda.

So what’s the alternative? Perhaps it is to shift the debate in news media from what is (which only science is qualified to answer), to what should be done (for which anyone can make a case). But then, newspapers are not apolitical regurgitators of facts, they are political weapons. In a world where the science that matters is political, you cannot expect it to pass through the lens of the press without distortion. Which brings me on to the next point.

Beddington expresses a desire of intolerance toward bad science, a sentiment echoed by his supporters. But if bad science reporting should be treated like that which is homophobic or racist, would we notice the difference? We already have laws in place regarding hate speech. The Press Complaints Commission includes the following guidelines in its Code of Practice:

12 Discrimination

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

None of the above prevents regular articles attacking Muslims, homosexuals, or a pantheon of other perceived enemies appearing in tabloid or broadsheet press. Would adding a third clause about respecting the veracity of scientific fact improve our science reporting at all?

While I sympathise wholeheartedly with Beddington’s frustration, I’m not sure how much can be achieved by attacking bad science where it presents itself. Targeting falsehoods, even with a big hammer, simply breeds better liars. The roots of bad science lie beneath the surface, and weeding them out require a deeper understanding of why there’s a market for peddlers of pseudoscientific nonsense in the first place.


  1. #1 alice
    February 20, 2011
  2. #2 Christina
    February 20, 2011

    A couple thoughts on a great post:

    1. I think that groups we label “anti-science” use scientific language as the basis of their argument partly because they recognize the power of science and scientists. Racism and homophobia maintain oppression and discrimination of minority groups; pseudoscience aspires to be as powerful and respected as science to legitimize a political agenda, not oppress scientists.

    2. Thanks for this:

    Science that tries to establish an absolute position, and is intolerant of dissent, is not worthy of the name.

    This is what relativism is, not the caricature that “pro-science” people claim to de-legitimize thoughtful historians of science.

  3. #3 gimpy
    February 20, 2011

    From Beddington’s reported comments I got the impression that his target was broader than simply the press.

    There has been an explosion (from this particular partisan vantage point) in the poor use of evidence, as well as outbreaks of making things up, from government ministers and think tanks allied with government in the last 9 months or so. Ben Goldacre has been covering some of this with respect to the NHS recently and Iain Duncan Smith of the Department of Work and Pensions is regularly accused of inappropriate use of evidence.

    Then there are regular poor users of evidence within environmental lobby groups, charities and businesses.

    I got the impression that Beddington was challenging systemic and institutional use of bad evidence and requesting that something must be done.

    So what would you suggest?

  4. #4 Martin Robbins
    February 20, 2011

    I think you’re missing the point here. Beddington refers specifically to examples like: “the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method,” and “individuals or groups who cherry-pick facts to drive their own agenda.”

    He’s not talking about people being wrong, or disagreeing with the accepted consensus. He is talking about people who set out to mislead the public in important scientific debates.

    It’s the difference between, say, doctors in the 1950s who were unconvinced that tobacco caused cancer, and the tobacco industry reps who deliberately set out to confuse the public debate. That’s the behaviour that Beddington – rightly – suggests we should challenge

  5. #5 Frank the SciencePunk
    February 20, 2011

    Ah, thanks Alice. I knew a post by Beddington had gone up somewhere but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where.

    For the teal deers, I guess this is the most pertinent bit of that essay:

    It is time the scientific community became proactive in challenging misuse of scientific evidence. We must make evidence, and associated uncertainties, accessible and explicable. In a world of global communication, we cannot afford to only speak to ourselves. We must also be confident in challenging the misrepresentation or exaggeration of evidence and the conclusions it leads to. Where significant consensus exists, it must be made obvious.
    I know journalists often have little time to cover complex issues. However it is not enough simply to report opposing views on an issue. The public is best served if each view, and the evidence behind it, is rigorously tested, scrutinised and challenged. The best science journalism is a testament to this and I make no apology for challenging all to reach the highest standards.

  6. #6 Stephen Curry
    February 20, 2011

    I agree with the intention behind Beddington’s message – more clearly explained in the NS piece that Alice linked to. But a call to intolerance is, as Frank says, too easy to mis-interpret (though perhaps we shouldn’t put too much store in unguarded comments). I’d urge scientists etc to be relentless in their pursuit of those who use science shoddily – but to do so with calm and reason (whatever the provocation).

  7. #7 Clam
    February 20, 2011

    If you don’t understand what Sir John is getting at, try reading the comments in the Daily Telegraph on any scientific subject from Climate Change to Vaccination.
    Here’s an example on diet:
    If the ignorance displayed there does not make your blood boil then you, Sir, are no scientist!

  8. #8 alice
    February 20, 2011

    Ooo this is a bit good too – from Andy Stirling (makes similar points to you I think)

    (and Martin, though I agree Beddington was talking about the ‘quacks’ more than their customers, I do think the two can be too easily conflated in public discourse around this, so all in all, I’d agree with Frank that Beddington’s phrasing here was inappropriate, and I don’t think he is misunderstanding anything)

  9. #9 gozde
    February 20, 2011

    Just a few quick thoughts:

    Intolerance, I believe, has no place in science. There are no absolute truths and no fixed scientific method. There is always going to be evidence on either side of a debate – and the answer isn’t to be intolerant. As Frank explains, that goes against the very nature of science.

    With those that abuse science and deliberately mislead with cherry picked evidence, here is a great chance for scientists to explain how and why. Instead of intolerance, engage and throw light on the shortcomings.

    I’m really enjoying John Appleby’s (chief economist at the King’s Fund) explanation of Andrew Lansley’s misleading claims for the NHS reforms. Visit for more.

  10. #10 jdc
    February 20, 2011

    Science that tries to establish an absolute position, and is intolerant of dissent, is not worthy of the name.
    I agree with the sentiment, but I didn’t think (from my reading of the quote you ran with) that Beddington was arguing for intolerance of dissent. I got the impression he wanted cherry-picking and distortion to be challenged.

  11. #11 Frank the SciencePunk
    February 20, 2011

    @3 Gimpy
    That’s a tricky question. As I’ve said before, science is the yardstick of truth in our society, and people will always use it to try and bolster their case.

    I don’t think you can legislate (figuratively speaking) against using some but not all of the science available. I think independent central bodies are quite useful in this respect, in that they can offer a consensus view without insisting it’s the only one. If a particular royal society, journal or union can stand up and say, no, we feel you’ve misrepresented that piece of research. Of course, it’s impossible to do this without being seen as political – bear in mind that Sense About Science was created with the remit to rap journalists over the knuckles if they got science wrong, and immediately became viewed as some kind of libertarian lobby group.

    @4 Martin
    See above comment to Gimpy; as Alice says I don’t think there’s ever going to be a clear cut distinction between active disinformation and sloppy use of science. People are going to use facts like drunks use lamp-posts, as the old joke goes, for support rather than illumination. How do you tackle this? I don’t know. For government policies at least, I’d suggest some kind of independent scientific scrutiny panel, but the fate of the ACMD demonstrates that we’re not prepared for that level of commitment.

  12. #12 Karen James
    February 20, 2011

    Slightly off topic but I’m really uncomfortable with these two sentences: ‘There’s precious little room for doubt over what is racist and what is not.’ and ‘Certainly there is not going to be a discovery tomorrow that will throw doubt on our notions of equality.’

    There’s certainly a lot of academic activity (a measure of uncertainty?) on the first point and I can think of several potential discoveries that could throw doubt on our notions of equality.

  13. #13 Grant
    February 20, 2011

    One thing you can do is to try address the editors of publications that spread the nonsense, as I did last night, on a local newspaper holding up homeopathy as an example career option. (Linked on my name for those that want to knock themselves out!)

    I think it’s a valid and useful approach: discourage articles that might give them creditability from appearing in publications.

    You can, for example, point out to editors that they owe citizens (who their loyalty should be to) critique of dodgy practices, rather than grant them creditability by printing statements about them with no critical questioning.

  14. #14 Mike McRae
    February 20, 2011

    I can see what Beddington was getting at, and think his message was muddied by poor analogies. As you pointed out, rationalism isn’t comparable with the moralistic positions such as racism and sexism. We shouldn’t tolerate such moral absolutes simply because they infringe on the equality of individuals to make fair decisions and expressions. By its very nature, science relies on a sense of tolerance for the rights of others to express diverse and potentially incorrect views (hence not tolerating some aspect of that right is almost an act of oppression in itself).

    There is, of course, intentional dishonesty in some acts of pseudoscience. For the most part, there’s no clear distinction between a willful act of fraud and of ignorant or irrational thinking. There’s plenty of junk science that makes it through on similar thinking, unfortunately, that is given free pass because it’s conclusions aren’t out of line with the currently accepted position.

    What is needed is better critical thinking skills and understanding of how science works amongst the public, rather than a call for pseudoscientific views to be shunned and silenced.

  15. #15 Stephen McGann
    February 20, 2011

    Thanks for this wonderful, thought-provoking post. There was just one part that I found a little problematic:-

    “Perhaps it is to shift the debate in news media from what is (which only science is qualified to answer), to what should be done (for which anyone can make a case).”

    I can appreciate the spirit of the remark. But do you believe that there is a clear-cut, objective “what is” that only science is ‘qualified to answer’ in news media? If, as you say, uncertainty is a central part of the process? Also, how far does this qualification extend, and who is the arbiter? For instance, is a biologist qualified to comment on matters of astronomy, but not a lawyer? And – conversely – are there any areas of citizen debate for which science, uniquely specialised as it is, may actually be *unqualified* to contribute?

    I absolutely share your view on the need for debate founded upon dispassionate evidence and not intolerance. Yet marking neat boundaries of authority in public debate – however well-intentioned – seems to me to ask more questions than it answers.

  16. #16 Frank the SciencePunk
    February 21, 2011

    @15 Stephen McGann

    Ah, I said science is qualified to answer ‘what is’ – not scientists! By which I mean, science is how we coax out the truth of a matter, and we shouldn’t treat religion or opinion or politics as an equivalent to that process.

    Those groups do have something to offer how we respond to the facts. Whether you have a biologist, an astronomer, or a lawyer discussing the latest research, it won’t change the *facts* of the matter, and those facts are only arrived at through rigourous inquiry.

  17. #17 Viadd
    February 27, 2011

    There’s precious little room for doubt over what is racist and what is not. Certainly there is not going to be a discovery tomorrow that will throw doubt on our notions of equality. That’s not the case for science.

    Two statements:

    Ethnic group X has a measured IQ that averages 0.25 standard deviations above the general population.

    Vaccines cause autism and don’t work and are only for diseases like whooping cough and german measles that aren’t a problem anyway. Therefore we shouldn’t vaccinate children.

    So by your logic, the first statement is racist and must not be tolerated. The second statement is merely pseudoscientific, therefore we must tolerate it with an open mind because science might someday prove it.

  18. #18 Frank the SciencePunk
    February 27, 2011

    @ Viadd
    As a moral absolute, even if we discovered strong evidence of ethnic differences in intelligence, it’s unlikely it would make us abandon our notions of equality, because they’re beliefs informed by moral attitudes not scientific evidence.

    The point extends to your second example. Understanding how people form attitudes affects how you challenge those ideas. There’s a great deal of scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, and it doesn’t stop mistrust in vaccination programmes. To throw more scientific evidence at people and expect it to change their opinion then is foolish.

  19. #19 Xulld
    March 24, 2011

    Fraud should not be tolerated. Homeopathy should not be tolerated. Reiki as a cure for cancer should not be tolerated. Insurance providers paying out for acupuncture should not be tolerated. Hindsight is 20/20, we should be intolerant of only those things we know to be exploitative of the success of science that clearly have been deemed NOT science. This can be done, its far more grey then the analogies used however and I understand the criticisms presented.

  20. #20 Collin
    August 22, 2011

    This seems like the best place to mention some problems with the “Longer Healthier Happier 2007″ speech:

    *The worst thing about it was the way it ended, with the words “enemies of mankind”. This is an uncalled-for sweeping generalization, which would place my speculations about quantum realism in the same bag as Rath selling vitamins for AIDS.

    *The idea that science can progress only if its gaps are unfilled can lead to contradictions. A good example is the arrow of time. IIRC, there is no scientific evidence for an arrow of time, except possibly for a slight asymmetry in kaon decay. And yet, the entire concept of improving human life depends on admitting the past and trying to shape the future. And this implies having faith that the time arrow exists.

    *Related to this is the fact that the lecture was given in a “Cruciform” building, and the vague suggestion that we “would do well to imitate elsewhere” the high standards of science. I don’t know how much this an attempt at insinuation, or how much this is ironically missing the point. But either way, it seems that scientists fail to admit the obvious: There is faith at the heart of science, and science keeps its faith much more honorably (in all senses of the word) than religion. And by claiming that science has no need for faith, science is selling itself short.

    *The list of statistics he gives for the increase in life and health expectancy reads like an advert. If I didn’t know it was about science, I would be waiting to find out what “miraculous” product he was selling.