Sir John Beddington (Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government) stirred up some controversy during his recent address to a Government Science & Engineering conference:
“We are not […] 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.”
He then urged his audience to “go out and be much more intolerant.”
I’ve been thinking about how this applies to my area of interest – climate change – where the lines between scientist, sceptic, contrarian and denier have become blurred. In this arena, engaging with true scepticism can reinforce research findings but debating with deniers is often pointless. Maybe Beddington is proposing that certain arguments can be brushed aside with a simple put down: Pseudoscience! If so, how do we determine which arguments?
And, of course, there are two sides to this story – how energetically should we also challenge those who extrapolate the scientific evidence to an alarming level in an effort to accelerate political action?
In short, how can intolerance of pseudoscience be employed whilst maintaining a professional appearance and the principles of the scientific method?
My text had to be very short to fit on the newsletter so here are a few more deeply considered opinions on Beddington’s comments: