In the lower middle end of the British press lurk the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. They believe in family values and slippery slope arguments and talk a lot about house prices and drug users.
Both papers also believe in scientists. Scientists make stories.
Smoking cure for cancer
Scientists now believe that tobacco smoke actually helps prevent some forms of cancer. This astonishing finding was uncovered by Dr. J. Blrfl Flermalerma during an experiment to find out how the pyramids were built....1
Whenever it's a slow news day, scientists can be relied upon to provide:
- conclusions that are completely opposed to everything we know about science (see above)
- conclusions that are common knowledge but impresive-sounding, e.g. "It turns out that each of us has millions of tiny organisms in our stomachs".
- Conclusions that are just fucking crazy, e.g The pyramids were put up using kites2.
It's not only newspapers that make these sort of claims. People do it all the time. I've been told that scientists reckon we shouldn't eat carbohydrate
s, should sleep half an hour out of every four, and not eat fresh fruit; that there are twenty-six dimensions and that humanity will be wiped out by a super-volcano; that our ancestors were aquatic ape
s; that GM food
is safe, and GM food is dangerous.
This perceived craziness leads many in the general public to regard scientists as idiots, with wild theories that are either irrelevant to life or too much effort.
Where are things going wrong? the answer is obvious: Scientists are people too, and in any sufficiently large group of people you'll get a few nutters. What people often forget -- and bad press coverage seeks to ignore -- is that saying "scientists believe..." is equivalent to saying "At least two scientists (or in some cases one scientist) believe...". And some people, scientists or not, will believe in anything. And thanks to corporate sponsorship, big business can buy a couple of scientists to believe whatever is convenient.
There is a scientific community, though, with normative beliefs. It believes in the Big Bang and evolution. It reckons that cannabis is bad for you, but not that bad. It's divided on GM foods.
The problem comes about is when the views of a couple of crackpot scientists are perceived as the views of science in general. An oft-mistreated topic is the question "is Homosexuality genetic?". Some scientists come down pretty hard one way or the other, but the majority view is "I don't know, none of the studies have been much good". Still, sensationalist journalism still runs full stories on the question, and everyone knows that it is/isn't genetic because they read in the papers that "scientists now say..."
Ultimately, anyone that calls herself a scientist can be called one, and not all of them are that scientific.
So don't be swayed next time someone tells you that scientists believe something. Ask which scientists, how many, and who's paying them.
1 Please note this is an example story. I'm not aware of any research, even by crackpots outside the scientific community, that says smoking prevents cancer. Well, I suppose it prevents some forms of cancer by killing you of lung cancer first. But that's not quite what I mean.
2 This, on the other hand was a real story in the Daily Mail