Science is Mostly Wrong, But That's OK

by Dr Kat Arney

Doing science is hard. Doing good science is even harder. I know, because I spent the best part of a decade of my life training to be a scientist and ended up a mediocre one at best. Then I realised I was much better at spelling than gene sequencing, so I quit the lab to become a science writer for a major cancer research charity.

Since then, I’ve spent my time learning about a far wider range of research than I could have ever conceived of while I was poring over my pipettes, desperately hoping that something – anything – would work so I could finally go to the pub. I’ve sold wonderful stories of discoveries to the public, persuading them that their charitable donations are funding the very best, cutting-edge science. And I’ve raised a sceptical eyebrow at tales of dodgy dealings and over-hyped results, from snake oil sellers to the perennial “carrots cure cancer” stories.

But by far the most awkward moment for those of us trying to communicate progress in science to the public comes when the narrative we’re telling doesn’t match up with their reality. To give an extreme example, this might be a “so much for global warming!” muttered through chattering teeth as the snow comes down.  Or it could be the person whose parents drank like fishes, smoked like chimneys, ate pure lard for breakfast and died peacefully in their beds aged 105.

If, like me, you enjoy drinking wine and it makes you feel good, you’re going to believe the tabloid stories telling you it’s good for your health, rather than the scare stories about fatty livers and heart disease. And when you lose someone you love to cancer, despite (or perhaps, because of) the very best efforts of the NHS, all the positive stories about new treatments feel empty and meaningless. How do you tell someone whose partner has just died that “more and more people survive cancer every year” and that “research is making a difference”? It’s in this gulf – where reality fails to align with the stories we’re told – that distrust, pseudoscience and ‘alternative facts’ flourish. It’s all too easy to become sick of experts whose version of the scientific truth doesn’t match up with your lived experience.

The problem is that scientific advances don’t pop out fully formed, neatly packaged and ready to slot into their rightful place in the world. New drug for kidney cancer? Quick, get it to everyone and they will all be cured! Results of huge trials of vaccine safety? That settles it at last! A definitive explanation of exactly how much the world is warming and why? Brilliant – let’s all make policy to fix it. This is clearly nonsense.

Sure, every so often there’s a Big One – a paper that makes everyone sit up and take notice (usually accompanied by breathless headlines about “paradigm shifts”*). But these are rare events, and some of the findings that turn out to be most important in retrospect don’t always grab the headlines at the time. That’s because science is an action, not a product. Progress is iterative and slow, and results are often found to be wrong later down the line. That’s not a bad thing – that’s how science works.

It’s a discipline that’s self-correcting, self-critical and full of curious, pedantic nerds who are all desperate to figure out how things work. And to misquote Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it still provides the most evidence-based view of the world that we have.” The difficulty is showing this to the public – warts and all – and believing that revealing the flaws of science with honesty and integrity will build trust and understanding, rather than tearing it down any further.

Unfortunately, the version of the truth that we are telling is a highly sanitised version of the results of years of painstaking research, cleaned up and simplified for public consumption. We’re only screening the highlights, rather than the full director’s cut with all the deleted bits, blooper reel and behind-the-scenes commentary, where the worlds of theory, evidence and implementation collide.

When it boils down to it, I love science. I freaking love science. I love writing about it, talking about it, and sharing it with as many people as I can. I also know that it’s not perfect. When I think about how to engage people with science, I’m often reminded of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” Maybe we’re too quick to present solutions, and too slow to talk about all the unanswered questions that remain. 

*If I had a pound for every time I’ve seen the phrase “paradigm shift” misused, I’d spend it on a job lot of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and send it to every journalist in the world.

Kat Arney has a PhD in developmental biology and until recently she was the media spokesperson for Cancer Research UK. These days she is a professional science communicator on both TV and radio as well as speaking at a wide range of live events across the globe. Her first book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work is out now in paperback.