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Doubting Science and Scientists

Recently there appeared in the Brisbane, Australia city paper an article telling that scientists had been working on a way to stop the spread of Dengue Fever by releasing experimental mosquitoes into the air. These mosquitoes had their system altered and when they mated with dengue infected mosquitoes would render them harmless. (The Courier-Mail, January 5, 2011, p.12)

Australia is quite famous for a previous "scientific solution" in which they introduced a "natural" enemies into the environment in order to wipe out a dangerous population and then having something go wrong. This was back in 1935 when cane toads were brought into Queensland to control an insect (the cane beetle) that was ruining the sugar cane crop. Now cane toads themselves are threatening "the existence of many natural ecosystems." (see

When asked about any parallels between introducing cane toads to solve a problem and this solution, the scientists who were working on the mosquitoes said that this was quite different and that they had been testing out these new mosquitoes for over 5 years and there was no danger to the public.

It always worries me when scientists, whether independent or working for any government say, "No danger." or "We're positive that this is safe." It would be much more honest to say, "We haven't found any danger at this point." or "It seems to be safe so far." but such honesty about the limitations of research wouldn't inspire public confidence. But it seems to me, without waiting for at least one generation to test for effects on future generations, it seems to me that no statement about human safety can be made with certainty.

Scientists working for the U.S. government also said there was no danger to the people living on the Bikini atoll where they were testing nuclear devices back in the 1940s and 50s. Also there was said to be no danger to humans exposed to "Agent Orange" and other defoliants which were being spread all over Vietnam during the fighting there between 1960 and 1975, yet its use has resulted in various sicknesses, both mental and physical, has had genetic effects on children born after the war, and continues to poison the environment of Vietnam.

This is one of the saddest examples of trusting the incomplete scientific knowledge of the time and an example of how science has become the new religion with many people putting total faith in it. Such blind faith in science makes it as dangerous as any other religion we follow unthinkingly.

I was interested in reading an article in a recent New Yorker magazine ("THE TRUTH WEARS OFF: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?" by Jonah Lehrer
DECEMBER 13, 2010 The scientific method is like the first commandment for people who are scientists and researchers and to follow it is assumed to lead one to indisputable truths. But this article brought to light an interesting phenomena which raises questions about the limitations of our understanding of scientific research and the reliability of data, even when the scientific method seems to be carefully followed.

The importance of scientific experiments being repeatable - this is known as "replicability" - is the basis of scientific research. A scientist must publish both his method and results and they must be replicable by other scientists in other places; otherwise there is too much possibility that the original data has been biased by the subjectivity (even unconsciously) of the scientist.

"But now all sorts of well-established, multiple confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It's as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn't yet have an official name, but it's occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology."
(The Truth Wears Off"

Even when the structure of research is very rigid and following careful scientific practices there has been dramatic drop off in the results of some studies. For example, a medicine which has been used to treat one type of mental illness in earlier clinical trials has shown that the effectiveness of these drugs was now found to be "less than half" of what was found in the earlier tests in the 1990s.

This "decline effect" has been appearing in a variety of scientific areas and has the scientific community concerned because it calls a lot of research into question. The author of this article, Jonah Lehrer, ends by saying:

"We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that's often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn't mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn't mean it's true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe."
(The Truth Wears Off"

As parents and teachers where does this leave us? I believe it means we must teach our children always to be skeptical of any information, no matter what the source and background. This has always been important in human history, but in the age of the internet this is vital.
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