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Can Science be corrupted?

Riaan van der Walt

BSc Sport Science, BHons Sport Science

Right, I’ve chosen the most boring topic possible…but oh my word, I hope so desperately to make this interesting and keep you reading, because this might just be the most important issue facing the world right now and so few people understand it.

Let me get my motivation for writing this out there for all to see: I’m scared. You see, the world is facing several global, civilisation ending crises at the same time. From COVID to Climate Change, from Pollution to Resource Depletion…there are volumes and volumes to write about each of these. That on it’s own is not necessarily an unsolvable problem, because Science is advancing so fast that most, if not all of these problems are well understood and partial or total solutions are known for them…the problem is that very few people either know about, or believe these solutions.

That scares me. We live in a world were facts that are painstakingly discovered through peer reviewed scientific enquiry are cherry picked or discarded completely based on the narrative of people’s religious beliefs, political parties, skin colour, nationality…whatever group you belong to, somehow convinced that a politician knows more about COVID than virologists, or that a religious leader knows more about Climate Change than a Climatologist. This means we don’t act decisively…leaving a real chance that we don’t overcome these crises.

So, this article is here to try and break down why most people might feel this way and hopefully help them understand what science really looks like…let’s get going!

Can Individual Scientists or Projects Be Corrupted Or Wrong?

Absolutely!! There are several ways that I can think of, or have seen:

  • A scientist or project can be corrupted by incentive…things like Coca Cola paying for research that finds sugar is good for you, or BP paying for research showing that cars don’t pollute…you get the idea.
  • A scientist can have a personal agenda…you don’t see this one often, but it happens. “I have found that we all need to eat more of this thingy!…and wouldn’t you just know it, as luck would have it, I sell a shake with contains this thingy…lucky you!”
  • Equipment could be limited in what it is able to detect…this is why further layers of complexity and deeper understanding is always and will always be added to known fact. We just keep making better equipment used in research. A great example of this is how the age of the universe was slowly narrowed down until it was eventually a known number through measurement…which could still be updated when the next space telescope is launched.
  • Theories can be un-testable…some physics is a good example of this. It can be incredibly confusing and messy, even if it’s your field.

All of this combined with a media that generally chooses controversy and sensationalism over boring truth and fact…social media, filtered by no-one, contributed to by everyone…is it any wonder people don’t trust science?

Does This Mean That Science Isn’t Trust Worthy?

Not at all. You see, the scientific method is designed to put road blocks in place for each of these problems. How exactly does the method achieve this?…Well:

  • You have to convince someone senior in your field that you are asking a worthwhile question based on what is already known and convince them that your research might provide an answer to even really begin research.
  • You have to highlight the shortcomings of your own work in terms of method, participants, things that went wrong, further research needed, ways in which you could have been wrong etc.
  • If you don’t do a thorough job of this, the peer scientists who review your research will, and embarrass you in the process, scoring themselves credit.
  • Your findings only become fact when several peers repeat your research from a variety of angles with the same or new methods and begrudgingly come to the same conclusions.
  • These facts only become accepted scientific truth in text books when research is done on a sufficiently large volume of existing research, this is called Meta Analysis, and cements the facts as bedrock truths upon which further research can stand.
  • All of this in a culture where you get “points” and further your career by proving yourself wrong, surrounded by a peer group who are all out to prove you wrong first…and if you actually manage to prove everyone else wrong with a paradigm shifting discovery, you win the Nobel Prize!

Let me give you an analogy that might help…Imagine a speed boat cutting through water. At the cutting edge where the hull parts the water it’s very exciting, turbulent, pretty and it attracts a lot of attention from onlookers…this is like the latest research findings that tell us something controversial and counter intuitive that would be over reported in the media and might suit a narrative. Something ridiculous like cars are good for the environment or sugar cures cancer.

But behind the boat, a bit boring to watch, not terribly exciting and drawing little attention is the wake of the boat. Even, smooth and uniform little waves that have had time to settle down…these are like the scientific facts that we should trust as proven, uncontroversial and should inform us on how to think about serious problems like our health, disease, the environment etc.

In closing, the point I hope to be making here to anyone who is sitting on the fence, is that Vaccines just simply aren’t controversial. They save lives. Beyond that, they really are a massive part of why we all should expect to live to nearly double the age of our great grandparents… vaccines lengthen lives, though they come with real, but very small risks of serious side effects.

Keep well and keep safe!

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