BBC Radio 4, Monday 3 June 2013
Presented by Allan Little
In its Start the Week episode 'Fairy Tale Physics', BBC Radio 4 looks at some of the more fantastical science conducted today. Have theoretical physicists become separated from reality and the scientific method as they delve into the complex mathematics of superstring theory in the search for knowledge? Are life scientists caught up in their own hype, lying to the public about the potential of their research in their quest for ever more funding?
To debate these questions, BBC correspondent Allan Little hosts Jim Baggott, science writer and author of 'Farewell to Reality: How Fairytale Physics Betrays the Search for Scientific Truth'; Jon Butterworth, particle physics professor at University College London and researcher at CERN's LHC; Hilary Rose, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and author of 'Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology'; and Stephen Minger, head of research and development for Cell Technologies at General Electric (GE) Healthcare.
Initially, the discussion focuses on theoretical physics, with Jim Baggott complaining that scientists working on subjects such as superstring theory or the multiverse theory have lost sight of the idea that science is about linking those ideas back to reality through measurable evidence; their subjects have become based on faith and can never be empirically tested.
One can understand his frustration with the perceived abstractness of a theory of the universe describing one dimensional objects vibrating in over ten dimensions. However, as Jon Butterworth quickly points out, Peter Higgs' work theorising the Higgs boson was seen in much the same light when it was published in 1964, and yet 50 years later the world was celebrating a discovery that would never have been made without his work. There are certainly some things that will forever remain unknowable, but it is impossible to identify what those things are. Furthermore, Butterworth argues, science is as much about understanding the universe as it is about technological progress, and understanding can be provided even without measured proof. Theoretical physics certainly has its role to play, and should not be overlooked for funding because the benefits are intangible.
Competition for funds and grants has always been high, but the economic downturn and resulting cuts to scientific funding have intensified the fight. Hilary Rose is concerned that this has caused scientists to be ever more fantastical when describing the benefits their research will yield, particularly within the life sciences. She cites as an example a Guardian editorial on the potential of stem cells, which claims that in time, they will 'make the blind see, the crippled walk, and the deaf hear'. The media are well known for exaggerating the potential of novel scientific work but, as Rose says, they must get their ideas from somewhere.
The concern that scientists are deliberately overselling the potential of their research is sharpened when those exaggerations are being made to politicians, whose scientific prowess often leaves much to be desired. Their policies and funding decisions are based on the advice given by scientists who often have a vested interest in those decisions. Politicians and the public are seduced by promises of the 'wealth and health' that such-and-such research will provide. When the hype is unfulfilled, the public can become disillusioned and angry: where are the promised cures? Science, Rose argues, can only really be trusted when the scientists themselves are disinterested.
Life scientists today can have close connections to industry as well as to the state, illustrated by Stephen Minger's role at GE. Minger denies that the hype comes from scientists, who on the whole remain cautious and conservative about what they promise; life scientists are particularly careful about using the word 'cure'. That being said, some of the seemingly fantastical claims that are made have some basis in fact and are borne innocently out of the scientist's own excitement at where the research may lead. To make the blind see, the crippled walk and the deaf hear might be gross exaggerations, but there is, Minger insists, huge potential for stem cell research and regenerative medicine to 'make a significant impact on disease'.
We live in a world in which the demand for progress and solutions is at fever pitch. Technological innovation has been supercharged for the past two decades, with faster, smaller, smarter products penetrating our day-to-day lives at an incredible speed. People expect science to advance at the same pace, delivering tomorrow the promises made by the media yesterday. But development in areas such as stem cell research is very complex, and painfully slow. Scientists working towards long-term goals bid for funding from organisations demanding short-term benefits. By overlooking those projects that may not yield any benefits within our lifetimes, or ignoring the fundamental science that can unexpectedly shine light on new discoveries that unleash whole new areas of science, we risk missing out on invaluable new understandings, technologies or treatments.
Sometimes, overpromising is the only way to get people excited, the only way to get the funding, and the only way to get the work done.