Plausible Denial

Separating fact from fiction? Published by HarperCollins 2005

New scientific evidence appears every day.  Sometimes it is of merely passing interest, but at times it may affect our future significantly.  And, all too often, we members of the public are then expected to make up our own minds on the consequences.  We have the benefit of an extensive scientific community to help us make any decisions, but the process may not always be straightforward.

The campaigning organization Sense about Science published “I Don’t Know What To Believe”, a public guide to peer review, in 2005 following the discussion paper Peer Review and the Acceptance of New Ideas.  They demonstrated how easy it is to give a false “result” before adequate testing and review by other scientists in the field has been carried out.  Clearly we need to understand how the checks and balances operate to ensure that new knowledge is plausible before it is released.

Even then, interpreting those results is critical.  Professor Sir Brian Heap, the Cambridge University biologist who was Chair of the paper’s working party, commented in his foreword that the “tension between the description of experimental findings and interpretation arises for all who aim for clarity and urgency.  Yet it is the pursuit of truth that remains fundamental to the scientific endeavour.”

In a previous Odyssey post, Colliding Worlds, I mentioned Carl Sagan’s reaction to the seemingly extravagant theories of Immanuel Velikovsky in his 1950 book Worlds In Collision.  Professor Sagan’s concern was perhaps not so much that those theories might be wrong (and they probably were), but that there had been attempts to suppress them.  A theory should be judged on its own merits, based on the evidence available, and not merely on preconceived notions of what is correct or not.

Now, when something is clearly written as science fiction, we have no doubt that it is meant to be treated as just that – fiction.  We don’t normally expect it to have been subject to the rigours of peer review.  Conversely, scientific papers, or popular books that flow from such research, are presented as fact, and we expect them to be “right”.  The problem for the reader comes when science fact and fiction are blended, particularly where interpretation of facts becomes critical to the argument.

So, when I talked about Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel State of Fear in Odyssey 45, I pointed out how he used detailed evidence to attack the established scientific view on climate change as it then stood, presenting it against a storyline where panic over global warming was deliberately fostered by scientists with a vested interest.  But that’s not the whole point – the purpose of the novel was to persuade the reader that one should not accept unconditionally the interpretation of data by one group when there might be a plausible alternative explanation.  And that is an entirely valid aim.

The author quoted extensively from books and journals, but acknowledged in his bibliography that “environmental science is a contentious and intensely politicised field”.  His appendix on “Why Politicised Science Is Dangerous” drew analogies between climate change theories and others where a political stance has been taken on one side of the argument.  And his conclusion that we “must be certain that what we present to the world as knowledge is disinterested and honest” is unarguable.

Authors have often used a novel as a means of bringing contentious issues to the attention of the public.  It may be little different in principle from, say, Elizabeth Gaskell’s attempt to bring out the suffering of working people in nineteenth century industrial Manchester in her 1848 novel Mary Barton.  We may not necessarily always agree with the author’s conclusions, since so much depends on how one interprets the facts, but the need to make a point in a way we can all understand is laudable enough.  And we will always need truly impartial scientists to sort out truth from fiction.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Lonely Universe: They Know Something You Don’t | Apocalypse Before Long

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