Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How to tell good science from bad

For the layman and the journalist it is difficult to assess what differentiates good science from agenda-based science. Peter Wilby gives a useful rule-of-thumb.
"My recommendation to journalists is the same as that given to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the start of the Watergate investigation: follow the money. A scientific consensus should be treated with scepticism if the consensus happens to suit the interests of the rich and powerful. Even though scientists are not exactly corrupt, their work depends heavily on research contracts, grants and sponsorship. When nearly all of them are willing to resist the paymasters, I reason, they must be pretty damn convinced.

So the consensus that BSE ('mad cow disease') could not be transmitted to humans was always suspect because the agricultural industry had the money. I remain sceptical of the consensus that we shall all be done in by bird flu (yes, you can laugh if I catch it this winter), because the money is with the pharmaceutical industry, which can make millions selling drugs and vaccines we won't need. Conversely, I believe sugar and salt must be bad for us, as most scientists say, because the entire food industry is desperate to believe they are not.

On this basis, global warming is a no-brainer. Few manufacturers of wind turbines have a financial interest in causing alarm. Nearly all the money is with the oil industry and, if you dig deep enough, you find that many climate-change sceptics get help, directly or indirectly, from that source. The counter-claim that hundreds of climate scientists are motivated by politics - which presumably means they want to overthrow capitalism or undermine America - just doesn't stack up. So when scientists say we're all going to drown or fry if we carry on using fossil fuels, they should be taken seriously, and put on the front pages. QED."

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