February 13, 1998

Spectacular Science

The scientific community...is like a pack of hounds...where the louder-voiced bring many to follow them nearly as often on a wrong path as a right one, where the entire pack even has been known to move off bodily on a false scent.

Samuel Pierpont Langley, 1889

The most competent scientists are slow to believe. They know that most spectacular discoveries are usually a flash in the pan, of little significance. There are also scientists whose whole lives hinge on the latest "breakthrough." They are wrong most of the time. Rarely they are right. As someone once said, even a blind chicken occasionally picks up a kernel.

The press, including professional science reporters, have a different set of criteria to determine what is worth publishing. Their criterion of science, as with everything else in the news, is based on what will catch the public eye.

When a biologist found that a frog egg could develop into a tadpole if the nucleus of the egg was replaced by the nucleus from a body cell, it didn't make the news. But when a sheep was produced in the same way, it was front page stuff. When the same thing is done with a human being, it will be in the news for many months just like a woman having seven babies as a consequence of the intervention of "modern" medicine, combined with religion and a good deal of very dumb luck.

After the sheep cloning was reported, some faker with a Ph.D. made the news by saying that he would clone a human being. What he was looking for was someone who would give him a lot of money. With the money, he would try to hire someone who might know how to accomplish it. It was 100% baloney; but the media bought it. The media is the advanced guard of all kinds of fakery.

Headlines proclaimed that life had been found on a Martian meteorite. This discovery is of about the same significance as the headlines, when I was a kid, of the canals that had been discovered on Mars that indicated the probability of intelligent life on that planet. It is based on theory on top of theory, with few or no facts involved. In the first place, the scientists think that the meteorite might have come from Mars; and they think that what they saw under a microscope represented life. It can be described as science at its worst. Yet, it was treated by the media as fact.

Last month, on the evening news, the commentator talked about the "secret of aging" and how a group of scientists have discovered how to control it in cultured cells. Before they told what it was, I said to my wife, "It must be telomeres and telomerase," which it was. She was surprised that I knew about this great breakthrough before it was announced. I knew about it because it wasn't a breakthrough at all and it isn't the key to the aging process. The news caused investors to put money into the company that announced the breakthrough and the price of their stock went up. That was what that breakthrough was all about.

I used to go to scientific meetings every year. There was always news of great breakthroughs, especially in the treatment of cancer. The following year those breakthroughs were forgotten because they just didn't work the way that their proponents thought that they would. They were then replaced by new breakthroughs. I got pretty cynical, and I see no reason to lose that cynicism. If anything, I have gotten more cynical about scientific breakthroughs.

So, when you hear about the latest great breakthrough, take it with more than a grain of salt. Remember that, despite the immense advances in our knowledge in the last century, we have just scratched the surface of what there is to be discovered. We know little about our world, less about our solar system, and practically nothing about the universe.

If the best of scientists know very little, the fakers who claim to know everything know a hellofalot less.

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