Friday, 27 November 2009

Can you really read

or do you just see what you want to see on the page?
The 'Tiser printed a letter yesterday. It raised some legitimate questions about the manner in which scientific research is conducted. This morning there was an angry response from another reader. It condemned the writer but made no attempt to address the arguments put forward. We are back to "bad science" or seeing just what you want to see on the page. If the big boys say something is black then it must be black. If the media says it is grey then they are merely stirring up debate to sell the story. If anyone else, even another scientist, says something may be white tinged with grey then they absolutely have to be wrong.
Trying to explain that big issue science is as much about politics and economics as science and that scientific 'facts' may only be theories is not going to make you popular. People want certainty. They do not want to think. People want to be told. They will accept the direst predictions as long as they are presented as cold fact about which there can be no argument. They do not want to be told "maybe". It seems we cannot handle uncertainty.
A friend rang yesterday to say that a mutual elderly friend who lost a breast to cancer some years ago has to go for more tests. Her regular check up found something the doctors do not like the look of. There may be nothing wrong or there may be something very wrong. She has to wait a fortnight - and it is going to seem like a very long fortnight - before the tests and then she will have to wait for the results. We will wait with her and share her uncertainty.
Whatever the outcome the uncertainty will always be there. This may be why we like to have certainty, even false certainty, about issues like climate change or global warming, the threat of terrorism, cholesterol, the drop in education levels, increasing unemployment, the nuclear threat from Iran and North Korea, and the health threat from the consumption of any number of foods and the use of deodorant or some hair shampoos. Even is we go and live a totally natural lifestyle on an island we are in danger from rising sea levels or falling into the ocean as we endeavour to catch a mercury laden fish.
So, can we really read? I have never regretted doing a degree in law. It taught me to read. I am glad I did it after my doctorate. If I had done it before that I might not have done my doctorate because I would have been even more conscious of the uncertainties in what I was doing. Doing it afterwards told me that I did not want to be a lawyer - but then I never had any intention of being one. I needed the degree for other reasons. There was a bonus though. It taught me the value of the lack of certainty - but it is also hard to live with that lack of certainty. Perhaps it is just as well that so many people have never really learned to read. It is much more comfortable to see what you want to see.


Rachel Fenton said...

A life of bliss? But is it? Who does the most complaining, those who can read, or those who choose not to?

catdownunder said...

Nobody in my family complains - they all have too much to read.