Scientists don’t ‘say’

As anticipation for a Covid-19 vaccine reaches fever pitch, mainstream news media referring to the research using the term ‘scientists say’ forget a key point about scientists: they don’t speak with a unified voice.

[An extract from Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick]

The game of science has players and, importantly, it has rules. And nature may fight fair, but she’s reluctant to surrender her secrets. She is continually adapting to everything we throw at her, and the resultant complexity of the game means that humans have to be both creative in our strategy and methodical in our tactics, if we are to gain even a foothold.

To make things even more complex, there is no single strategy for scientists to keep their eye on the ball. Broadly speaking, there are two: one is epistemic, the other practical. These are sometimes referred to as the ‘pure’ or ‘applied’ sciences. The first focuses on the more academic pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, whereas the latter focuses on the application of what is learnt to secure solutions to, essentially human, problems.

In my experience, having interviewed scientists across the spectrum of research, those involved in ‘pure’ research have a tendency to scoff at those in the applied sciences, who in turn dismiss the ‘purists’ as being out of touch with the demands of the real world. However, the idea that scientific research is more of a spectrum of application makes sense when you realise that if there is something that scientists engaging in both strategies search for, it is the ‘truth’ about our natural world. For those driven by more epistemic priorities it’s about the integrity or purity of the knowledge; for those with their eye on technical applications, the success (or failure) of those applications relies on the accuracy and replicability of that knowledge. Human nutrition is one of those branches of science that benefits from both pure and applied research.

The idea that scientific research is more of a spectrum of application makes sense when you realise that if there is something that scientists engaging in both strategies search for, it is the ‘truth’ about our natural world

In the search for ‘truth’, science needs to be both methodical and ethical. Unfortunately, both pursuits are marred by profound errors. The broadly speaking ‘scientific method’ is the methodological foundation for scientific research. It demands observation by a suitably qualified researcher of the natural world, the establishment of a hypothesis, the prediction of an outcome based on the hypothesis, the testing of that hypothesis through rigorous experimentation, and the submission of the outcomes, together with a conclusion for peer review, where every component is checked, and re-checked, and if deemed rigorous enough, is published, where, theoretically it encourages others to replicate the outcomes.

If replication with the same outcomes is achieved, then it is considered part of that corpus of knowledge deemed approximate to the ‘truth’, something termed ‘scientific consensus’. However, even then there’s a seemingly paradoxical caveat: at any time that considered ‘truth’ could be overturned by the advancement of the very science that says it is so. Case in point: Newton’s ‘clockwork theory’, long considered the most accurate understanding of the universe, was upended by Einstein’s theory that space and time are in fact relative.

To try to explain the seeming impermanence of scientific knowledge, science speaks of ‘theories’, but a scientific ‘theory’ is not just an idea, some kind of thumb-suck wrapped in impressive and inaccessible (to most) mathematical notation. It is the closest we have to the complete understanding of a concept in science, at that time, because all the evidence, usually across multiple disciplines within science, gives us the same conclusion.

This means that a scientific theory such as evolution by natural selection as an in-depth explanation of a natural phenomenon (in this case the origins and diversity of all life), is usually embraced by most scientists.

Having said that, it hasn’t stopped some of the world’s greatest minds including Richard Dawkins in a book called This Idea Must Die, edited by John Brockman, from presenting their suggestions of theories that they believe are blocking the progress of science. Among them is the scientific method itself!

[Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick by Daryl Ilbury, is available online at leading bookstores and on]