Maria Gunther, Column

Science: a method for not fooling ourselves

This is an adapted version of the talk Maria Gunther gave at the March for Science in Stockholm on 22 April 2017.

I have a scar on the middle of my left upper arm. It’s not beautiful, but it makes me happy every time I see it. It’s the scar from the smallpox vaccination I received as a child. The smallpox virus has been eradicated since 1980, so I no longer need protection. But for me, the scar serves as a daily reminder of what science has done for us. Smallpox was a loathsome disease, which pursued humankind for more than 3,000 years. The virus has killed at least 300 million people, and those who survived could become deaf, blind and disfigured.

Up until the time British physician Edward Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy with a cowpox virus on 14 May 1796, in the world’s first vaccination, a term derived from Latin vaccinus, from vacca, or ‘cow’. Less than 200 years later, smallpox became the first disease that we have succeeded in completely eradicating. And I have evidence of all this inscribed on the bare skin of my left arm.

We are all success stories for science. We have not died of smallpox or pneumonia. When we were born, the obstetrician did not come directly from an autopsy without having first disinfected his or her hands.

Your GPS would not work if young Albert Einstein had not sat in the patent office in Bern more than 100 years ago and thought about what it really meant that the speed of light is the same in all frames of reference. What that theoretical thinking led up to – both the special and general theories of relativity – are necessary for the Global Positioning System to display the right location. Atomic clocks aboard GPS satellites travel faster than atomic clocks on Earth. The special theory of relativity demonstrates that those clocks run faster due to the high speed of the satellites, and the general theory that because they are so far away, the Earth’s gravitational pull is weaker there. If we did not correct for this, the GPS would show more and more errors every second. In one 24-hour period, the error would amount to about 10 kilometres – and I definitely wouldn’t find my way anywhere.

If you are reading this text online, this is possible because particle physicists at CERN in Geneva needed an easy way to share data with each other and therefore invented the HTTP protocol, and thus the World Wide Web. Is it not indeed easy to love science?

And I, as a science journalist, find it very easy to love my job. It’s my job to tell these stories and to make dry research reports into exciting articles.

I get to follow along in the lab with scientists who want to build living hearts, examine the ice caves beneath Antarctica or send space probes to the moons of Jupiter. And I get to hang around with Nobel Laureates and with newly fledged graduate students.

But the biggest part of my job is still to say no. To tell my colleagues that all scientists are not always right. Because the research that journalists prefer to write about might not be the best research. The truth is often a bit more complex than that dark chocolate makes you thin, that breastfeeding makes you smart and that all women need to rest on the couch when they get home from work.

But even though you may have objections to how science is portrayed in the media, scientific journalism is important for research. Above all, it’s important to reach out with results and to explain what you scientists really are doing. And why.

But that’s not all. Keep in mind that it took investigative journalists to expose surgeon Paolo Macchiarini and former doctor Andrew Wakefield, who manipulated data and violated other ethical rules when he published his study of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Despite science’s own control mechanisms, it took journalists to uncover their research misconduct. Whistle blowers who blew the whistle on Macchiarini gained no hearing at all for their accusations until Bosse Lindquist made his television documentary. British reporter Brian Deer’s long-standing efforts to reveal the truth behind Wakefield’s results is an exceptional achievement.

Maria Gunther

Maria Gunther is science journalist at Dagens Nyheter.

My job also involves daily contact with people who do not want to accept what science says. They are the ones who have found a panacea for all the world’s problems, and parents who heard so many horror stories that they dare not give the vaccine to their children. They are the people who will never acknowledge that our emissions affect the climate, and the people whose entire outlook on life would collapse if the theory of evolution is true.

And many others. The one thing that unites them, I think, is a capability they lack: the ability to change their minds. Many of them are afraid. Others may lack intellectual honesty. They have a hard time reconsidering their conclusions when so much speaks against them. And that is the ability we have to preserve at all costs.

To quote physicist Richard Feynman, one of my idols: The first principle is that you must not fool yourself. And you are the easiest person to fool.

That is the best description of science I know: a method for not fooling ourselves. And that is what we must stand up for, and convey to others.

/Maria Gunther

This is an adapted version of the talk Maria Gunther gave at the March for Science in Stockholm on 22 April 2017.