Promises, Promises

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By | November 1, 2009

Promises, Promises

Ill-judged predictions and projections can be embarrassing at best and, at worst, damaging to the authority of science and science policy.

A South Korean postage stamp issued in 2005 depicts a scene that is reminiscent of the iconic human evolution cartoon in which a stooping ape evolves, in six or so steps, into an upright, bipedal Homo sapiens. It shows a paraplegic man climbing slowly out of his wheelchair, standing up straight, and then performing a giant leap of celebration. Placed next to an image of an ovum undergoing the technique of nuclear transfer, the message was clear: Thanks to the groundbreaking publications of Hwang Woo-Suk, therapeutic cloning was a medical miracle that had as good as happened. The trouble is, it hadn’t happened. And nearly 4 years on, it still hasn’t.

South Korea was understandably proud of Hwang’s achievements and, like the rest of the world, excited by his claims and those of researchers worldwide that his human embryonic stem cell (hESC) techniques were set to provide therapies for not only spinal injuries, but Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a host of other degenerative diseases. The rest is history. By January 2006, it was clear that Hwang’s pioneering papers had been fabricated and that the eleven individualized human stem cell lines he claimed to have established did not exist. Hwang left Seoul National University and was subject to criminal investigation, the stamp was withdrawn from circulation, and the world still awaits approval for the first hESC therapeutic application.

It can sometimes feel as if cures for diseases are forever 10 years off, while nuclear fusion seems to have been 50 years away from practical reality for about half a century now.

It doesn’t take anything so extreme as scientific fraud to scupper what may have seemed, at the time, to be a well-grounded scientific prediction. At its most enthusiastic, science has always been prone to promise rather more, and sooner, than it has managed to deliver. It can sometimes feel as if cures for diseases are forever 10 years off, while nuclear fusion seems to have been 50 years away from practical reality for about half a century now. It might be easy to look back and laugh at claims that eugenics would spell the end for not only heritable diseases, but also of social problems such as vagrancy and crime, but a 1989 Science editorial’s claim during the run-up to the human genome project that the new genetics could help reduce homelessness by tackling mental illness1 is perhaps fresh enough to make biologists’ toes curl with embarrassment.

Meanwhile, in bleaker moments, scientific authorities have predicted the end of the world and civilization as we know them at the hand of pandemics or environmental catastrophe. And yet we are still here, in defiance of Thomas Malthus’s eighteenth-century warnings about overpopulation and ecologist Paul Ehrlich’s prophesy in his 1968 book The Population Bomb that “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

Of course, scientists have a strong incentive to make bold predictions—namely, to obtain funding, influence, and high-profile publications. But while few will be disappointed when worst-case forecasts fail to materialize, unfulfilled predictions—of which we’re seeing more and more—can be a blow for patients, policy makers, and for the reputation of science itself.

In 1995, for example, an expert panel on gene therapy convened by the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s then-director Harold Varmus2 concluded: “Expectations of current gene therapy protocols have been oversold. Overzealous representation of clinical gene therapy has obscured the exploratory nature of the initial studies, colored the manner in which findings are portrayed to the scientific press and public, and led to the widely held, but mistaken, perception that clinical gene therapy is already highly successful. Such misrepresentation threatens confidence in the field and will inevitably lead to disappointment in both medical and lay communities.”

S

cientists have been making predictions for as long as there have been scientists. Indeed, without speculating about the future, it would be impossible to make decisions about how best to proceed. But there is reason to believe that promises are becoming more central to the scientific process.

Sir Ian Wilmut, leader of the Roslin Institute team that cloned Dolly the sheep, says that a “soundbite” media culture that demands uncomplicated, definitive, and sensational statements plays a significant role. “It’s [the media] who put the most pressure on scientists to make predictions,” he says. And in a radio or TV interview that allows perhaps only 10 or 20 seconds for an answer, “it’s very easy then to inadvertently mislead.”

But it might also pay scientists—financially and politically—to go along with such demands, and to indulge in what Joan Haran, Cesagen Research Fellow at Cardiff University, UK, diplomatically calls “discursive overbidding,” whereby they talk up the potential value of work for which they seek the support of funds, changes in legislation or public approval.

“Since the late 20th century, scientists no longer quite have that quality that we used to speak of as scientists being disinterested. They are now very interested,” says Hilary Rose, professor emerita of the sociology of science at the University of Bradford, UK and Gresham College London. “Many clearly manage to rise above this, but the basic culture of science has changed.”

Various developments such as the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act in the United States, and the rise of the spin-out companies from universities, mean that research has become more intrinsically bound up with the commercial world. Many biotech companies are now led by financial directors rather than scientific directors, says Nik Brown, co-director of the Science and Technology Studies Unit, University of York, UK. The past decade has seen a rise in the number of financial experts appointed to influential positions in biotech companies, for instance. And since the end of the Cold War, he says, the central role of science has become less about security and more about economy, with science and technology becoming central to many nations’ economic strategy.

Some famous (and infamous) predictions
YEAR PREDICTION RIGHT OR WRONG?
1869 Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table left spaces for elements that he predicted would be discovered. Three of these (gallium, scandium, and germanium) were subsequently discovered within his lifetime. RIGHT
1964 Physicists predict the existence of the Higgs Boson. If CERN’s Large Hadron Collider finds no evidence for the existence of this massive fundamental particle, working models of the material universe might require a fundamental rethink. PENDING
1965 Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore predicts that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every two years. The industry has so far managed to keep up (despite many predictions over the years about the law’s imminent demise). RIGHT
1968 Entomologist Paul Ehrlich predicts that hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in the next two decades. WRONG
2002 At the website longbets.org, astronomer Sir Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, predicts that “By 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event.” Also at Long Bets, entrepreneurial engineer Ray Kurzweil bets $10,000 that by 2029 a computer will have passed the Turing Test for machine intelligence. PENDING
2003 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory sponsored GeneSweep, a sweepstakes on the number of human genes. While bids averaged around 60,000 genes, it was eventually won by a bid of 25,947—the lowest of the hundreds received. WRONG
2007 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report projects that global surface air temperatures will increase by between 1.1 and 6.4°C over preindustrial levels by the end of the century. PENDING

It’s a changing role for science that finds formal expression in the scientific funding process, says Brian Wynne, professor of science studies at Lancaster University, UK. “Every research proposal these days, whichever field you’re in, has got to include a statement on the impact your research is going to have. And that isn’t just intellectual impact; it’s also economic impact. And that is basically requiring scientists to make promises, and to exaggerate those promises.”

Central too is the desperate competition to get funded and published, which forces scientists to emphasize the potential impact of their work, introducing further temptation to exaggerate. Last year, 8% of papers submitted to Nature were accepted for publication (down from nearly 11% in 1997). In recent years, fewer than 1 in 10 applications for new R01s from the US National Institutes of Health have been successful.

Moreover, at a time when the pressures on scientists to “rhetorically overbid” is increasing, politics is becoming more reliant on science to provide predictions to guide policy.

“There are probably more issues than there were where there is political concern about issues—often global issues—which have a scientific content,” says Sir Martin Rees, astronomer and president of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society. “Climate change is one. Pandemics are another. These are both issues where the science is uncertain, but it’s better to listen to the best scientists than to the man in the street.”

But according to Dan Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, a consequence of this reliance on science is that politicians are able to “fob off responsibility to scientists” when making difficult policy decisions. That politicians are looking to science for certainty regarding complex political issues is illustrated by an address to the Copenhagen Climate Conference earlier this year by the then Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who appealed to scientific delegates for simple, unambiguous accounts of the science. “[Don’t] provide us with too many moving targets, because it is already a very, very complicated process,” he said. “I need fixed targets and certain figures, and not too many considerations on uncertainty and risk and things like that.” Such demands, says Sarewitz, can tempt scientists into providing simplistic and unqualified extrapolations from the current state of knowledge to possible future scenarios.

Another development is that scientists, still reeling from public opposition—at least in Europe—to genetically modified crops and food, increasingly need the public on their side to secure funds and make progress. As British fertility expert Robert Winston told the BBC in 2005: “We tend often to really have rather too much overconfidence. We may exaggerate, simply because [stem cell research, for example] is an area where we need support, where we need the support of the public, and we need to persuade them. And I think we can go about persuading people a bit too vigorously sometimes.”

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f course, cloning technologies might yet help people walk again. But the fact remains that the South Korean stamp was celebrating something that had not yet actually happened. And as the Hwang case testifies, the future has an annoying habit of taking unexpected turns.

As physicist Niels Bohr once jokingly put it, “predictions can be very difficult—especially about the future.” Or as Joan Haran says, when scientists make predictions and promises they are entering “a realm of the imaginary.” So even if those predictions are based on science’s conventional territory of facts and data, they have as much to do with wishful thinking and social and political possibilities.

While few will be disappointed when worst-case forecasts fail to materialize, unfulfilled predictions—of which we're seeing more and more—can be a blow for patients, policy makers, and for the reputation of science itself.

A single unexpected scientific discovery is all it can take to confound the most carefully considered of predictions by throwing open new worlds of possibilities or shutting down others. Wilmut knows this only too well. In 2006, at a public lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Wilmut predicted that within 5 years scientists will have determined whether they can use cloning to cure motor neuron disease, the subject of his research since moving to the University of Edinburgh. But within only a couple of years, Wilmut had, like many other researchers, switched from using cloning techniques in favor of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), whereby somatic cells are reprogrammed, either genetically or biochemically, to become pluripotent. Other scientists continue to pursue cloning techniques, but the shift towards iPS means that 3 years since Wilmut made his prediction, it is looking less likely that it will even be proven right or wrong. Wilmut holds his hands up. “Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong,” he says. “You give the best prediction you can at the time.”

By the time a prediction has been proved right or wrong, however, it is already out there influencing the worlds of research and policy, for better or for worse. And it’s a two-way street: Add to the mix the influence of legislative changes on research trajectories, and things get even less predictable. It’s natural to assume, for example, that countries with less restrictive policies for human embryonic stem cell research would show more progress in this area. But that optimism has not been rewarded. While hESC therapies have so far proved elusive, and even clinical trials are rare and newsworthy events, adult SC research has at least kept pace with treatments—notably for heart disease and the regeneration of a patient’s collapsed trachea—already emerging from the pipeline.

Hilary Rose says that while there are plenty of reasons to be critical of the former U.S. President George W. Bush’s hostility to hESC research, the restrictions forced scientists to think harder about how to make the most of alternatives. “It almost feels like hurray for George Bush,” she says. Sociologist Christine Hauskeller, Senior Research Fellow at the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society, University of Exeter, UK, points out that many countries other than the United States sought alternatives to hESCs in the light of ethical objections. (Indeed, iPS was initially developed in Japan.)

It is a research landscape that continues to change in unforeseen ways as UK scientists drop hESC research in favor of the new promise offered by iPS. “In fieldwork in 2007 and 2008, we did not find a single embryonic stem cell laboratory that is not also working on iPS,” says Hauskeller.

Cloning isn’t the only area where scientists make wild predictions, of course. In his book Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning, Sir Martin Rees predicts that “the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.” Plainly, much more than science goes into an assessment of the risks posed by nuclear warfare, bio-terror, bio-error and environmental disaster.

“Of course,” agrees Rees. “I’m writing this book as a member of the human race,” not a representative of the Royal Society. But while his prediction involves judgments outside his area of expertise, it still carries the authority of science, as witnessed by the book’s subtitle. And it’s that very authority that could be undermined should these predictions fall flat.

Haran’s research shows that people are rather trusting of scientists’ visions of the future, while taking the predictions of journalists or of movies and other fictional media with a big pinch of salt. “Because of the high esteem in which scientists are held, it becomes very hard to mount a critique of their promises,” says Haran. And scientists want to keep it that way, it would seem. As an example, scientists complained after a New York Times article in 1980 warned readers not to hope for immediate miracles from research on interferons, arguing that such expressions of doubt by the press would affect their research funding, erode public trust in science, and make further progress impossible. Scientists defending their corner is understandable, says Haran, but it should be recognized that it can be at the expense of healthy skepticism.

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he consequences of inflated expectations about what, and when, science can deliver may be felt by individuals, society, and by science itself. Harold Varmus’s expert panel on gene therapy reported that overselling of the science by scientists and their sponsors “threatened confidence in the integrity of the field and may ultimately hinder progress toward successful application of gene therapy to human disease.” During the ensuing debate, David Valle, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, was quoted as saying that one of his patients had stopped a restricted diet that could save his eyesight on the basis that “gene therapy is right around the corner.”

David Valle, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, was quoted as saying that one of his patients had stopped a restricted diet that could save his eyesight on the basis that "gene therapy is right around the corner."

Predictions can also create a sense of haste and urgency that can impede cool, calm reflection on how to proceed at the policy level. Brown says it can create a pressure to legislate before experts properly understand a new research path and its potential. “You’ve got to legislate before your international competitors do,” he says.

Christine Hauskeller cites recent amendments made to the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which make it legal to create human-animal hybrid embryos for use in stem cell research following intense lobbying by scientists who argued that egg donations were insufficient to supply research needs. However, now that the law is in place, she says, the development of iPS, combined with unforeseen serious technical problems in making hybrid embryos and a lack of funding for the research, means that no scientists in the UK are actually working on them. “We now have a policy without a product,” she says.

This is not only a waste of financial and legal resources, she says, but it serves to narrow social and scientific possibilities. Indeed, she says, a promissory culture of science and technology can detract from the essence of scientific investigation: “If we already know what scientists must produce, then it’s not science—it’s called engineering.”

According to Brown, entire regulatory bodies have been established in anticipation of promising new research paths, which subsequently fail to deliver. The UK Xenotransplantation Interim Regulatory Authority (UKXIRA), for example, was set up in 1997 to oversee the development of animal-human organ and tissue transplantation. “Meanwhile, the science itself has been collapsing,” he says. “It’s proving to be unstable and unsound, and certainly not delivering what was expected.” UKXIRA was disbanded in 2006, without having granted a single license to conduct transplantation. “It met regularly to talk about…well…to kind of speculate really, but did little more than that,” says Brown.

Hilary Rose believes that an overemphasis on certain research trajectories, and overoptimistic expectations of what they can deliver, can obscure political and social solutions to problems. She cites the Science editorial that looked to the Human Genome Project as a solution to homelessness, which might skew spending towards genetics and away from other, proven social services. “Which is going to create more public health—more health for more people—improvements in, for example, housing and nutritional status for people, or genetics? I think genetics might do some wonderful things for a tiny number of extremely sick people, but I don’t think it’s likely to do much good for the public health of the entire population.”

Perhaps the most worrying aspect for scientists of a promissory culture of the discipline is that unmet promises, as the NIH gene therapy report suggested, might ultimately undermine public confidence. Presently, says Sarewitz, science seems “incredibly robust” to public skepticism. “Science budgets continue to grow, and science in the US is riding a crest of political legitimacy, of popularity, and I think that’s what’s encouraged this continual promise-making,” he says.

However, public opposition to GM in Europe is perhaps an indication that trust in science is not bulletproof. How many expert assurances or warnings must turn out to be conspicuously wrong for the authority of science and scientists to be diminished? “I do very much worry for the soul of science should there be a backlash,” says Sarewitz. “And I can’t see any feedbacks into the system right now that would encourage communities of scientists to be more circumspect in their claims about what the future will look like.”

1. D.E. Koshland, Jr., “Sequences and Consequences of the Human Genome,” Science, 246(4927), 1989.
2. S.H. Orkin, A.G. Motulsky, Report and Recommendations of the Panel to Assess the NIH Investment in Research on Gene Therapy, December 7, 1995; available online at http://www.nih.gov/news/panelrep.html

Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 16

November 2, 2009

It is about time someone published an article on this topic.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

November 2, 2009

Mark Twain said, "There is something fascinating about science. You get such a wholesale return of conjecture from such a trifling investment of fact." That was well over a century ago.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

November 2, 2009

Science has always been about expectations, what is new is the speculation, or is it?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

November 2, 2009

Somewhere along the modern science, exaggerating or speculating on the merit of particular research, including those in nascent stage, has become almost a necessity, in order win grant awards or to attract investors. And nowehere is this more prevalent than in the U.S. where quick, practical, and marketable solutions are the ultimate goals of science research.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

November 2, 2009

The topic needs this kind of exposure. However, I'm taken aback by the lack of insight into some basic sources of the problem and facts. \n\nFirst, the success of translating basic research into applied research and then technology during the first half of the 20th century led to the wilder speculations, in the second half - based on the assumption that all science has some payoff in economic, social or military terms. It doesn't. As the quest for knowledge, basic science makes no such claim, nor should it. The knowledge revealed may be nothing more than facts in an obscure field of study that await later possible, but not necessary, assimilation into a more comprehensive understanding that, in turn, may lead to benefit (or mind-numbing cruelty in the hands of powers so disposed, or other cruelty through ineptitude). An example for good would be all the tedious and "unprofitable" basic research that went into the cellular and neuro-cellular research in the first half of the 20th century - research that paid little dividend at the time, but formed the foundation for the explosion of applied research and technology in related fields during the second half. So, distinguish what kind of science you're on about before drawing sweeping generalities. \n\nSecond, the "disinterested" scientist was put down during the wretched excesses of the '60s and '70s when scientists were implored - nay, declared duty bound - to become more "relevant", to take stands on important issues of the day, and use their expertise to guide policy - a job that they were, as the article demonstrates, quite unprepared and unsuited by training and experience to fulfill. Nevertheless, this was extremely influential on young and prospective scientists and they, that cut their teeth in that day, know little else. \n\nThird, public education in statistics - the most important, most frequently overlooked, and the very backbone technology of modern science) is deplorable. To say that one wants "predictions" from a scientist without all the equivocating talk of risk, probabilities and error-terms is to say that you want the imprimatur of the scientist-as-high-priest without the science. Show me a mean without a variability estimate and I'll show you a worthless - and possibly highly misleading, statistic. Yet, that is the fodder served up daily by politicians and in the media which suffers from a surfeit of journalism majors and lack of expert consultants in the many fields they cover. \n\n
Avatar of: George Daniels

George Daniels

Posts: 1

November 2, 2009

I happened to be teaching a nuclear engineering course when Pons and Fleischmann "discovered" cold fusion. The absence of the signature radiation for the particular fusion event made me very sceptical, but it made for a lively class discussion. Many of the same issues discussed in this excellent article, in the genetic science context, were present in that situation also. I guess we are slow learners.
Avatar of: David Clark

David Clark

Posts: 4

November 2, 2009

One of the biggest offenders in hyping genetics as a cure-all for disease was Francis Collins the former head of the government branch of the human genome project. As a reward he is now boss of the NIH. Apparently he markets change that Obama believes in! I notice you did not even mention him - perhaps you are worried that Obama will declare Scientist.com to be a non-news organization for criticizing his pet?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

November 2, 2009

According to the UN the average death toll from starvation between 1968 and 2008 were 24600 per day. Over 20 years that adds up to 179 million deaths. Maybe not "hundreds of millions", but it's certainly not far from it.\n\nSo I'm not sure I'd consider Ehrlich's estimate a good example of an overly bold prediction.
Avatar of: Vinod Nikhra

Vinod Nikhra

Posts: 48

November 2, 2009

Science is interesting to all, so are the discoveries. Projecting the discoveries and results from the research is good. You can call it the scientists' reward. But, it may be done for publicity and out of proportion for fame, and may be for the money. It is not rarely so, but often so.\nReal scientists should be aware of the hopes their researches may arouse, as they hold many promises. They should be careful in sharing the research results, and more so in projecting them.\n*Dr. Vinod Nikhra\n www.vinodnikhra.com
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

November 2, 2009

And, was Erlich really wrong, or just off in his timing? \n\nErlich could not have predicted the late Borlaug's green revolution. No one did. What should he have added? "...unless someone learns how to multiply loaves and fishes"? \n\nAnd have we not just squandered the added time provided to us by Borlaug to let the earth's population continue to explode? And if you doubt that and insist that world food problems are merely political then, do the math and see whether even current world food supplies (real, not processed substitutes) could properly nourish all those here already. Another 30%? And other raw materials and energy? The added energy to increase food production with modern crops and methods? The real political crisis is the inability to face overpopulation in the face. \n\nNow, should we look back at Erlich and use his attempt to shock the world to its senses as example of what to avoid when we see, with all the available evidence at hand, something really obvious? I think not. A complete overview of his statements in their time and context would be a much more fair treatment of him and cast a much more favorable light on science, not to mention the issue itself. However, instead, he's used here and elsewhere as a poster child for scientific prediction run amok that is not only a misconstruction, but fuel to the deniers of over-population and all the subsidiary ills that it drives.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 18

November 2, 2009

Unscrupulous science journalists are the most guilty of enabling the glory seekers. In an effort to "scoop" other journalists, writers often fail to check facts or develop a set of reliable sources. Others even slant articles away from critics, labeling skeptics naysayers, or jealous rivals. This site is no exception, as some articles would prematurely award Nobel prizes out of nationalist pride, which incidentally is rampant in the comments too. \n\nMeanwhile, scientists with integrity suffer most with funding cuts, when fair journalism might have saved them. However, this behavior is not unique to science. The most admired mathematician today, Grigori Perelman, said "It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens. It is people like me who are isolated." It will be quite amazing if integrity in science and mathematics survives the funding cuts as well as the science writers.\n
Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 41

November 3, 2009

The greatest issue facing the human race is its growing population. Nations and civilizations will rise and fall based on patterns of reproduction and in/out migration. The environment of the planet is severely challenged. And, we do not have any idea how to form an enduring political consensus around any rational plan of controlled growth. Natural selection continues to favor unchecked reproduction, and an accelerating destruction of other life forms, and natural habitats, on this planet. Industrialized, mechanized economies are based on continued geometric growth, not on stability and sustainability. People have been starving and dying from the effects of poor nutrition in droves for several decades now. Ironically, many nations now ship much of their food overseas, to the U. S. and other wealthy nations, while their own population cannot find the food that they need to sustain their health. How bad does it have to get before we deem this situation catastrophic?
Avatar of: Anand Rajan KD

Anand Rajan KD

Posts: 4

November 3, 2009

The article seems well-researched, with numerous sources quoted. When I was in school - the early 90's - the done thing was to brainwash school-going children about the 'environment'. While we have more evidence today, I wonder about the speculative bunkum that was pushed down primary education syllabi at that point. Clearly there was only an agenda, or atleast more agenda and less 'science' at that point?\n\nHypertrophy of 'scientific thinking' at the cost of the philosophical disciplines and humanities is to be squarely blamed for the current state of affairs. Can any scientist step up and argue, for example, why the globe should not be warmed? Not the usual laundry-list of all the bad things that would happen but *why* that shouldn't happen?
Avatar of: Michael Ellner

Michael Ellner

Posts: 1

November 3, 2009

The massive and on-going efforts to convince the public that non-drug using heterosexuals were/are at risk for AIDS has proved to be nothing short of sexual terrorism as AIDS remains within the original risk groups 25 years into the so-called epidemic
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

November 3, 2009

And maybe some more understanding of science too. It is paradoxical that there is so much hype about what science might promise in an environment of widespread poor understanding of science by the public. Science majoring in American schools has been declining steadily for some time, and science has been under constant attack by the religious minded sector of the society. So it seems natural that science is been taken over by Hollywood stile celebrities and financial gurus with the help of the media industry. Is the rational scientific thinking going to get diluted in a big crowd of pop culture personalities dressed in white lab coats and driving expensive sport cars?
Avatar of: NEVILLE COBBE

NEVILLE COBBE

Posts: 5

November 3, 2009

This article contains timely reflections and illuminating quotations. I am tempted to say that it should be recommended reading for at least some science editors associated with the mainstream media, as well as various scientists engaging with press officers.

November 3, 2009

Today, something in excess of 15 million starve per year. Erlich made his prediction in 1968, which says to me something on the order of 600 million have starved to death since he made his prediction. Maybe he wasn't so wrong after all. \n\n\nOf course, the most famous prediction of all was Darwin's prediction of a long tongued hawk moth based on an orchid with a very long nectar spur. The hawk moth was discovered in 1903, 35 years after Darwin published his prediction.
Avatar of: NEVILLE COBBE

NEVILLE COBBE

Posts: 5

November 3, 2009

Whilst "Moore's law" may be somewhat exceptional (having been described as a self-fulfilling prophecy), there may be an important general distinction to be drawn from the examples of both Darwin's prediction about the pollinator of "Angraecum sesquipedale" and Mendeleev?s predictions of yet-to-be discovered elements. In both these cases, it would appear that such predictions were clearly-framed and testable hypotheses induced from a large quantity of consistent data, which I am happy to accept involved no greater interests than the ultimate pursuit of understanding. Similarly, a couple of the predictions for which the outcome is described as pending are also testable hypotheses, which at least stimulate further research (or prompt caution) and may lead to new insights even if their predictions ultimately do not pan out as expected.\n\nBy contrast, many examples of seemingly unfulfilled predictions cited in this article may have lacked sufficient supporting evidence at the time to make reliable predictions and thus do not prove to be terribly informative when they are subsequently falsified (nor if their predictions are too open-ended to readily test). Moreover, I think it is fair to say that concurrently available contrary data was largely dismissed publicly for primarily political reasons in the case of one prominent example described latterly in the article (though some of the more unrelenting lobbyists with vested interests will have egg on their faces as a result, if you?ll excuse the pun). So, I think a helpful distinction can be drawn between informative hypotheses and irresponsible hype, particularly where the latter involves suggesting to desperately ill patients that the only hope of a cure may depend on a particular line of research (which is then deemed insufficiently competitive to merit funding).\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

November 3, 2009

I also tend to agree with the view of Erlich?s prediction being right. It also feels like the human population has reached a metastable ecological point in which minor fluctuations in the natural, economic and social landscape could trigger a massive die out of people. This is a major reason why we shouldn?t be unconcerned about letting the globe get any warmer, or the HIV or any other virus run rampant.
Avatar of: Alexandru Cosciug

Alexandru Cosciug

Posts: 16

November 3, 2009

The scientific world shall not look with scare at the old or the new prophecies. One of the new scientific prophet of the world, Stephen Hawking, predict that the humanity can be destroyed only by genetically modification, introduced by the irrational genetically scientist which can?t be controlled.\nIn the management of the total knowledge nobody neglect the apparent irrational information. If we look at the mystical information with the actual scientific eyes, we see that the evolution was described in the Bible as Darwin said. The human evolution presented in the South Korean stamp looks like the human evolution presented by Daniel 3000 years ago (Daniel 7.2-4).\nI said that it will not be any humanity destruction, because the man will scientifically understand to manage all the diabolic strategies introduced by the irrational man.\n
Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 55

November 3, 2009

Science denial is strangely political. The political right has been fond of denying over-population, global warming, evolution, brain death, the big bang, etc. Not necessarily all at once, but there seems to be a synergism in science denial related to religion and politics. Of all of them though its always been the over-population denial that has seemed the strangest to me. Some religions and cultures have alot invested in refusing birth control, and aren't shy about misrepresenting the facts.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

November 4, 2009

Some posters may be getting a little over-defensive of Ehrlich, almost suggesting they would give similar credence to the guy wearing the "End of the World is Nigh" sandwich board. The point made in the article is that the order of magnitude predicted by Ehrlich was not realised within the timescale that he specified. That is not in itself a denial that overpopulation is a real worry but it does demonstrate that he was overly speculative (regardless of his good motives).\n\nIn order to quickly dispel another side-issue, one should not assume that some unspecified "political right" have a monopoly on science denial. One name from the extreme left should suffice as a counterpoint- Lysenko. More recent examples are not hard to find but are also beside the point of this article.
Avatar of: Renton Innes

Renton Innes

Posts: 7

November 4, 2009

It was the best prediction I had ever heard of, while folding protein in the CASP8 fold.it university of washington - humans vs computers competition, Player Guyoni was the first person to predict an almost perfect natural 3d shape/structure of the protein. how about that for intution and determination. Aotearoa.
Avatar of: RON HANSING

RON HANSING

Posts: 20

November 9, 2009

The tragedy of predictions is that it often morphs into scientific ?truth?. Just one example, the father of public health predicted that cholera was caused by smog. A young doctor investigated and found the cause to be water related? but nobody listened to him because the prediction has become ?fact?. \n\nThousands and thousands have died of cholera in the next fifty years because this prediction was ?fact?. \n\nWe have the same problem today with global warming? It?s a ?fact? and anyone who disagrees is wrong. \n\nThe reason is if you want to do research or publish the questioning of global warming, you?re out of luck. Not to mention the ridicule you must endure. \n\nIt?s the never ending story. \n
Avatar of: Susan Fitzpatrick

Susan Fitzpatrick

Posts: 10

November 10, 2009

Ok, this article is well written - but it is not saying anything hundreds have not said. Scientists make crazy promises. Hubris causes us to assert that we know what is right as though we have not been bitten by unintended consequences many, many times. But... there is plenty of blame to go around. Patients demand cures for complex diseases as though merely stomping your feet and demanding cures is enough. Scientists respond by looking for cures (usually under the lightpost)with artificial models that barely approach real diseases. Scientists have been abandoned by their institutions and turned into $ scroungers -- so they turn to the tricks of marketing. \nBUT -- what if we stop writing and saying these things and take it all seriously? Is anyone really ready to give up the game?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 12

November 11, 2009

Predictions are often the result of pressure and sensalisation by the media.Normally a Scientist is reluctant to predict as he knows the imponderables always exist and he is extra cautious.\nClaims of immediate results and break throgh sre often made by adminstrators of a research facility where the Scientist in charge,who is more of an adminstrator than a scientist;he does so to ensure funds, with out realising he is hurting the scientific community in the long run.This does not mean scientists are above board.\nBarring few exceptions ,people take scientific research as a profession not as a vocation.\nFew have the passion of a Newton,Einstein.\nWhen your future hinges on immediate results,which is not possible in research,professional scientists engage in fabricating resutls to save their career.\nAnother reason for immediate results not coming forth as before is too much of formal education has dulled intutive perception, which underlies great findings like Clarke's Table,Relativity,Laws of motion.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

November 12, 2009

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.\nMark Twain (attributed)
Avatar of: john toeppen

john toeppen

Posts: 52

November 12, 2009

Dire predictions by Erlich defined a problem that Borlaug solved. Thus the problem was avoided. Science fiction and science predictions can serve the role of creating a focus. Timelines are subject to political conditions, investments, and breakthroughs. One could argue that Verne?s predictions of TV for the 23rd century were read by Farnsworth and influenced his work. \n\nLaser induced fusion experiments are occurring now with good neutron yields and there are proposals for fusion/fission system prototypes leading to plants within a decade. Timelines depend heavily on funding. The science can be great, but if it is not funded then the accuracy of predictions can fall short. So, perhaps science predictions should be given with caveats. But the notion of not painting a clear picture of alternative futures would be a big mistake. Scientists need to be more involved in charting a path into the future, not silent and uninvolved.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

November 14, 2009

Disagree w/J Toeppen that Borlaug "solved" the problem in any more than a temporary manner - as I pointed out in "Erlich" below. \n\nI do agree with him that fiction can provide focus toward general goals, but I would place more emphasis on the opportunistic nature of BASIC scientific discovery - more like islands of insight that pop up off the coast of understood matter and to which everyone rushes to elaborate and eventually join to the mainland). Those insights can't be conjured on demand regardless of the resources. Further, wishing or working for "solutions" only works if the goal is broadly stated (or many of the components are already at hand) and the means of achieving it are left to the "non-professional exceptions" (as defined by anon@9:32:33 below, but more common than he believes). Too often, huge amounts of money are diverted into trying to force a solution by means of a specific method (e. g., fusion power), especially when there are political payoffs in the scheme, and while it may be claimed that such an approach provides many spin-offs, even if not achieving the goal, that is to ignore the often ignored "opportunity costs" (i. e., opportunities forfeited in other potentially more fruitful endevors) of such a plan of action. Such is the down-side of "big science".

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