Godless Uncertainty

As usual I’m a bit slow to comment on something that’s been the topic of much twittering and blogging over the past few days. This one is the terrible article by A.N. Wilson in, inevitably, the Daily Mail. I’ve already fumed once at the Mail and didn’t really want to go off the deep end again so soon after that. But here goes anyway. The piece by Wilson is a half-baked pile of shit not worth wasting energy investigating too deeply, but there are a few points I think it might be worth making even if I am a bit late with my rant.

The article is a response to the (justifiable) outcry after the government sacked Professor David Nutt, an independent scientific adviser, for having the temerity to give independent scientific advice. His position was Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and his sin was to have pointed out the ludicrous inconsistency of government policies on drug abuse compared to other harmful activities such as smoking and drinking. The issues have been aired, protests lodged and other members of the Advisory Council have resigned in protest. Except to say I think the government’s position is indefensible I can’t add much here that hasn’t been said.

This is the background to Wilson’s article which is basically a backlash against the backlash. The (verbose) headline states

Yes, scientists do much good. But a country run by these arrogant gods of certainty would truly be hell on earth.

Obviously he’s not afraid of generalisation. All scientists are arrogant; everyone knows it because it says so in the Daily Mail. There’s another irony too. Nutt’s argument was all about the proper way to assess risk arising from drug use, and was appropriately phrased  in language not of certainty but of probability. But the Mail never lets truth get in the way of a good story.

He goes on

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.

It’s desperately sad that there are people – even moderately intelligent ones like Wilson – who think that’s what science is like. Unimaginative? Nothing could be further from the truth. It takes a great deal of imagination (and hard work) to come up with a theory. Few scientists have the imagination of an Einstein or a Feynman, but at least most of us recognize the importance of creativity in advancing knowledge.  But even imagination is not enough for a scientist. Once we have a beautiful hypothesis we must then try to subject it to rigorous quantitative testing. Even if we have spent years nurturing it, we have to let it die if it doesn’t fit the data. That takes courage and integrity too.

Imagination. Courage. Integrity. Not qualities ever likely be associated with someone who writes for the Daily Mail.

That’s not to say that scientists are all perfect. We are human. Sometimes the process doesn’t work at all well. Mistakes are made. There is occasional misconduct. Researchers get too wedded to their pet theories. There can be measurement glitches. But the scientific method at least requires its practitioners to approach the subject rationally and objectively, taking into account all relevant factors and eschewing arguments based on sheer prejudice. You can see why Daily Mail writers don’t like scientists. Facts make them uncomfortable.

Wilson goes on to blame science for some of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler:

Going back in time, some people think that Hitler invented the revolting experiments performed by Dr Mengele on human beings and animals.

But the Nazis did not invent these things. The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.

Garbage. Hitler knew nothing about science. Had he done so he wouldn’t have driven out a huge proportion of the talented scientists in Germany’s universities and stuffed their departments full of ghoulish dolts who supported his prejudices.

It was only after reading the article that it was pointed out to be that this particularly offensive passage invoked Godwin’s Law: anyone who brings Hitler into an argument has already lost the debate.

Wilson’s piece seems to be a modern-day manifestation of old problem, famously expounded by C.P. Snow in his lecture on Two Cultures. The issue is that the overwhelming majority of people in positions of power and influence, including the media, are entirely illiterate from a scientific point of view. Science is viewed by most people with either incomprehension or suspicion (and sometimes both).

As society becomes more reliant on science and technology, the fewer people there are that seem to understand what science is or how it works. Moronic articles like Wilson’s indicate the depth of the problem.
Who needs scientific literacy when you can get paid a large amount of money for writing sheer drivel?

I’m sure a great many scientists would agree with most of what I’ve said but I’d like to end with a comment that might be a bit more controversial. I do agree to some extent with Wilson, in that I think some scientists insist on claiming things are facts when they don’t have that status at all. I remember being on a TV programme in which a prominent cosmologist said that he thought the Big Bang was as real to him as the fact that the Sun is shining. I think it’s quite irrational to be that certain. Time and time again scientists present their work to the public in a language that suggests unshakeable self-belief. Sometimes they are badgered into doing that by journalists who want to simplify everything to a level they (and the public) can understand. But some don’t need any encouragement. Too many scientists are too comfortable presenting their profession as some sort of priesthood even if they do stop short of playing God.

2006-11-09-1525-20The critical importance of dealing rationally with uncertainty in science, both within itself and in its relationship to society at large, was the principal issue I addressed in From Cosmos to Chaos, a paperback edition of which is about to be published by Oxford University Press..

From the jacket blurb:

Why do so many people think that science is about absolute certainty when, at its core, it is actually dominated by uncertainty?

I’ve blogged before about why I think scientists need to pay much more attention to the role of statistics and probability when they explain what they do to the wider world.

And to anyone who accuses me of using the occasion presented by Wilson’s article to engage in gratuitous marketing, I have only one answer:


28 Responses to “Godless Uncertainty”

  1. Wonderful! I think you hit the nail squarely on the head, in that gap between science and, well, whatever else wants to be said.

    You’re so right that scientists do, often, speak in absolute terms, rather than couching what they say in a more passive “right now it seems highly likely that…”. In fact, they are often encouraged to do by their peers, as if marketing/political tactics were every bit as important as the science (which it may well be, when considering funding issues).

    I think it all boils down to people feeling unsettled by not knowing something. Probabilities are, for most, uncomfortable. And many will be happy to take any manner of certainty, even when that certainty is founded only upon bravado. That is, if it helps them feel more comfortable, by believing it, or being able to skirt the real issue.

    It’s somewhat paradoxical that freedom, and even free will itself, is is more than a little dependent upon uncertainty, yet people so often crave those immutable truths.

    I hope that doesn’t sound like I believe theoreticians are best spending their time on wild, intricate imaginings with only the most tenuous ties to the experimental…

    What I am saying is that reason, which cannot ignore good science, can be a helpful bridge toward people like this, and to those who might listen to them. And that, you have built well here. Truth cannot be destroyed, but it can be occluded by politics and other agendas not at all concerned with truth. And empiricism may not be the only access to truth. And therein lies the war. Reason is the key that mends.

    Hot, stubborn heads will almost always result in shouting matches, and in those, the scientists will almost certainly lose.

    So here’s to you, on that long, trudging path, to help us all see the world more clearly.

  2. Perhaps a hyperlink on the “BUY MY BOOK” to the amazon page would have more effect.

  3. I have just seen the hyperlink on the previous sentence, although do not retract my previous comment 🙂

  4. “Hitler knew nothing about science. Had he done so he wouldn’t have driven out a huge proportion of the talented scientists in Germany’s universities and stuffed them full of ghoulish dolts who supported his prejudices.”

    A government official once asked Hilbert how mathematics in Göttingen had improved now that it had been purged of Jewish influence. Hilbert replied that there no longer was any mathematics in Göttingen.

  5. telescoper Says:


    I did intend to include a link to the final exhortation to buy my book but had obviously forgotten. I’ve now put it back in.


  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    I don’t quite get the fuss about this story. If you fall out with your boss then you expect to get the sack. It happens all the time. Clearly there are two egos involved here.

    People used to look to scientists to solve all their problems. That was as unrealsitic as the scepticism over science that we find today.

    Factually, is it not the case that today’s skunk is a lot stronger than the stuff which one or two people smoked when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s?


    • telescoper Says:

      I think the point is that instead of sacking Nutt the government could have done what it usually does with scientific advice that doesn’t fit its preconceived agenda. Ignore it.

      P.S. Can you get GM skunk?

  7. Speaking of someone with no experience in this area, and assuming that skunk is slang for a plant containing THC, I don’t know if GM skunk is available, but I doubt there would be much of a market for it. However, conventional breeding techniques have indeed increased the THC content to much higher levels than was the case back in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Once I read an article which seriously claimed that long guitar solos and longer pieces of music than just 2 or 3 minutes which became popular in rock music in the 1970s were due to the distorted sense of time of musicians consuming said herbs. Bullocks, of course; even non-users wrote long pieces of music back then.

    Ritchie Blackmore’s explanation of the origin of the extended guitar solo is much more interesting.

    One of the musicians in Hawkwind declared that they couldn’t afford it, musically, to play when stoned today. When asked why that was possible back in the 1970s, the answer was that the audience, being stoned as well, didn’t notice much difference.

    Monica Lewinsky missed the opportunity to utter the greatest one-liner of all time when being interrogated about her affair with Clinton: “But, Your Honour, I didn’t inhale.” 🙂 (There must be a more appropriate smiley!)

  8. I’ve not heard of Godwin’s Law, but as soon as I saw the reference/comparison to Hitler, I thought: oop, he’s lost it now, clutching at straws.

    I’m not sure on the exact wording of Nutt when he used the horse-riding comparison, but I assumed straight away that he was comparing the two risks in a simple statistical manner. It’d be nice to be able to believe that most would think the same, even if they were not of a scientific background, if the word statistics (or one of its variants) had not been used. But maybe that is too much to hope for nowadays. Any person wishing to oppose the argument will be delighted to misinterpret such a statement in light of potentially ommited key words.

    Furthermore, if the comparison was of a statistical nature, then that would be classed as a mathematical argument rather than a scientific one, which anyone would be able to spot if the figures were put before them.

    Please don’t pick me on not including maths among the sciences, it’s only my opinion, it’s a crucial part of scientific methodology, unquestionably, but that’s not the point in this matter, rather that even a child of ten, shown the appropriate figures, could agree with Nutt’s comparison.

    [so glad I happened upon your site recently, even if it was not via scientific curiosity, as it’s so refreshing to here science described in the realistic way in which you’ve put it in this post – the statistical element due to experimentational data sets us so crucial to understanding the results of scientific investigation, yet this factor of potential uncertainty is so often overlooked or ignored by the layman, who seems to regard science as a source of indisputable knowledge – though perhaps without thought to the Latin derivative of the word.]

  9. Well, to be mildly provocative, I’d agree with you John that math is not precisely a science, nor is it in nearly any way, physics. Math is metaphysics. And that is something theoretical physicists, in particular, should always keep in mind, especially when speaking in absolute terms.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:


    What was Ritchie Blackmore’s explanation? You don’t say.

    I’m going to see Deep Purple in Manchester on Tuesday (although not with Ritchie, nowadays).


  11. telescoper Says:

    Obviously this advertising really works. My book has rocketed up the Amazon list to number 771,762.

  12. Out of polite curiosity, what was it’s ranking before?
    I’d love to see the algorithm that Amazon use for their ranking system. Then punch the person who came up with it.

  13. Blackmore’s explanation: During a guitar solo, Gillan was having fun with a groupie underneath Lord’s grand piano. Near what was supposed to be the end of the solo, Blackmore looked over to Gillan, who signaled him to extend the solo so he could continue his enjoyment. (Gleaned from an article/interview in the excellent magazine Mojo.)

    This is rivaled only by Wakeman’s explanation about why he left Yes (one of the many times he left). He told a roadie to get him a curry, but he meant AFTER the show. Instead, the roadie brought it onto the stage. Fortunately, this was during a part of “Nous sommes du soleil” when Wakeman had a pause from playing, so he crawls under his keyboards to eat it. The audience can smell it, as can the rest of the band. Anderson is particularly annoyed.

    I recently read a good review of a new Deep Purple DVD with the classic lineup—not a concert, but a documentary with concert footage etc. Haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, just glanced at it a bit when testing the cabling for me TV after having moved house. I’m looking forward to the sequence where DP are guests on Hugh Hefner’s short-lived Playboy Club television show.

    I’ve seen DP in the revived Mark II and Blackmore a couple of times with his current outfit, which sometimes strays too close to kitsch but is generally quite good (at least if one likes mediaeval and renaissance music). While Airy and Morse are certainly technically comparable to Lord and Blackmore, how does the current lineup compare with those of the past, both when playing new stuff and when playing the older stuff?

    The only time I’ve seen Don Airy live was when he toured with Jethro Tull in 1987. Apparently Blackmore is a huge Tull fan (Ian Anderson also guests on the first Blackmore’s Night CD) and required his band to see Tull in concert whenever their paths crossed during touring. It seems that Airy didn’t gell with the rest of the band; otherwise, he was a good choice.

  14. Daniel Mortlock Says:

    Back to the horse-riding vs. ecstacy argument, I understood that Nutt was comparing the risks of various activities/substances by looking at the number of deaths attributable to each in turn. In terms of what the government should be focussing its efforts on this seems reasonable to me: solve the biggest problem first and then move onto the next.

    But in terms of the actual *risk* of the activity I think this borders on the disingenuous as you need to divide through by the number of people riding horses or tripping out to the latest beats spun by our bitchin’ cadre of in-house DJs. It’s possible that the numbers of participants are comprable here, but it would be a rather big coincidence.

    That said, I think ecstacy and dope/skunk/ganja/weed/hash/cannabis would still rate much lower than alcohol and cigarettes, and maybe even activities like horse-riding or even driving a car.

  15. telescoper Says:

    I think more people die per year from eating peanuts than using ecstacy, in fact. I haven’t read the detailed report but I think the risk analysis does take into account the number of people engaged in the activity. The right statistic is what fraction of people taking ecstacy suffer problems in a given time, compared with what fraction of those riding horses. I can easily believe that the former is less risky than the latter in those terms.

    Of course many more deaths occur on the roads than are caused even by smoking each year but for some reason there isn’t a massive lobby to ban private motor vehicles.

  16. Good point, Daniel. Again on hearing the horse-riding/ecstacy comparison I automatically assumed that the statistical data was proportional, like 1 in 10 fall off a horse, 1 in 20 fall on the dance floor. Even if there were more registered riders than registered pill-poppers, this would still work out in favour of Nutt’s argument, in that the numbers of accidents from each activity is probably quite reliable (involving health-care records) but that the numbers of E users are probably more than is admitted to, which would make the proportion of accidents due to usage even lower.

    Still, this is an assumption on my part from a small perhaps even throwaway comment from Nutt. I doubt he was basing his whole argument on this, rather he was using it as a simple easy to comprehend example, similar to comparing the liklihood of winning the lottery as opposed to getting hit by a bus or else by lightning (which is a stupid use of statistics as people don’t actively try to get hit by things, just as you can’t win the lottery merely by not looking both ways while crossing the street in a thunderstorm whilst wearing an iron hat – where as popping an e and riding a powerful beast do have obvious health risks).

    What I’d like to know is the statistical risk of taking ecstacy whilst riding a horse – surely it’s that sort of activity the police should be cracking down on. Has Alan Strang been consulted in all of this?

  17. Well that’s just it – science doesn’t seem to have a cohesive political agenda of its own, so if you want to find out how to minimize deaths, there is no real authority for it. The only authority for such thing is politicians, who use science rather more like a commodity to bolster their arbitrary or populist agendas.

  18. “Of course many more deaths occur on the roads than are caused even by smoking each year but for some reason there isn’t a massive lobby to ban private motor vehicles.”

    Are you sure? In Germany, with a population of 80 million, about 4000 people die each year from motoring accidents. I’m sure the number who dies from smoking is much larger.

    There are other reasons why the comparison is not valid:

    o Smoking is not as necessary as driving.

    o There is a lobby to increase the safety of motoring, while the safety
    of smoking tobacco probably can’t be increased, so the result is
    to concentrate on banning it, or at least restricting access, making it
    expensive etc.

    o There is a danger of young people becoming smokers when they
    are too young to realise the consequences; the danger of becoming
    an underage driver is less.

    o Smoking, unless you are isolated, detrimentally affects other people.
    This is less true of motoring accidents, although it does happen, of

    o One can’t really combat the dangers of smokinng, whereas one can
    at least minimise the dangers of motoring, even if one is a victim
    (by driving defensively, wearing seat belts etc). In the case that
    one is the cause of motoring accidents, these can be greatly reduced:
    80% or something of motoring accidents are due to DUI.

    • telescoper Says:


      I should have been more careful. I meant to say passive smoking rather than just smoking. Esimates of annual death risk from passive smoking are about 1:50000 while those of death in a road accident are about 1 in 8000. Death rates from direct smoking are in any case a bit more difficult to calculate than those from car accidents because of the time-delay. The risk of dying due to smoking at an age under 35 is almost negligible, in fact.

      More importantly, road accidents quite often involve the death or serious injury of people other than car drivers, i.e. pedestrians or cyclists, so the risk to other people from car drivers is probably greater than the risk to other people from smoking.


      P.S. I don’t think driving is “necessary”. I, for one, never do it. I can’t drive.

  19. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobacco_smoking

    “The World Health Organization estimate that tobacco caused 5.4 million deaths in 2004”

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_effects_of_tobacco

    “In the United States, cigarette smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke results in at least 443,000 premature deaths annually.”

    See the articles for references.

  20. But, presumably, you have been driven—by private motorists, by taxis etc. Or do you manage to avoid cars completely and use walking, cycling and mass transit for everything.

  21. telescoper Says:

    I do occasionally use a taxi or accept a lift, but mainly I walk, cycle or go by train.

  22. Anton Garrett Says:

    How are the data on risk of passive smoking compiled? I suspect these are worthless, although I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

    Phillip: After Tuesday I’ll have seen Deep Purple 9 times, and starting with the classic Mk II line-up in 1972 and seeing all others but Tommy Bolin.

    Twice after Blackmore and Gillan became unable to work together they sacked Gillan; the third time (stretching to the present) Blackmore left. They are obviously a much happier band for that, and they also went on with Steve Morse to play a lot of Mk II classics live that Blackmore refused to play. Given that Blackmore and Gillan will obviously never share a stage again, the present line-up is as good as it gets. Terrible shame though – Mk II with In Rock, Fireball and Machine Head was definitive.


  23. Peter Proudlove Says:

    Putting myself in Wilson’s shoes, I imagine he judged Nutt to be insufferably arrogant and reacted accordingly. That was my reaction to the man, as it has been to most of the professors I’ve met. I adored Nutt’s assertion that his committee would resign, and the fact that barly any of them did. Hearing ten minutes of him on the radio made me to wish I could cause him actual bodily harm, so I can imagine the reaction of many of his committee members to his “dismissal”.

    Aside from Ecstacy (use of which should be compulsory before anyone is allowed to write bad things about it) the order in which Nutt lists his drugs is simply not rooted in the reality of the world we inhabit. LSD and skunk are more dangerous, in just about any definition of the word, than alcohol or nicotine.

  24. telescoper Says:


    Wonderful! Who said irony was dead?


  25. Peter Proudlove Says:



  26. […] reminds me of the stereotypical image of a scientist as an arrogant god of certainty, one that I don’t recognize at all. Scientists are constantly addressing uncertainty. […]

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