Crystal Balls

It’s the first of January 2007.  Time for looking to the future so I’m going to join in by making just one prediction.

I predict that all predictions will be wrong, which will produce a bit of a logical conundrum if I’m right.

I’ve got nothing against predictions, they can be fun and offer insight into other peoples view of the world.  But I am concerned that those of scientists are given more weight than they deserve.  It does science itself a disservice when the predictions, predictably, fail.

Science is seen as a – perhaps the – predictive discipline. The perception is that scientific research somehow gives its practitioners greater powers than others to see into the future, yet history shows this is plain wrong.  Where are the flying cars?  Paperless offices?  Electricity too cheap to meter?  The end of cancer?

As is so often the case in the popular presentation of science there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works.  Science does indeed make many predictions but they are of a very specific type.  A prediction is made within the confines of a theory to test – for example green tea extract will kill cancer cells – and then experiments are done to see whether they’re right.  If they are then the theory is strengthened, if not then it is modified.  This is the daily work of researchers but it is not seeing into the future.  Each prediction is tested by observation and that has to happen in the present.

Listen to scientists pontificating by all means but remember that they have no more ability to see into the future than, say, economists, football punters or fortune-tellers.

written by Toby Murcott, lecturer on CASE’s MSc Communicating Science, and taken with kind permission from his Blog 



    January 10, 2007

    Green tea eh? My favourite cancer cure is a 2lb lump hammer. Hit a culture of cancer cells with it and they die. Therefore lump hammers cure cancer. QED.


    January 10, 2007

    Having grown cancer cells in the lab I’d put money on the fact that a lumphammer will simply spread them. You hit a culture with a lumphammer and I’ll culture cells from the face of it. Made me laugh though…


    January 10, 2007

    Having grown cancer cells in the lab myself as well I can testify that sometimes you seem to be able to kill them just by looking at them. I wonder if we could push that as an alternative cure?

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