In science, no work is completed until it has been picked to pieces

Dangerous dithering.

What does a scientist have to do to convince you? The answer used to be “wait until his critics die” – hence the physicist Max Planck’s assertion that science advances one funeral at a time.

But sometimes even that is not enough. Late last month, the smell researcher Luca Turin published striking new evidence supporting an idea first put forward by Sir Malcolm Dyson in 1938. Dyson presented his “vibrational” theory of how our sense of smell works to universal apathy. Three generations later, scientists are still saying “meh”.

That year, 1938, was also when it was first argued that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. The idea came from the steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar; the broad response was “implausible”. Today, in 2013, scientists have shifted: they generally agree that Callendar was right. Yet there remains a dangerous level of disagreement about the detail.

At least Turin’s scientific peers have presented him with a clear path to follow. Dyson’s idea was that when a molecule gets up our nose, its characteristic smell is created by the way the bonds within that molecule vibrate. In a clever piece of experimental work, Turin has shown that human beings can distinguish between two molecules that differ only in the way they vibrate. The two molecules tested were both cyclopentadecanone, but while one contained normal hydrogen atoms the other contained “deuterated” hydrogen, which has an added neutron in its atomic nucleus. The additional particle creates a difference in the way the molecules vibrate. And that is why, according to Turin, they smell different to us.

The experiment punches a hole in the accepted theory of smell, which says that smell experiences are triggered by differently shaped molecules fitting different receptors in the nose. This “lock and key” idea can’t explain why two identically shaped molecules smell different. But Turin’s critics said last month that before they will even consider accepting his theory, they want him to show exactly what goes on in human smell receptors.

They are right to make such demands. This is science, where no work is finished until it has been picked to pieces. But that is exactly why it has been so easy to do so little about climate change since 1938. Later this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will make some highly equivocal, backtracking announcements. In a report due for release in December, the IPCC will concede that we can’t be sure tropical cyclones will become more frequent, or that droughts will get worse. Worries that the Gulf Stream will collapse, tentatively raised in the 2007 IPCC report, are allayed: such an event is “unlikely” to occur in the foreseeable future.

Concern over details can have an unhelpful effect, masking the big picture on climate change – the one that Nicholas Stern, who wrote the UK government’s 2006 review on the science, said at Davos last month is “far, far worse” than we were led to believe originally. Until that, rather than the detail, becomes the focus, we can continue to dither over whether to do anything, let alone deciding what course we might take.

It does not matter a great deal that no one is willing to risk his career by backing Luca Turin – but to wait for absolute certainty over the details of climate change before we do anything about it will spell life or death for many. If science continues to advance one funeral at a time, its acceleration is assured; and there will be no shortage of funerals in a world that’s 4° warmer.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.