Fountain of half-knowledge

As of the end of October, the population of the world will exceed seven billion. People are looking to science to make this sustainable, whether in terms of agriculture, or energy research, or mitigating the effects of such a large and growing population on the environment.

No doubt you'd like to think that those making decisions on these issues have a good handle on what science can and can't (or should and shouldn't) do. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Now that Liam Fox has resigned, there is no UK cabinet minister with a science degree. Ministerial qualifications shouldn't matter, you might say; that's why the government has scientific advisers. But a recent study from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) showed that the status, suitability and influence of scientific advisers varies across departments. The advice system was deemed to work very well in only two cases (Defra and the Department of Health). One adviser reported she had never had a one-to-one meeting with her departmental minister.

Perhaps that is because politicians have a sixth sense for what merits their attention. Combine the Case study with recent revelations about the honesty of scientists and you could excuse politicians for not wanting to engage.

Most shockingly, climate scientists have systematically been under-representing the likely impact of climate change. Those who claim that researchers in this field exaggerate the problem in order to get more funding have not read the recent literature: when climate disruption estimates
are revised, they are more than 20 times more likely to indicate that things are worse than better. For example, some scientists have revised the prediction for when Arctic ice will disappear from 2100 to 2036. And forecasts of the extinction rate have been half what real-world data has shown to be the case.

Straight answers

Then there's the spat over whether the perils of low-level radiation have been wilfully distorted. In the late 1940s, amid heightened postwar anxiety about radiation, one of the world authorities on the subject allegedly misrepresented the dangers, rejecting evidence that radiation exposure is harmless below a certain level. Hermann J Muller's work won him a Nobel prize and shaped international guidelines on safe radiation exposure which are still influential in policymaking decisions today.

And the jury is still out on the value of GM crops: 20 years of cultivation have yet to show that they are the promised solution to food shortages, according to a report issued on 19 October by food and conservation groups working in the developing world.

Politicians need straight answers, but science doesn't always provide them. In this light, those seven billion people start to look like a big headache-in-waiting.

But here's the thing. The world population has hit seven billion in part because advances in health care and nutrition have doubled our lifespan in the past 200 years. There is no guarantee, but if past performance is anything to judge by, we have every reason to be confident that scientific innovation will create solutions to mitigate the less desirable by-products of its success. Science might not deliver certainty but it does deliver results.

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 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?