Simon Jenkins on scientists

“So scientists are human after all. They are no different from bankers, politicians, lawyers, estate agents and perhaps even journalists. They cheat. They make mistakes. They suppress truth and suggest falsity, especially when a cheque or a plane ticket is on offer. As for self-criticism, that is for you, not me.”

- Simon Jenkins, writing in Comment Is Free, the Guardian

A recent piece by Guardian staff columnist Simon Jenkins (who has no expertise in science journalism) has stirred up a furore amongst the science community for his sweeping, unfocused and virulent attack. A précis here cannot do it justice, but he reserves most of his wrath for climatologists, epidemiologists and vaccine researchers, seeming to tar the entire establishment with a brush of greed, corruption and cloistered exclusivity.

One of his most bizarre assertions is that scientists as a profession are not self-critical – whereas any scientist will tell you that robust internal criticism is the mainstay upon which all science rests. In the lengthy comment thread that follows his rant, in fact, a number of articulate readers point out an interesting hypocrisy, which is that in many cases it is not scientists but uncritical journalists who actually fanned the flames of some of the scientific issues he points to – as for example the media frenzy which bolstered the spurious MMR-autism link and the dangers of pandemic influenza.

Meanwhile, Jenkins laments that “science enjoys extraordinary privilege in Britain”, that the BBC spends too much time covering science and that scientists are treated as heroes. We are not sure what planet Jenkins is actually on, as the last time we checked science and its practitioners continue to be marginalized by the media and popular culture, and in most other ways that matter. Indeed, in his own newspaper, the weekly science section was axed long ago (though sections devoted to education, sport, society and – naturally – the Media, are going strong). We are not even sure that Jenkins knows what a scientist is, though, since he uses Carol Vorderman (a media personality with only an undistinguished undergraduate degree in engineering) as one of his prime examples. Perhaps he might like to meet some real ones one day. And yes, they will turn out to be fallible humans – just like journalists.

The entire piece is available here. Do also check out the blog post (and stimulating comment thread) written by our regular contributor Stephen Curry.