Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Science and uncertainty

I just started teaching Community Ecology with Tom Nudds again, and one of the main themes of this course is exposing students to the importance of uncertainty in science (or Science, if you want). Today another insightful article by John Timmer in Ars Technica appeared, and provides a real-life example of this uncertainty.

It tells the story of Peter Duesburg, a scientist with an impressive academic history:
"He did pioneering work in the characterization of retroviruses (viruses that are transmitted using RNA as a genetic material, but then copied into DNA and inserted into their hosts' genome), helping to show that they could pick up genes from their host that enabled them to induce cancer. That work, extended by others, ultimately led to the oncogene hypothesis, which suggests that cancer is caused by mutations in a limited number of host genes that control cell growth. The work got Duesberg a tenured position at Berkeley and election to the National Academies of Science."
 He also has a history of challenging the status quo. He was co-signer of a lettre in Science that questioned the link between HIV and AIDS. Other co-signers did not have the same scientific credentials:
 "But one signatory is an actuary; another wrote a biography of Duesberg; two are journalists. One of the journalists was the author of the Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, which also criticized the science of climate change and evolution. The biggest surprise was the presence of Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley Law professor who had by this point founded the Discovery Institute and helped develop its wedge strategy, a plan to replace science as it's currently practiced with something he found more theologically palatable."
 The reason for this article was his contribution to another peer-reviewed publication on the potential absence of this link. It provides an interesting read, but the real scientific discussion only starts with this publication. I am pretty sure that this manuscript got rejected by several other publications, and not only the journal Medical Hypotheses. So now it is just waiting for those arguments to form part of the debate to show up in the scientific literature and/or blogosphere.

In the mean time, this controversy can maybe form a starting point for a discussion on the importance of uncertainty in science for undergraduate students?

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