31 Oct 2012
Scientific research consists mainly of a series of failures, with a few occasional successes. Many research avenues end up leading down blind alleys, no matter how fashionable and promising they looked at the time researchers embarked along them. The scientific community (which includes many science journalists) rarely tells the public about these features of science. The limits of research are only presented when science comes under attack, as it did with climate science. Is this misleading view of research presented because we are afraid of telling the public the truth, for fear that this would jeopardise public support for research? Perhaps the reason that researchers en masse so often pursue fashionable alleys so blindly is because they have been presented with a misleading, triumphalist history of science as a steady series of discoveries, rather than what it really is – a process of error identification and correction.
We will suggest some possible remedies, and present some successful attempts to make the public more aware of how scientific controversies are a natural part of research. We will present evidence suggesting that fear and ignorance of the limitations of science are features of the research community itself, using the example of pre-clinical animal research.