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The Scientific Background to a World in Crisis

by Ralph Tebbutt

Radical Engineers health event, Newspeak House, London. Charles Matthews of ContentMine demonstrates for the ScienceSource project. Photo: Charles Matthews. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The blame game has already begun. Who will bear the responsibility for the way that the Covid-19 pandemic has developed? One area of this argument is between the British Government and their scientific advisors. Throughout the stages of the Government’s actions, they have claimed to be ‘following the science’.

The scientists are now challenging this. The system is that the scientists give their advice. The Government makes political decisions bearing this advice in mind, but also considering other factors which can mean that the advice is not followed completely. Quite rightly, political groups and trade unionists have concentrated on actions to defend the health, welfare and working conditions of workers.

It is important that we are aware of the background to what is happening. In this article I want to consider, and hopefully help others to gain a clearer impression of how to relate to the science. The comments that follow are based on my understanding, and what I have read. I would like to have produced a more scholarly article but this is presented as a basis for further study.

There are several aspects that I would like to explore. These are the scientists; how scientific knowledge develops; the work that is now being done around Covid 19; and the implications of all of this for society in the present time and in the future


Scientists are the same as any other group of workers, they have been conditioned by their upbringing and their experience of life. I am conscious of the fact that many of my own attitudes were formed in my non-conformist, early life experiences, an attitude of questioning loyalty.

The scientists in the Government’s Advisory Group were chosen by Government and are therefore likely to have a similar background of ideas. This is not to suggest that they are deliberately biased, it is just the way in which they see the world. We all have mixed consciousness.

Isaac Newton was a brilliant mathematician and physicist, producing revolutionary work in calculus, mechanics and optics, his theory of gravitation linked the earth to the stars. Yet in other aspects of his life he had some strange ideas. In the history of Science, discoveries have been made by scientists from different backgrounds and in differing circumstances.

Scientific Development

Science like all other forms of knowledge is cumulative. In developing his ideas, Newton built on the ideas of others. Tycho Brahe produced data on the movement of stars and planets; Kepler used this data to produce his laws of motion; Copernicus studied the movement of stars and planets and challenged the prevailing view that put the earth at the centre of the universe; Galileo risked his life to support the view of Copernicus; Newton synthesised all of these ideas into a theory of gravitation that provided the basis for scientific development for the following centuries.

At any one time, scientific work is based on an accepted system and structure, a paradigm. An example is the concept of phlogiston, a long held view about combustible bodies. Joseph Priestley discovered a new substance, a gas. However, he held to the current philosophy, phlogiston, that was in error, so he did not fully realise what he had achieved. Lavoisier, incorporating ideas that he had obtained from Priestley into his own work on the same subject, was able to transcend this general viewpoint and to realise that what he had produced was a new element, oxygen. In so doing Lavoisier destroyed the philosophical outlook that incorporated phlogiston and brought about a revolution in Chemistry.

These two examples show that there is a pattern to scientific development. In the main, science is carried out within an agreed structure. As scientific knowledge increases, facts are discovered that conflict with this structure, indeed the structure can even hinder further progress. The structure has to be broken, and replaced by a new structure that includes the old knowledge in new form, but also allows for future development. The examples also illustrate that science is not just a matter of ‘great men’, but arises from a variety of sources from the work of numerous people, women as well as men.

I am minded of a message send by Wolfgang Bolyai to his son Johann, urging him to publish his work on non-euclidean geometry

many things have an epoch in which they are found at the same time in many places, just as violets appear on every side in spring”

At times science can appear as a very competitive field, with many major disputes, Priestley v Lavoisier, Newton v Leibniz. But this cannot disguise the fact that science is fundamentally a co-operative venture, the work of one inspiring and adding to the work of others. Scientific development gains by being a shared enterprise.

The greatest scientists acknowledge their debt to others. Newton expressed this

If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”

How Scientists are tackling Covid 19

The science around Covid 19 is extremely uncertain There have been previous pandemics from which lessons can and have been learnt, but scientists are now faced with new challenges. Major strides have been taken but there is much to be discovered There are several different strands to the scientific work that is being done.

Tremendous progress has been made in establishing the DNA of the virus. A great deal of work is being done to understand the way in which the virus is transmitted; into the ways in which it affects different communities and different age groups. This work is being carried out by biologists from different disciplines working in research institutions and laboratories.

Within all of the work being done, there are a great many uncertainties. The consequence of this is that there are different interpretations of the evidence found so far. So Governments have a variety of options which they can accept or reject in accordance with their basic philosophy.

In addition to this biological approach, there is also another approach that is increasingly being used. That is through mathematical modelling. One of the major advances in recent mathematics has been the application of mathematics to biology. The close proximity of mathematics to physics is well known, the two disciplines having grown up together. This was later extended to chemistry and is now extended to biology.

However there are problems with its use in the present situation. A leading mathematical modeller gave a presentation to Cambridge university students in which he discussed the background to the scientific advice being given to Government. He spoke of the uncertainty facing these advisors and expressed serious doubts about the strength of the evidence used to plot the course of the virus in the United Kingdom. The lack of reliable data to make solid predictions backed up by evidence means that they have to use educated guesswork, intuition and experience. He also noted, for example, that none of the official models used by Ministers included critical data on how Covid19 might be spread in shops, pubs, gyms and hairdressers.

One further point about mathematical modelling and scientific research in general. It is not the simple approach that we followed at school : "Experiment – equipment - method – results – conclusions". It is a process of iteration. The process begins with a statement of the concerns that we wish to be addressed; a programme is written and this along with the available data is fed into the computer. The computer then comes up with what it considers to be the optimum suggestions for action. The response of the modeller may well be ‘that is not what I wanted’; the computer may come up with solutions that the modeller had not even thought of. There may be variables that had not been specified, the solution solving some problems but creating other problems. The programme is then amended, and rerun with added data and revised specifications. It is a process that requires time and skill on the part of the modeller.

One factor that is consistent in both of these scientific approaches is that of time. As I noted, scientists have been able to identify the DNA of the virus extremely quickly However, other information only becomes available over a period of time.

The most important line of research is into finding a vaccine. Normally it would take three years to find a vaccine, to test whether it was safe and whether it is effective, and whether it could be produced in the quantities needed. Attempts are being made, world wide, to achieve all of this in a much shorter time period. As we have seen above, progress is made when the time for a discovery has arrived.

One of the major obstacles to scientific development has been the use of patents to protect the discoveries of individuals. This use of patents has been to the detriment of science and society in general. Intellectual property rights are just as damaging to social cohesion and well-being as any other form of property.

It is important that the search for a vaccine and other major advances in the science of pandemics are shared worldwide. It is also important that when a vaccine is discovered, the production and distribution of the vaccine be organised on a worldwide basis, free of patents and freely available to all and everyone who has need of it.

A further consideration that is prominent in Government pronouncements is that of risk. Risk is probability times consequences. What action we take should depend on the probability of things happening and the consequences that follow from that happening. Government ministers quite rightly say that life is full of risk. They say, for example, that crossing the road is risky. But a great deal is done to mitigate this risk including a booklet setting out the highway code. Risk is also a political choice that depends on priorities.

The priority of the British Government has throughout this whole episode been on the economy. All their actions have been to do their utmost to ensure that profits keep flowing . They have only acted in the interests of people when they have been forced to do so.

One final point. I have always been concerned at the misuse of mathematical terms and processes by Government and the media. The concepts of percentages and probabilities being cases in point. Several examples come to mind.

The most glaring has been the use of graphs with logarithmic (1,2,4,8,16,32) scales rather than linear scales (1,2,3,4,5,6). This distorts the impression given by the graph. The immediate reaction when shown a graph is to see the picture and to absorb the message that the picture presents. Because of the distortion of the scale, the picture is a false reflection of reality.

I am also concerned about the way in which the R value (Reproduction Rate) is used. I am unsure as to what the value actually means. It is a statistical number based on populations and not on individuals although it is presented in terms of individuals. If person A gets the virus, presumable they will either recover, or die. If they affect one person (B) (R = 1) does that mean only one person is now infected (the person affected, B) or is our original person (A) still infectious? In which case two people are now infectious! Mathematics never has been a simple subject.

Society in the Future

Much of what has been written above is relevant when we look to the future of society. What is generally accepted is that the world cannot be the same in the future as it was in the past. I explained the process of scientific development: the same process operates within societies. There is a structure of society that is seen as ‘normal’. In present society that ‘normal’ is free enterprise capitalism. The fracture lines within this system have been seen since its birth with the division into a propertied class and a working class.

The economic situation following the crash in 2008 allied with the impact of climate change was already raising concerns about human life on earth and the need for change. With coronavirus it is clear that ‘normal’ no longer exists. The system is broken. Supporters of the system are desperate to get back to what existed before but are faced with fact that as yet they have no way of containing the virus.

What does the future hold? The lesson from history is that if you hold on to a philosophy that is no longer valid and has proven to be false, progress stops and future development is no longer possible. Only by breaking with the old paradigm can a new paradigm which overcomes the faults of the past and offers a new hope for the future be put in place.

I read in a history of Geology the following statement

But it was a time (Seventeenth century) also of intense religious controversy, intolerance and persecution, one in which the student of nature, should his conclusions not conform to the teachings of the church, pursued his work with his life in his hand”

The basis of power and authority in modern society is now different. The situation is more complex but power still resides with an elite. Today it is not religion but the capitalist class that is balancing the risk. The risk to their wealth and power against the risk to the lives of the population. Questions are being asked as to whether globalisation can continue, but the crisis runs much deeper than this.

The power of seventeenth century religion was broken as developments in science and in other forms of knowledge led to a renewal and reformation of all aspects of life, in fact by a revolution. The need today is for a new revolution which transforms all human relations and places these on a basis of equality, freedom and justice. The seeds of a new society exist within society, it is time for them to flower. We have nothing to lose, but a world to win.

Ralph A Tebbutt is a retired schoolteacher, and a lifelong socialist. He is now in his 80s. He was a teacher of mathematics and science retiring early as head of faculty. This article was written for theleftberlin.com.

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