Paul Edie: Can scientists end Dr Jekyll legacy?

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The Edinburgh Science Festival kicked off last week in style with a flaming photo shoot on Calton Hill involving the hair of Tom Pringle, aka TVs Dr Bunhead, being set alight. I think this fell into the category of “don’t do this at home, children”.

Edinburgh has a rich and long scientific legacy, stretching from Lister to Dolly the sheep with many parts in between. The Science Festival is a great opportunity for this city to celebrate our many women and men of genius.

Edinburgh is particularly strong in biomedical science, not surprising with our famous medical school. Discoveries here range from antiseptics to anaesthetics, innovations from cloning to cancer therapies. It was an Edinburgh clinician, Sir John Crofton, who developed the most effective treatment for TB. Though I have now moved careers into public service I am still intensely proud to have worked as a chemist with our Blood Transfusion Service for many years.

So as a recovering scientist I am dismayed by a climate which seems to be pervading these days which is almost anti-science. This is a phenomenon I see in many areas. It is almost like faith versus science. I don’t mean religious faith but more a tendency to set aside often compelling evidence and trust what is, frankly, hokum.

I see this on issues as varied as climate change and food, people often retreating into comfortable prejudices in the face of overwhelming facts which show that their stance is plain wrong.

Taking food as an example. There hardly seems to be a day goes by without someone talking some rubbish about what is good for us and what is bad for us. The word detox is rolled out at the drop of a hat by people who clearly have no idea what our livers are there for. I saw something written recently referring to sugar as poison. It is not good for you in large quantities but it is hardly in the same category as arsenic.

Similarly, on issues such as climate change where there is a strong scientific consensus and where there are still people in influential positions with their heads in the sand.

Edinburgh has always had an element of scepticism, almost suspicion, about our scientists. Some of it justified. One of our finest writers invented the character Dr Jekyll who through his own scientific misadventure morphs in to the evil Mr Hyde. I wonder if a contributing factor might have been the tendency for the medical school in the early 19th century to use corpses dug up and bought from body snatchers. The caricature is of the inquiring but ruthless and amoral mind who puts their own theory above the public interest. Have our scientists ever shaken off this chilling legacy? On nuclear, GM, fracking there does seem to be a gap between innovator and the person in the street.

With such scepticism on a range of burning topics you do have to wonder how scientific research can get a fair hearing in a democracy where populism trumps evidence-based outcomes.

One of the ways that gap is being bridged is by our own EICC, which is celebrating Scotland’s innovators with frequent evening lectures. Though not limited to science there are a very healthy number of our resident leading academics sharing their work.

In spite of this suspicion of science, it has been an extraordinary force for positive change in the world. Many diseases that caused misery and early deaths have been prevented or cured. Polio, rickets, TB – things of the past; measles and Mumps, rubella – far fewer cases. Advances in agricultural science ensure that we are still capable of feeding far more people than anyone could have foreseen.

We have learned more about our planet than we could ever have imagined. We just need to apply some of that knowledge to ensure we still have a planet capable of supporting life in future years.

Paul Edie is Liberal Democrat group leader on Edinburgh City Council