The science is settled. This phrase is one that you have most likely heard before. In certain contexts, such as global warming, transgender rights, or COVID-19 vaccines utilizing novel mRNA technology, there is a good chance that you have heard it time and time again. There are many variations of the same statement—the science is settled, the science is out, trust the science—but the underlying message is essentially the same. Science, or at least what we are led to believe is science, has established a definitive answer to the questions of our time. Doubts expressed about the validity of that science can no longer be entertained, and questions directed toward its emissaries can no longer be answered.
In modern times, the chief emissary of science is the media. While scientists labour away diligently and feverishly in laboratories, libraries, and in front of computer screens, seeking to solve the critical problems of the day, the media fulfils its emissary role by propagating the findings of these scientists to the rest of society. Most of us who are not scientists therefore receive a distilled version of all information—information that is often highly technical in nature, and which may not be immediately comprehensible to most in the first place. Perhaps more important still is the tendency of the media, when relaying these second-hand reports about what scientists have found to be true or false, to do so with gratuitous overconfidence. These are the facts, and you must now accept them. There are no ifs or buts, no objections or compromises; the science is settled, they say, time and time again.
The way the media presents science to us is akin to how you might describe a mountain
Science is many things at once; it is a method, a field of human knowledge, and a creative endeavour. But the notion that we should view science as a static or stationary entity is inherently incoherent. The history of science is replete with discarded theories—the geocentrism that Galileo fought to depose, the theory of the four humours which was finally put to rest by germ theory in the 1800s, to give just two examples. Nevertheless, the tendency of the media to present scientific information with emphatic and absolute confidence appears to be more pronounced now than ever before. The way the media presents science to us is akin to how you might describe a mountain; too vast for you to see the whole thing at once, entirely fixed and stable, and far too heavy for you to lift.
The fact that science and scientists are fallible is not in any sense a problem. By definition, science continues to evolve; it builds upon older, less accurate theories (such as Newtonian physics) to generate newer, more precise ones (Einstein’s theory of relativity). Perhaps we should expect science to be wrong, at least in part, or else there would be no possibility for further progress or innovation to be made (you cannot improve something that is already perfect, after all). But it is more than evident that problems do arise when the media’s excessively authoritative reportage of scientific theories or findings leads society in the wrong direction— something has happened many, many times before.
In the 20th century, for instance, a false theory arose that the media was very swift to jump upon. In Buffalo, New York in the year 1961, cytogeneticist Avery Sandberg came face to face with a stunning anomaly during a routine examination of a 44-year-old male volunteer for an ongoing research study. Karyotypic check-ups indicated that this man did not have one Y-chromosome (XY) like other men, but instead two (XYY). This finding shocked the scientific establishment, and kickstarted a frenzy of attention by researchers seeking to understand what the anomalous genetic feature might mean.
Scientific reports were published with deeply troubling results
Between 1965 and 1966, a breakthrough came. Scientific reports by Patricia Jacobs, a British geneticist conducting research on a population of developmentally disabled criminals, were published in the elite and highly prestigious journals Nature and The Lancet, with deeply troubling results. Jacobs described nine patients between the ages of 17 and 36 in her survey cohort of 315 who had the XYY karyotype. In what is now considered a ‘mischaracterization’ she drew attention to the backgrounds of her patients, all of whom were violent criminals, and proposed that their unique karyotype might be responsible for their behaviour. Scientists scrambled to respond to this apparent biological anomaly by conducting further research, elaborating more theories, and before long a preliminary consensus was established. In the words of biochemist Mary Telfer, the XYY syndrome would invariably be accompanied by the following characteristics: ‘extremely tall stature, long limbs and strikingly long arm span, facial acne, mild mental retardation, severe mental illness (including psychosis) and aggressive, antisocial behavior with a long history of arrests, frequently beginning at an early age.’
Perhaps unfortunately, the emergence of these sensational and currently disproven theories about the XYY karyotype and criminal behaviour coincided with a horrific murder case in Chicago, Illinois. On 13 July 1966, a 24-year-old man named Richard Speck broke into a dormitory that was used by nursing students in training at the South Chicago Community Hospital. Speck, who was drunk and high on drugs, invaded a communal bedroom and proceeded to murder no less than eight student nurses residing in the building; his methods involved stabbing, strangulation, and throat slashing. The spontaneous mass murder was understandably shocking to Americans, and after Speck was apprehended by the police and put on trial, his appearance and actions were reported nationwide. One aspect of the mass public interest in the case was Speck himself, a tall, handsome, 24-year-old white man with brown hair and hazel eyes would not stand out in a crowd, let alone be suspected of having murderous intentions. More important, though, were the other features that scientists and reporters were able to catch in Speck’s appearance—long limbs, acne scars, and an overall appearance that seemed to match XYY syndrome.
Mary Telfer, the aforementioned biochemist and XYY syndrome researcher, took interest in this case. After consulting Speck’s criminal defence lawyer during the trial, she published a speculative article in the British journal Think discussing Speck, incorrectly describing him as having XYY syndrome. The mainstream media, instead of fact checking Telfer ’s claims, decided to run with her theory, and in 1968 the New York Times published a 3-part series right at the height of the Speck trial, presenting the XYY theory as an established fact. The paper went so far as to describe Speck as a ‘classic example’ of an ‘XYY criminal’ and predicted that this ostensible diagnosis would be the backbone of his defence in court. Other articles in reputable media outlets soon followed suit; Time magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Magazine all jumped on the bandwagon, and offered opinions on how a just court should deal with XYY-syndrome criminals.
There was, unfortunately, a problem with the narrative. Not only was it proven later that having an additional Y chromosome does not render individuals incapable of resisting the impulse of committing brutal acts of violence, but Speck turned out not to even have the extra chromosome to begin with. Speck, who was genotyped twice during the trial and found on both occasions to have the normal XY karyotypic presentation, was no basis for these pseudoscientific theories at all. Yet until the very end of the trial, articles continued to appear in the lay press reporting (or implying) that Speck’s supposed XYY genotype would be invoked as a mitigating factor.
As a consequence of the media’s propagation, he was very nearly conferred a powerful legal advantage in court
Ultimately, Richard Speck was indeed convicted of his satanic crimes, and was sentenced to death by the jury (a sentence that was sadly reversed after a subsequent appeal decision). Yet, as a direct consequence of the media’s propagation of baseless pseudoscience regarding XYY karyotypes and their consequences, he was very nearly conferred a powerful legal advantage in court that no brutal criminal like him deserves. The rife speculation (published in the very media outlets that had spread the pseudoscientific XYY theory) about the possibility of Speck getting a non-guilty verdict was probably not unfounded; during the 1970s, an Australian court found that having the condition constituted acceptable grounds for an insanity defence. Richard Speck was a terrible and inhuman monster, and it is terrifying to think that the media’s unquestioning adoption of unverified and untested science could have set that monster free to kill again.
What the media should have learned from this story is that the way we communicate scientific facts is a delicate task that can have dire consequences if mishandled. If the media is right to treat science as a mountain, as an inherently reliable and immense monolith of truth, then it must recognize that even mountains crumble from time to time. And the falling rocks, that is erroneous deductions, the unavoidable consequence of the ever-progressing, never-settled scientific endeavour, can swiftly become rockslides which destroy human lives, threaten social stability, and our very perceptions of reality, when the mass media emissaries of science fail to treat it with healthy scepticism.
The science, in other words, is not settled. It never has been. And our media needs to learn that.