What geeks can learn from gays

It's time for scientists to come out - and make a stand against woo-woo and waffle.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard senior scientists lament the lack of appreciation for science in the general populace. "If only people valued science we wouldn't have all these problems with -" and here you can fill any number of our current scientific bête noirs - climate change scepticism, the belief that homeopathy is any better than a placebo, vaccine denial....

I sympathise with this point of view, which is why it makes my blood boil that some of those same senior scientists treat science communication either in the way Lindsay Lohan treats the highway code (as a rather troublesome bore) or pay it lip service, thinking the odd public lecture to the already-interested somehow gets them off the hook.

It still amazes me that Carl Sagan was ridiculed by many of his peers, who regarded his work in public engagement as something that devalued him - when the exact opposite was true. Richard Feynman suffered similarly from short-sighted colleagues - although, to be fair, he was also shagging some of their wives, so this may have had an impact. I've also had this conversation with brilliant scientists and communicators like David Eagleman and Robin Lovell-Badge, who tell me they often suffer the same disdain from many of their peers if they engage in communicating with the public.

Things have improved, though not enough. If I had a pound for every time in the last year I've heard Professor Brian Cox being lightly dusted down (out of his earshot) for "not really being a proper scientist" I could probably buy him quite a nice dinner. (Obviously I wouldn't tell him how I funded it.)

The people who so readily attack Cox don't realise he isn't making programmes for them. He's making pop videos about physics - and thank God. We could do with a few more pop videos about physics, frankly. I do a lot of work with schools and I can tell you that Brian does more to inspire teenagers about science than much of the current curriculum.

Part of the problem is, I suspect, a widely held belief that you can only really appreciate, value (and therefore truly champion) science if you've put in some serious hours actually doing it or, at the very least, reading a lot about it - so the answer to getting the public on science's side is to have more of us take scientific subjects at school, and read the weighty tomes of Roger Penrose and the like.

Really? I'm not sure. Here's a quick example. I'm not gay, but I believe discrimination based on sexuality is abhorrent. My bookshelf has no volumes by Armistead Maupin, my DVD collection none of the films of Derek Jarman. I hate musical theatre. I once considered seeing Judas Priest in concert, but didn't go. You don't have to be gay to care that society enshrines equal rights regardless of sexuality, and you don't have to do science to be concerned that our society is evidence-based.

So, perhaps we should ask ourselves: how did the gay community manage to get most people to care about something that, statistically, they have no personal investment in, while science is still battling to be valued by so many?

I'll tell you why. Because the gay community went out fighting. Science needs to do the same. Oscar Wilde once said: "As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular." Lazy pessimism and lazy thinking are vulgar and it's about time more of us stood up and said so.

In expressing this argument on my blog, I was challenged with: "Gays and blacks fought back because they were being discriminated against, denied access to basic rights, insulted, abused, and in many cases killed. And still are. That's really not a motivation which many scientists share, even the ones who are the victims of a bit of jealous peer gossip because they're on TV."

This is, of course, entirely right. My argument here isn't about motivations, but methods. I'm arguing that when an MP - say, oh I don't know, David Tredinnick - stands up and supports the view that homeopathy is better than placebo, or that surgeons can't operate under a full moon because of a lack of blood clotting (to quote just two examples) then maybe we should wonder if they are fit for more public ridicule than we have so far been able to muster.

Which is why, finally, it's so nice to hear the likes of Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington saying: "We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality... We are not - and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this - grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method."

I'm heartened by the popularity of Ben Goldacre. I applaud Simon Singh's recent libel battle. I look forward to Mark Henderson's Geek Manifesto. Things are getting better, but it's taken far too long - and there's still a long way to go. We've got a lot of catching up to do.

Max Planck famously said: "Science advances one funeral at a time." Let's make sure science communication doesn't carry on advancing at a similar pace. Particularly when we have a planet to save.

Mark Stevenson is the author of An Optimist's Tour of the Future. You can read an abridged extract here. This piece first appeared in the June 2011 issue of the British Science Association's magazine, People & Science.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.