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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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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