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Always bad at science

What does a journalist do when a conspiracy-load of private emails sent between scientists lands on his desk that he has neither the time to read nor the skills to dissect? As the story of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) has developed, we have had several answers to this question.

On the Today programme of 7 December, John Humphrys and Ed Miliband - having agreed that neither man was a scientist - proceeded to strip down to their metaphorical loincloths and dance around the totem they had built out of "the science". The previous Friday, Simon Heffer, in a blog for the Telegraph, had summed up his denialist contribution to the debate with: "I have not so much as an O-level in physics or chemistry." The polemic was illustrated with a picture of a green-haired climate protester screwing her face to camera, sardonically captioned "The voice of reason".

Like the scientific method - itself more cybernetic than democratic - the hacked emails debacle is very much an internet story. Moreover, it is a story of the public web, whose high incidence of "flat-earthers", sceptics and chat-room mavericks has apparently helped dissuade the CRU from hitherto publishing its data and workings, versus the private web, across which those same scientists bounced email after email, amassing a decade-large corpus that would make Cardinal Richelieu giddy. Whoever sent the whole thing to Wikileaks less than a month before the Copenhagen negotiations knew exactly what they were doing.

The mainstream media enjoy telling stories. Twists in the tale are likely to be evaluated less on merit and more for where they take the narrative. The constant questioning and discussion of healthy scientific discourse look entirely different to the media, obsessed with the U-turn - that nasty concept that makes every public debate less sophisticated than a football match.

But whatever comes out of Copenhagen, it will be the beginning of science's involvement in public discourse, and not the end. For society to survive, we will have to make good choices, and they will be choices about science and technology. Totems, ideology and storytelling will not be useful. If the public is to have any part in scrutinising these choices, the media will need to get used to an altogether different type of refereeing.


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Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus