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.