I was just reading a piece by Jim Al-Khalili in today’s Guardian online science section. Jim is Professor of Physics and of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. His piece seems to have been inspired by the new appointment of Marcus du Sautoy to a similar position at Oxford University recently vacated by Richard Dawkins. His message is essentially that scientists should not only be more active in popularising science but also do more to “defend our rational, secular society against the rising tide of irrationalism”.
The legitimate interface between science and society has many levels to it. One aspect is the simple need to explain what science tells us about the world in order that people can play an informed part in our increasingly technological society. Another is that there needs to be encouragement for (especially young) people to study science seriously and to make it their career in order to maintain the supply of scientists for the future. And then there is the issue of the wider cultural implications of science, its impact on other belief-systems (such as religions) other forms of endeavour (such as art and literature) and even for government.
I think virtually all scientists would agree with the need for engagement in at least the first two of these. In fact, I’m sure most scientists would love to have the chance to explain their work to a lay audience, but not all subjects are as accessible or inspirational as, say, astronomy. Unfortunately also, not all scientists are very good at this sort of thing. Some might even be counterproductive if inflicted on the public in this way. So it seems relatively natural that some people have had more success than others, and have thus become identified as “science communicators”. Although some scientists are a bit snobby about those who write popular books and give popular talks, most of us agree that this kind of work is vital.
Vital, yes, but there are dangers. The number of scientists involved in this sort of work is probably more limited than it should be owing to the laziness of the popular media, who generally can’t be bothered to look outside London and the South-East for friendly scientists. The broadsheet newspapers employ very few qualified specialists among their staff even on the science pages so it’s a battle to get meaningful scientific content into print in the mass media. Much that does appear is slavishly regurgitated from one of the press agencies who are kept well fed by the public relations experts employed by research laboratories and other science institutes.
These factors mean that what comes out in the media can be a distorted representation of the real scientific process. Head of research groups and laboratories are engaged in the increasingly difficult business of securing enough money to continue their work in these uncertain financial times. Producing lots of glossy press releases seems to be one way of raising the profile and gaining the attention of funding bodies. Most scientists do this with care, but sometimes the results are ludicrously exaggerated or simply wrong. Some of the claims circulating around the time the Large Hadron Collider was switched on definitely fell into one or more of those categories. I realise that there’s a difficult balance to be struck between simplicity and accuracy, and that errors can result from overenthusiasm rather than anything more sinister, but even so we should tread carefully if we want the public to engage with what science really is.
Most worryingly is the perceived need to demonstrate black-and-white certainty over issues which are considerably more complicated than that. This is another situation where science popularisation becomes science propaganda. I’m not sure whether the public actually wants its scientists to make pronouncements as if they were infallible oracles, but the media definitely do. Scientists sometimes become cast in the role of priests, which is dangerous, especially when a result is later shown to be false. Then the public don’t just lose faith with one particular scientist, but with the whole of science.
Science is not about certainty. What it is a method for dealing rationally with uncertainty. It is a pragmatic system primarily intended for making testable inferences about the world using measurable, quantitative data. Scientists look their most arrogant and dogmatic when they try to push science beyond the (relatively limited) boundaries of its applicability and to ride roughshod over alternative ways of dealing with wider issues including, yes, religion.
I don’t have any religious beliefs that anyone other than me would recognize as such. I am also a scientist. But I don’t see any reason why being a scientist or not being a scientist should have any implications for my (lack of) religious faith. God (whatever that means) is, by construction, orthogonal to science. I’m not at all opposed to scientists talking about their religion or their atheism in the public domain, but I don’t see why their opinions are of any more interest than anyone else’s in these matters.
This brings us to the third of Jim’s suggestions: that more scientists should follow Richard Dawkins’ lead and be champions of atheism in the public domain. As a matter of fact, I agree with some of Dawkins’ agenda, such as his argument for the separation of church and state, although I don’t feel his heavy-handed use of the vitriol in The God Delusion achieved anything particularly positive (except for his bank balance, perhaps). But I don’t think it’s right to assume that all scientists should follow his example. Their beliefs are their business. I don’t think we will be much better off if we simply replace one set of priests with another.
So there you have my plea for scientists to accept that science will never have all the answers. There will always be “aspects of human experience that, even in an age of astonishing scientific advance, remain beyond the reach of scientific explanation”.
Can I have the Templeton Prize now please?