Popularisation or Propaganda?

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?

7 Responses to “Popularisation or Propaganda?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    You might just get it Peter; the Templeton Prize, which is given for “discoveries and breakthroughs to expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity”, has gone to more than one scientist who does not believe in the divine. The Templeton Foundation is free to give its money to whoever it likes, but could it please act consistently?

    When you write that science “… is a pragmatic system primarily intended for making testable inferences about the world using measurable, quantitative data”, may I suggest that this refers specifically to physics? Biology is an equally great science and has a rather different epistemology. Personally I would define science as the systematic study of order in nature involving designed experiment.

    I don’t wholly agree that human ideas of God do not intersect with science (‘orthogonal’). As a theoretical physicist and evangelical Christian (adult convert) I mostly find harmony between science and my scriptures, which is what I would expect since I believe the God who made the world also made the laws by which it runs. But science and scripture do intersect over miracles, where they disagree. (I prefer the honesty of those who openly disbelieve the biblical accounts of miracles to those who try to “re-interpret” those accounts.)

    I too advocate separation of church and state, although perhaps for different reasons from Richard Dawkins. The State is in the business of compulsion (law enforcement) whereas authentic Christianity is a voluntary movement; as soon as there is any attempt to make it compulsory, it ceases to be the real thing. (Of course, in a democracy, Christians should lobby for the laws they think are right in the same way as everybody else does.)

    Dawkins has made extensive attacks on religion (which in practice has meant Christianity), but what is his own vision of society? He has suggested that religious people should have their children taken away from them. The apparatus necessary to achieve that would make for a State so totalitarian that nobody I know wishes to live in it.

    Finally, a polite challenge to secular physicists: WHY are the laws of physics beautiful?


  2. telescoper Says:

    I was perhaps very narrow in my definition of science, but I still think it has to be testable in a quantitative way to be real science. Biology is definitely science by that criteria even though it’s not like physics.

    What I don’t agree with is the naive extension of science into the ontological realm which seems to be a kind of malaise that has
    led to the growth of a lunatic fringe in quantum physics, for example.

    There are a number of reactions I’ve heard to your last question. One is that we think physics is beautiful because we made it up. Alternatively, we evolved according to the laws of nature, so we recognize them as beautiful because we share something with them. I don’t see how divinity comes into it.

    Actually what we think of as beauty in physics is usually simplicity. I’m not going to argue that physics can’t be beautiful but I don’t think it all is. Maybe the ugly bits are just the things we don’t understand properly.

    Then again perhaps the real issue is not beauty or simplicity but why is it that we can understand anything at all?

  3. telescoper Says:

    ps. Orthogonal things do intersect.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Oops yes, orthogonal axes do intersect, but didn’t you *mean* that science and religion don’t intersect? If you mean something else by saying that science and religion are orthogonal, then what is that meaning – I don’t understand?

    Do we find the laws of physics beautiful because we invented them? That might apply to Newton, Maxwell and Einstein, but not to 99.999% of physicists. Collective identification is not *that* strong among scientists.

    We might have evolved (yes, I believe in evolution) to recognise lions in grassland, but beauty in abstract laws? Can you demonstrate a clear (ie, not full of maybe’s) evolutionary advantage in that?

    My answer is that we see beauty in the laws of nature because: (1) those laws were ordained by a God who is into beauty; and (2) God made us to have something in common with him (“in his image”), so that we too can recognise that beauty. Here too is the Judaeo-Christian answer to why we can understand anything at all. To a secular physicist this might sound far-fetched, but I have yet to hear any other explanation (not full of maybe’s) to why we see beauty in physical law.


  5. telescoper Says:

    What I was trying to convey with the word othogonal was that they proceed in different directions, but since they both originate at a human level I have no difficulty in accepting that scientific and religious modes of thought can coexist at their origin, i.e. within the jumble of reason and unreason that is consciousness.

    I can’t demonstrate a clear evolutionary advantage along the lines you say, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Or maybe it’s just a side-effect of something else.

    There is beauty in what appear to be the fundamental laws of nature, but the outcomes of these particular laws can also be ugly. I’m not persuaded by the argument from design, and I can’t believe in the idea of a God who is directly interested in the level of human beings and/or this particular little planet. Although the Universe has made it possible for us to evolve, it seems quite likely that it can snuff us out just as easily.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:


    Oops, used an inappropriate html tag; my response to yours of 9:56pm should read as follows (feel free to delete the half-italic one above)..

    My argument does not set out to prove the existence of a God who is interested in people (I’d try very diferent arguments for that), but I *am* arguing by reason for an intelligent designer. I find design arguments far stronger in physics than in biology, where they are part of the creation/evolution wars.

    You wrote: “I can’t demonstrate a clear evolutionary advantage along the lines you say, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Or maybe it’s just a side-effect of something else.” If you develop these arguments I’d be interested.

    And yes, we can use our knowledge of the laws of physics to give us cheap zero carbon energy or to blow ourselves up. Martin Rees was realistic enough to look at the human track record and be pessimistic. (Even this backs up what the bible tells us about human nature, though the ending of the story is different.)


  7. Well, this was a refreshing read. The post, that is. I’m not part of any orthodoxy, either. On either side of the fence.

    Very refreshing. It’s amazing how long wars can last, though.

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