Science Made Too Simple
The text for today’s sermon is a piece I read yesterday in the Times Higher which discusses evidence that reading popular science articles causes non-scientists to overrate their expertise. This article has generated quite a few response on Twitter, including this one by noted science communicator and all-round good egg Jim Al-Khalili:
This was always a risk when sci-comm shifted two decades ago away from 'public understanding of science' to 'public engagement in science' https://t.co/YCeAK6uf4e
— Jim Al-Khalili (@jimalkhalili) January 4, 2017
I think this misses the point. In my opinion the real issue is that far too many scientists (and science communicators) simplify the presentation of the topic in a way that is counter-productive, i.e. by failing to communicate the uncertainties and gaps in knowledge that are inevitably present in any field of scientific research. About a decade ago I wrote a book about this; the following is a sort of digest of some of the points I made there
The 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 counter-productive if inflicted on the public in this way. So it seems relatively natural that some people have had more success at this activity 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 for both science and society.
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 or in the popular science literature can be a grossly distorted representation of the real scientific process. Heads 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. This inevitably leads to a corrosion of the trust between scientists and public, a phenomenon which is all too obvious at this time.
Very few journalists or television producers know enough about science to report sensibly on the latest discoveries or controversies. As a result, important matters that the public needs to know about do not appear at all in the media, or if they do it is in such a garbled fashion that they do more harm than good.
Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.
Some scientists offer the oversimplified version at the outset, of course, and these are the ones that contribute to the image of scientists as “priests”. Such individuals often believe in their theories in exactly the same way that some people believe religiously. Not with the conditional and possibly temporary belief that characterizes the scientific method, but with the unquestioning fervour of an unthinking zealot. This approach may pay off for the individual in the short term, in popular esteem and media recognition – but when it goes wrong it is science as a whole that suffers. When a result that has been proclaimed certain is later shown to be false, the result is widespread disillusionment.
The more that people get used to the image of “scientist as priest” the more dissatisfied they are with real science. Most of the questions asked of scientists simply can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”. This leaves many with the impression that science is very vague and subjective. The public also tend to lose faith in science when it is unable to come up with quick answers. Science is a process, a way of looking at problems not a list of ready-made answers to impossible problems. Of course it is sometimes vague, but I think it is vague in a rational way and that’s what makes it worthwhile. It is also the reason why science has led to so many objectively measurable advances in our understanding of the World.
I don’t have any easy answers to the question of how to cure this malaise, but do have a few suggestions. It would be easy for a scientist such as myself to blame everything on the media and the education system, but in fact I think the responsibility lies mainly with ourselves. We are usually so obsessed with our own research, and the need to publish specialist papers by the lorry-load in order to advance our own careers that we usually spend very little time explaining what we do to the public or why.
I think every working scientist in the country should be required to spend at least 10% of their time working in schools or with the general media on “outreach”, including writing blogs like this. People in my field – astronomers and cosmologists – do this quite a lot, but these are areas where the public has some empathy with what we do. If only biologists, chemists, nuclear physicists and the rest were viewed in such a friendly light. Doing this sort of thing is not easy, especially when it comes to saying something on the radio that the interviewer does not want to hear. Media training for scientists has been a welcome recent innovation for some branches of science, but most of my colleagues have never had any help at all in this direction.
The second thing that must be done is to improve the dire state of science education in schools. Over the last two decades the national curriculum for British schools has been dumbed down to the point of absurdity. Pupils that leave school at 18 having taken “Advanced Level” physics do so with no useful knowledge of physics at all, even if they have obtained the highest grade. I do not at all blame the students for this; they can only do what they are asked to do. It’s all the fault of the educationalists, who have done the best they can for a long time to convince our young people that science is too hard for them. Science can be difficult, of course, and not everyone will be able to make a career out of it. But that doesn’t mean that it should not be taught properly to those that can take it in. If some students find it is not for them, then so be it. I always wanted to be a musician, but never had the talent for it.
I realise I must sound very gloomy about this, but I do think there are good prospects that the gap between science and society may gradually be healed. The fact that the public distrust scientists leads many of them to question us, which is a very good thing. They should question us and we should be prepared to answer them. If they ask us why, we should be prepared to give reasons. If enough scientists engage in this process then what will emerge is and understanding of the enduring value of science. I don’t just mean through the DVD players and computer games science has given us, but through its cultural impact. It is part of human nature to question our place in the Universe, so science is part of what we are. It gives us purpose. But it also shows us a way of living our lives. Except for a few individuals, the scientific community is tolerant, open, internationally-minded, and imbued with a philosophy of cooperation. It values reason and looks to the future rather than the past. Like anyone else, scientists will always make mistakes, but we can always learn from them. The logic of science may not be infallible, but it remains the best way we have of making sense of a world so filled with uncertainty.Follow @telescoper