Science, Communication and the Media Martin Rees

Science, Communication and the Media

Martin Rees
Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Road, Cambridge, CB3 0HA,

In Victorian times, the national scientific enterprise was minuscule by today’s standards. But the commitment to public understanding was not. The marvellous national and civic museums — cathedrals of discovery and invention — consumed large resources by the standards of that time, larger, even, than the recent injection of lottery funds has allowed. Our forebears believed that science, engineering and technology deserve wider appreciation, that science is part of our culture, and that it’s application should concern us all. Science and engineering then had a high profile; most people even today have heard of the great 19th century engineers (though not, ironically, of their present-day counterparts). And it wasn’t just the practical men — the ‘wealth creators ‘– who earned public acclaim. Darwin’s insights had no practical payoff, but he was a revered figure because he changed the way humans see their place in nature.

It’s still, often, the utterly ‘irrelevant’ subjects that fascinate people most. Dinosaurs have been high in the popularity charts ever since Richard Owen discovered them in 1841. It could be argued that perhaps my own subject of astronomy plays a role in contemporary culture similar to that which Darwinism and terrestrial exploration did a hundred years ago. On the other hand, there is surprising lack of interest in the science underlying things that seem directly relevant. Those at risk from radiation or pollutants, for instance, need — from reliable and minimally biased sources — a portmanteau estimate of the hazards that they’re exposed to, but may be bored by the underlying science. There’s nothing irrational about this; many people in hospital, likewise, want surgeons they can trust, but would rather not know too much about what they are actually doing.

Scientists tend (often too stridently) to deplore how confused the public is about scientific ideas. It is indeed sad that some can’t tell a proton from protein. However, a quiz on history or geography would yield equally dismal results among the general population. In any case, what matters is not a store of facts but having a rough ‘intellectual map’, so that we can appreciate our natural environment; so that the artefacts that surround us don’t seem mysterious, and so that we can participate in shaping how technologies are developed and applied. For instance, the ethical and social implications of genetics, or environmental degradation, can and should be widely appreciated and discussed, even by people who don’t understand (and may not be especially interested in) the science per se.

Although the public at large is no worse-informed about science than about other subjects, it is regrettable that to many people of influence who are well-informed in other fields, science is a ‘closed book’. Those who control the media (and other ‘opinion formers’) are actually rather atypical of the educated public in their generally poor grounding in scientific and technical issues.

Nonetheless, science has its cheerleaders among literary figures; some indeed are extravagantly uncritical. George Steiner, for instance, in an oration at the Edinburgh Festival, averred that ‘science is in its high noon rather than Byzantine afternoon — the most stylish, most intellectually challenging, and hopeful [feature] in our otherwise parlous and often grey culture.’ Such sentiments rarely come from our political masters, but in a lecture from the former minister for science, William Waldegrave said ‘A society organised to allow and celebrate the creative spirit of science will find itself also productive of the other forms of creativity which make life worth living. The societies where the bursts of scientific energy occur…. span the other arts too.’ He went on to present a recipe. We must reverse what he termed the ‘Balkanisation of intellectual life — an affliction as acute in the humanities as in the sciences’. He recommended a broader education, trans-disciplinary contacts in universities, and ‘public understanding’ programmes. Sadly, universities seem to have taken the opposite course, even though government bodies and scientific and professional societies have remained strong in their commitment to public understanding.

Public Understanding of Science is a phrase that has ‘caught on’ even though I think it has unfortunate connotations: it falsely implies a demarcation between science and public — between a priesthood and an unwashed populace. The ‘public’ is very heterogeneous. All professional scientists are themselves part of it. They are depressingly ‘lay’ outside their specialisms, and are among the main ‘consumers’ of popular writings on science. A better acronym would be GUST — general understanding of science and technology. One should, moreover, distinguish understanding of science from appreciation or ‘promotion’ of science. It is the former that is important and promoting understanding may lead to a more critical attitude towards science and how it is applied.

Broadcasts or newspaper articles about science deepen my respect for journalists who successfully cover all the sciences, working to tight deadlines. I know how hard it is to explain, non-technically, even something in one’s specialist field. Robert Wilson was the man who discovered, with his colleague Arno Penzias, the cosmic background radiation — the primordial heat left over from the big bang. He’d plainly made a really great discovery. But Wilson said that he didn’t himself fully take in what he’d really done until he read a ‘popular’ description of it in the New York Times. However, these ‘science correspondents’ are themselves up against several problems; few of the ‘gatekeepers’ to the media have any real background in science and moreover, if the topic reaches the front-pages, it is hi-jacked and distorted by other journalists. Worse, scientists themselves (or their institutions) are now prone to ‘hype up’ their contributions — science reporters now have to be as sceptical of some scientific claims as they routinely are in other arenas of public life. Whenever ‘pure’ science is distorted and sensationalised, or when pseudoscience is covered uncritically, a disservice is done to public understanding.

The hardest type of situation to convey honestly is where there’s a strong consensus, but some dissent. Noisy controversy doesn’t always signify evenly balanced arguments. Pioneering scientists have often, as everyone knows, had a tough time gaining a hearing. Conversely, controversy (and a scepticism of orthodoxy) has such public appeal, and confrontations make such lively broadcasts, that dissident or heretic scientists get exaggerated attention. It is the obligation of scientists to ensure that uncertainties and risks are neither disproportionately exaggerated, nor glossed over because of commercial pressures.

Science generally only earns a newspaper headline, or a place on TV bulletins, as background rather than as a story in its own right. Indeed, coverage restricted to ‘newsworthy’ items — newly announced results that carry a crisp and easily summarisable message — can’t avoid distorting how science develops. The place of science is in features and documentaries, rather than news. Scientists can’t reasonably complain about this any more than novelists or composers would complain that their new works don’t make the news bulletins.

Many of us who are professional scientists spend some time as ‘amateur communicators’, presenting our work to general audiences. I’d personally derive far less satisfaction from my work if it only interested my specialist colleagues. I believe that the key ideas can be conveyed, free of technicalities, without necessarily distorting them. Perhaps my optimism is coloured by my own area having, unlike some other high-profile sciences, a positive and non-threatening public image.

It’s a challenge, but even when we do it badly, the experience is salutary for us as speakers or writers. It helps us to see our work in context, as part of a bigger picture. Researchers don’t usually shoot directly for a grand goal. Unless they are geniuses (or unless they are cranks) they focus on bite-sized problem that seem timely and tractable. That’s the methodology that pays off. But it carries an occupational risk, because we may forget we’re wearing blinkers and that our piecemeal efforts are only worthwhile insofar as they’re steps towards some fundamental question. Dialogue with a wider public, and the questions that one is asked when engaged in this, are a valuable antidote.

Our academic colleagues in other fields (particularly in social sciences) are an important segment of the public. Scientists must engage in dialogue with them about the nature of the scientific enterprise, emphasising that, irrespective of the motives and pressures that drive us, the outcome of scientists’ efforts is a body of ideas that is ‘objective’, and can be evaluated by criteria that don’t depend on how these ideas were arrived at.

The way we approach science, what problems strike us as interesting, what styles of explanation are culturally appealing, and (more mundanely) what fields attract funding, plainly depend on a range of political, sociological and psychological factors. Some projects, especially big international ones, are a by-product of activities driven by other imperatives. Space science is a by-product of the superpower rivalry and rides along on a large application-led programme. Supercomputers have transformed much of science, both in style and content.

It is important, as well as enlightening, to appreciate how pervasive these social and political factors are. Scientists in groups are a fascinating topic for anthropological study, just as, individually, their psychology is often fascinating. By analogy, it is fascinating to study how the development of music — for instance, the emphasis on operatic versus liturgical music; the increase in the scale of orchestral compositions that stemmed from the transition from private patronage to public concerts, etc — was moulded by social and economic factors. This may be interesting and worthwhile study in its own right, but it’s peripheral to the essence of the music itself.

Science itself nonetheless moves towards a culture-independent outcome. Steven Weinberg, in his book ‘Dreams of a Final Theory’, gives an apt metaphor: “A party of mountain climbers may argue over the best path to the peak, and these arguments may be conditioned by the history and social structure of the expedition, but in the end either they find a good path to the summit or they do not, and when they get there they know it.”

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