Looking Over the Horizon: A Missed Opportunity?


Last night (24 Jan 2011), Horizon was presented by Sir Paul Nurse, newly minted President of the Royal Society and recipient of the Nobel prize for his discover of the cyclin proteins which regulate cell division, and was entitled “Science Under Attack”.

I was looking forward to this, as it was a great opportunity to look at sciences and their relationship with various publics. However, I did have some misgivings not least because the relationship between science and society is a complex one which perhaps might not be reduced easily to a 1 hour television show format. In addition, there was a promise of some intellectual embarassment, so I sat down, interested to see what one of Britain’s leading scientists had to say.

First, I think it’s encouraging this topic was addressed at all. It’s only been 26 years since the Bodmer report highlighted the importance of communicating science with the public, and this is the first time I’m aware of that it’s been addressed in mainstream media.

My first disappointment was that ‘science’ was taken to be a single homogeneous thing, and that no consideration of the differences between different publics was made. This is a key point because different publics respond differently to different methods of communication of different scientific topics; after all, other scientists are ‘publics’ when it comes to different disciplines.

This lack of subtlety and nuance wasn’t a surprise, but from my point of view showed a lack of appreciation that communication is not a one-way street with perfectly formed messages being received without context by an audience appreciative of scientists deigning to communicate with them.

I should say, in the spirit of defining publics, that I am a student studying the relationship between science and society, so my expectations and needs are likely to be different to those of other publics. For example, I am aware that some ‘general public’ individuals found it thoroughly enjoyable (although I am moderately certain that it wouldn’t have been ‘general publics’ who made up the bulk of the viewership, but people with a specific interest in the subject).

The first part was an exploration of the issues around anthropogenic climate change (ACC), which highlighted the key events, and focussed on evidence, disagreement and consensus. This is well and good, but how are the public supposed to know what the consensus is? (Come to that, how are scientists supposed to identify what the consensus is?) As far as I recall, there wasn’t a real discussion about the nature of evidence or how its interpreted, merely that one must interpret it correctly (something which, to a scientist, comes naturally, obviously).

At one point, Sir Paul complained that more people should read peer-reviewed journal articles; not only does this assume that everyone is capable of reading the highly technical, structured and precise language of journal articles (something which typically takes trainee scientists many years to master), but it misses the point that journals are not open to the public, aren’t readily findable and are extremely expensive.

He compounded this error by complaining that bloggers write highly slanted pieces which aren’t at all based on the nuances of uncertainty in established knowledge. This, for me, was one of the good points: communicating uncertainty and risk is difficult, and because of that most writers (let alone bloggers) tend to focus on conclusions rather than the uncertain process. I’d like to have seen this explored more, perhaps looking at ways in which risk can be more effective communicated.

The interview clips with James Delingpole were amusing for all that they were edited. Delingpole has already written moaned about this over at the Telegraph, but I think he misunderstood what was actually being made. The film wasn’t about the science of ACC per se (although that did get covered in depth), but in the way it is presented to the publics. As such, the clip of Delingpole in which he stated that it wasn’t his job to read original research, it was his job to form opinions based on other people’s opinions, was perfectly valid – and exactly illustrated the misrepresentation of expertise which Sir Paul was aiming to highlight.

As for whether blaming problems on “the media” (one assumes he means rapid-turnaround news media, rather than all the communications media in all the world) is legitimate, frankly I’m not convinced. The public manage to form perfectly valid opinions on other topics despite it going through the high pressure filter of new editors, which suggests perhaps that the issue lies elsewhere.

In the end, Sir Paul reflected on the role that scientists have in engaging with the public, and concluded that scientists should be at the forefront of this rather than picking up the pieces.

For me, though, this was a disappointingly missed opportunity. Sir Paul hasn’t reflected any of the mass of research that has been published in the last 25 years on science and society and communicating science. He based his narrative on the deficit model (the assumption that if the public only knew more they would appreciate science more and make more decisions which agree with scientists), a model which has been heavily criticised for at least the last ten or so years. His knowledge of philosophy of science (or at least, that which was presented in the film) seems to have started and ended with Popper (again, much criticised and developed since he was first published 50 years ago).

Further, the show didn’t interview any professional researchers in the areas of science and society, science communication or philosophy of science (such as, for example, the chair in public understanding of science at Oxford, or in public understanding of statistics at Cambridge). This would be the same as me making a show about quantum theory without talking to any physicists.

So, I think it’s great that someone raised this, the elephant in the laboratory. Communicating science seems to me to be considered something which is “common sense”, but as has been observed previously, when people put something down to common sense, it strikes me that they are ignoring the complexities of anything to do with publics. It’s massively important as a subject, but got an outdated analysis which largely seemed to focus on “if only the public knew more”. The James Delingpole segments were worth the price of entry, but ultimately I felt that the topic could have been covered better.

However, I am encouraged that this is being addressed at all by someone with Sir Paul’s profile, and if it starts conversations which result in greater awareness then perhaps it will have done its job. In the meantime, I think it just reinforced viewers existing common sense approach without challenging them to have new ideas and to think about alternative approaches.

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About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

5 responses to “Looking Over the Horizon: A Missed Opportunity?”

  1. Gypsum Fantastic says :

    Very interesting throughout.

    I think you mean homogeneous at the start of paragraph 4 though.

  2. David Colquhoun says :

    I thought the programme was pretty good. But then I’m inclined to think that philosophers of science have very little to contribute, In fact some of them make a negative contribution, particularly those with postmodernist tendencies. Or they would make a negative contribution if scientists took any notice of them. Luckily they largely form a closed community who argue with each other and are ignored by everyone else.

    • davidwaldock says :

      I think I agree that it was good (not least because it discussed the subject!), but that it could have been better.

      Your take on philosophy of science strikes me as odd, because I can’t see how one can do science without at least unconsciously doing philosophy of science. Indeed, every time we declare something “pseudoscience” or “pathological science” we rely on philosophical notions to draw the boundaries.

      I also doubt very much that philosophers – post-modern or otherwise! – can “harm” science; I’m not even sure I know what that means.

      However, for me the biggest issue was the reiteration of the cognitive deficit model of science communication which has been heavily criticised over the last 30 years. I think a little bit of reflection on how Sci comms has developed would have improved the show immensely.

      Like I say though, it’s my opinions and I welcome comments – it makes me think about my assertions.

  3. David Colquhoun says :

    I was thinking particularly of philosophers, some from LSE, who say RCTs not really needed, They simple don’t understand the realities, and end up being on the same side as quacks.

  4. Beverley Gibbs says :

    I was surprised at the amount of time given over to portraying arguments that prop up the consensus position on anthropocentric climate change… at least 40 minutes of the hour. Whilst a worthy exercise – and welcome on primetime TV – this has nothing to do with understanding the meaning, interpretation, choices and conflicts held by citizens on the topic of climate change, and this is what would have to be unpacked to properly address ‘Science under Attack’.
    To have attempted to even observe (never mind analyse) the relationship between institutional science and citizens without actually talking to any citizens is a terrible methodology that can – almost by definition – only really lead to mutual backslapping and entrenchment. But then talking to people and exploring social systems is a skill in itself, and why an interdisciplinary approach is absolutely crucial in understanding science and society. The blind spots are significant.
    However, I do think it is a very good sign that Paul Nurse has turned to this topic in his first few months. If his tenure ended up being noted for his efforts to better understand and ameliorate the disruptive societal impacts of science and innovation he should be proud. I’ll give him a hint for free though – there are no answers to be found in urging the public to read more journal articles.

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