Celebrating the culture of science

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as an RCT…

At the Wellcome Collection’s Eurekalive! discussion last week, physics teacher and film-maker Alom Shaha bemoaned the fact that ‘science is not seen as a cultural activity.’

The concept of science as a cultural activity, like playing music or watching theatre, has long roots. Remember Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in a Air Pump’? Science fascinated the newly-prosperous manufacturing classes in the 18th and 19th centuries, even before the term ‘scientist’ had been coined. An evening of natural philosophy experiments was very chic.

The increasing complexity of science, and the emergence of professional scientists, made it harder for the average educated amateur to keep up. By 1959, CP Snow (in his infamous lecture Two Cultures) was complaining that communication between science and the humanities had broken down. People who considered themselves intellectuals were scientifically illiterate, unable even to describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, he said.

Ouch. Snow’s comments probably did more to alienate people from science, than shame them into finding out more. He said his question was ‘the scientific equivalent of asking them if they had read a work of Shakespeare’s.’ (It wasn’t; it was the equivalent of asking them to explain the plot of Macbeth. Even those who’ve been taught it struggle to remember the details.) Since then, arts and sciences have been on prickly terms. But has science really been shunted out of the national cultural arena?

I’m not sure it’s as bad as all that. The science lectures and exhibitions I’ve attended recently have been packed. The Guardian this week declared that science is – finally – cool. They even had an article from rock star scientist Brian Cox to prove their point.

Well, Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System was a hit with everyone from my 12-year-old nephew to my mum. Science reporting in the mainstream media seems to be improving and increasing in volume; indicative of increased interest, and also increasingly vocal criticism when the journalists get it wrong. Even in the theatre, popular plays such as Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen tackle nuclear physics.

And yet. There seems to me an increasing impatience, reflecting a divide between two sides. The general population is impatient with scientists who don’t seem to connect to the real world. The scientists are impatient with the general population, for woolly thinking and inability to keep up.

You hear it most loudly in the debate over illegal drugs. Parents and politicians see a drug that causes harm, and can’t understand why the scientists don’t just say it should be banned. Scientists see people getting hysterical over one substance that causes harm in certain circumstances, but not necessarily more harm than other, legal substances. It’s an area where the boundaries between scientific knowledge and public good are blurred, and the result has been an almighty row.

Alternative medicine, too, is a battleground. If it’s about sides, I’m on the side of evidence-based medicine, but I do understand what drives people to look for alternatives. Conventional medicine isn’t great at explaining why something works, or doesn’t work. (We try here at BMJ’s Best Health, apologies subscription only.) Alternative medicine seems a positive step; something you can do for yourself. And if you’ve never learned about the scientific method, why should you worry about the lack of it?

Explanations involving Chi, like cures like or blockage of meridians seem no less feasible than explanations about enzymes, anti-microbials or blockage of calcium channels. People need a story they can understand, if they’re to choose conventional over alternative medicine. And stories is what the alternative medics are best at.

The topic means a lot to me, because I’m a non-scientist who loves science. I worry about suggestions that only those with a BSc should be ‘allowed’ to write about science in the media. Yes, I appreciate the perspective that a science education can bring. In fact, I’m jealous of it. But I’ve taken immense pains to educate myself, to learn how to read and understand a scientific study. I know my p values from my confidence intervals. I know the difference between a relative and absolute risk reduction, and when not to attribute causality. I also know how to explain all this, so that the general reader doesn’t feel like a fool for not understanding the jargon. I understand the need for a story.

People might ask why, if I want to write about science, I didn’t do a science degree. Anyone who was at school 20+ years ago will understand why. At 16, I was ‘good’ at English and history. Sure, I passed my maths, chemistry and biology O-levels, but, my teachers said, I was better at arts. I was headed for a history degree. (I insisted on doing biology A level anyway, much to their annoyance.)

But I liked science. I liked it in the same way I liked history; it fed my curiosity about how the world worked. It gave me the tools to find things out for myself, and I wanted to know more. With lots of help from doctor colleagues in the media, I set out to learn. My BA doesn’t make me scientifically illiterate, and I don’t think it should bar me from writing about medicine. Luckily, nor do the BMJ.

I understand the frustration of scientists who see their research mangled by journalists who won’t let the data get in the way of a juicy headline. Lazy reporting infuriates me, too. But if we want people to understand, engage and debate science, pouring scorn on people simply for not being scientists makes no sense.

Bad Science author Ben Goldacre, who’s otherwise done a great job in bringing science to the masses, loves to bait arts graduates. In a recent article about genetic patents, he echoed Snow, gratuitiously telling readers: ‘And if you can’t understand that last sentence, then you’re as ignorant as someone who has never read Coleridge.’ Wow. Apologies for trying to learn something, Ben.

There are many honourable exceptions. The Wellcome Collection, which lives up to its name by putting on engaging, thought-provoking events and exhibitions, free to all. (Check out the beauty of the Wellcome Image Awards, for a great example of the art of science.) Magazines like New Scientist, or The Times’ Eureka! supplement, which demystify science and give a platform for the ordinary citizen to learn more. Great science communicators, like Cox, physicist Jim Al-Khalili, biologist Paul Nurse or mathematician Marcus de Sautoy, who radiate the excitement and wonder of their discipline.

So how can science become a fully-engaged cultural activity? Education, education, etc. In schools, yes, of course, but afterwards, too. Let’s have more TV, radio and other media explaining how science works and why it’s so important; as well as more celebration and wonder.

Reserve the scorn for those who deserve it, who deliberately set out to mislead. Tell the politicians that science matters and we want more debate about science (especially in the election campaign). Don’t tell people science is too hard to understand., or that they can only be good at one thing. Curiosity about the world knows no boundaries, and we need all the tools we can get.

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. ‘Explanations involving Chi, like cures like or blockage of meridians seem no less feasible than explanations about enzymes, anti-microbials or blockage of calcium channels.’
    I’m not sure they are as feasible to anyone who thinks beyond their surface. These explanations are like political slogans or advertising sells, and require the same scepticism.
    The difference is evidence. The evidence supports the narrative of real science, while lack of evidence questions that of pseudo-science.
    You can find arteries and veins that support the idea that blood flows around the body, but there are no anatomical structures that support chi, meridian blockages and energy flows.
    You can apply pressure to the wrist anywhere and not just the traditional acupuncture ‘chi point’ and you relieve travel sickness.
    With real science the story is more than a sound-bite, it’s more like a novel where apparently diverse narrative strands come together to build a more complete picture.
    What science needs, which you identify, are people like Brian Cox who understand the complexity and can then use that understanding to tell a simple (but not simplistic) story, backed by evidence.

  2. Mark, I agree that these explanations don’t stand up once you investigate, but I understand why they appeal to people who’ve not been taught about science. Most people don’t look below the surface of pseudo-scientific explanations, any more than they take the back of the TV to see how it works. What’s important is to get people thinking in the first place.

%d bloggers like this: