Blogroll Me! The Madness of Scientists - scientific misunderstanding of public and media

Friday, July 14, 2006

Introduction - where this blog came from, and where it's going

“I stand in between two worlds. I am at home in neither, and this makes things a little difficult for me. You artists call me bourgeois, and the bourgeois feel they ought to arrest me.” Thomas Mann, Tonio Kröger

I was brought up to believe I was a scientist, and was duly educated as one. Having done that, I then did what Mrs Thatcher wanted and went to work in industry – where thankfully I discovered that my lifelong feelings of imposture had not been lying to me.

Even as a student I had always felt a vague sense of unbelonging among my immediate contemporaries, akin no doubt to the conviction among transgender patients that they have been born into the wrong sex. Fortunately of course I was able to fool everybody long enough to get my PhD, but keeping up the pretence was too much effort after that and I fled across the border into journalism. Perhaps this personal history is why I have always felt very aware of the innate and cultural differences that mark scientists as a group.

Comprehensively Snowed

While assembling the ideas for this blog, my working title for it was The Three Cultures – to echo the famously titled The Two Cultures... the oft referred-to but almost completely unread 1959 Rede Lecture by novelist, scientist and statesman Charles Percy Snow. For it was with this document that angst about "science and the public", not to mention the whole useless, corrupt, self-serving circus that has since grown up about it, was first conceived.

Another person on the cusp of arts and sciences, Snow was a man trapped by convention into a state of unbelonging. After a short and rather undistinguished research career, he turned with contemporary success to fiction, and the corridors of power. But he was thrice homeless. As a novelist, he hated the literary establishment. As a scientist he never recovered from his first devastating disappointment. And as a government mandarin, one gets the impression that his sympathy for democracy was largely theoretical.

The Two Cultures was a typically sweeping gesture and enjoyed great success. But although everybody working in the business of communicating science today knows the title, few have ever read the original material. As proof of this I can point to the news release that covered a recent pompous declaration (February 2003) by world scientific journal editors, which mentioned The Two Cultures in its opening sentence. These grandees of scientific editing then went on, amazingly, to attribute the seminal concept to Snow’s “eleven wonderful novels” – which clearly none of them had ever read.

Those who do read the original lecture, as well as its predecessor New Statesman article (1956) and follow-up (A second look, 1963) will find it a curious experience. Dated, insular, parochial, badly argued, threadbare – all apply, and more. Nevertheless, The Two Cultures caught the zeitgeist, and it is fair to say that the debate over science’s place in (British) Society has been comprehensively snowed ever since.

Like many who create works that develop lives of their own, Snow had an ambivalent attitude towards his essay. He bitterly regretted that he had not decided to go with his first instinct and call his lecture The rich and the poor – a more easily definable and much more serious divide, which his lecture mainly addressed. But he chose to approach his theme by way of his obsessional hatred for the literary establishment and those who cleaved to it. They, he felt, were undermining the attempts of good, honest scientific grammar-school boys like him to better the lot of their fellow man.

In the 1959 lecture he also worried: “Attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion”. Dualism – whether Manichean or Cartesian, it doesn’t matter which - encapsulates something very basic about the way our brains are wired, and Snow was sophisticated enough to know that giving in to it is too easy, and should be resisted. I very much wish he had, and I think he did too.

Arty public-school toffs vs grammar-school oiks

Snow’s concern – in brief – was that Britain was governed by public schoolboys whose education was all literary and historical (and I mean to include somewhere in this blog a look at how the famous son of a Victorian public school headmaster felt about the issue of “arts versus sciences”, at a time when the natural sciences had their tails up).

But, to stay with Snow for the time being, he asserted that the effect of this arts hegemony was to put the reins of power into the wrong hands in a scientific age. He recognised that this was the fault of a peculiarly English education system that made understanding between scientists and non-scientists worse by forcing children to specialise too early. He recognised that the roots of this lay deep in class-ridden British society, the skewed aspirations that result from it, and the baleful influence of the admissions requirements of Oxford and Cambridge universities.

In this he was undoubtedly right. But Snow’s caricatures - and the tendentiousness of his assertions and examples - seem absurd today. His portrait of the typical scientist (born in the progressivist atmosphere of the 1930s) puts one uncomfortably in mind of a Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film on the one hand and an issue of Health and Efficiency on the other. Scientists, said Snow, are “steadily heterosexual” folk displaying great moral health, who put the collective welfare of humanity first, and who apply their commonsensical materialistic view to bettering the lot of the underprivileged.

Literary intellectuals on the other hand, come straight out of Proust; all rouge, absinthe and cocktail cigarettes. Literary men (Snow’s world is almost exclusively masculine) had more of the “feline and oblique” about them, he wrote (1956). They cared more for themselves and their small coteries than for the world as a whole. They sniffed superciliously about what they saw as the empty materialism of technological progress, while more than half the world starved and could not afford such nose-holding.

Stereotypes are powerful stuff, and can be very revealing (though more about their authors, as a rule). Perhaps I should be wary of criticising Snow’s, since this blog indulges in more than a few of its own. However, as mine are considerably less flattering to scientists than Snow’s, they are perhaps more likely to fall nearer the truth.

Even in insular, bourgeois 1959 Britain, there were those who found Snow’s notion that the world was somehow run from the louche salons of Chelsea, or that our failure to embrace the Third World was the fault of luddite poets and literary critics, or that the way in which white middle-class males were educated constituted the most important divide in intellectual culture, laughable. While Snow condemned literary intellectuals for failing to embrace progress (in which so much political capital was then invested, thanks largely to Snow himself), his own hankering after a mythical unified national culture was no less nostalgic than that of Victorian literary men for a pre-industrial age peopled by scholar gypsies. Both were grasping for a deeper myth – the very notion of a “unified culture”.

Our world now strives (or so it says) to embrace diversity. Within that diversity, the cultural split between the scientifically literate and everyone else seems no longer to amount to much. Except, I fear, to scientists, who partly thanks to Snow now think of themselves as one half of something called culture – a piece of monstrous self-aggrandisement that does them no credit and even less service. You hear this belief expressed most starkly when eminent scientists, having elected themselves spokespersons for the whole enterprise, bemoan the fact that while the Sunday Times may devote entire supplements to “the arts”, it does not publish an equivalent one devoted to science.

Just like Snow’s central thesis, it is a little amazing that more people do not see the absurdity of this. Why does it occur to so few people that the Arts exist, very largely, to communicate, give pleasure and be accessible? Science exists for none of these reasons and is in no way equivalent.

The reason lies in a neat example of how words and ideas do not exist independently (a theme I shall return to frequently in this blog, I feel sure). The terms “science” and “scientist” - meaning the pursuit of factual knowledge of the natural world and one who seeks it - were given to the English language by the 19th Century Cambridge polymath William Whewell (1794-1866). We now suffer a semantic distinction in English that simply does not apply in the rest of Europe, where the term “science” or its equivalent tends more to refer to all forms of organised knowledge. But even this is not the whole story. The strictures of Anglophony are as nothing compared to those of Britishness. For, just as academics are nearly always worse communicators than industrial scientists (who are trained to do it well because it means money), there is hardly any innate quality predisposing scientists to being poor communicators that is not hugely exacerbated by being British.

British disease, British unease

Snow acknowledged that he was speaking from a British perspective. He saw that our university-dominated, early specializing education system deepened the divide between science and humanities. In addition to everything else, British scientists are also more likely to despise popularisation; to be defensive, deferential, prey to academic snobbery, subject to crippling ageism. They have been rather less likely (than US scientists, particularly) to work in big teams - though perhaps this effect is diminishing. Hence they have tended to become more isolated, less socially practised and more peculiar. They are certainly much more likely to be embarrassed in front of a camera or a microphone.

The Island Race gets the worst of all worlds. Its scientists feel the need to justify themselves acutely , while continental scientists (in common with continental intellectuals generally) are self-confident enough not to. However we also lack the easygoing personal presentational skills that Americans seem to imbibe with mother’s milk, and to suffer the impediment of social structures that conspire to make recovery in the short term unlikely.

But the avowed Britishness of The Two Cultures is largely lost on the British who, like scientists, don’t realise how odd they are as a group because they don’t know any better. The British tend to react with shock and surprise when they find that a parallel debate about the position of science in culture is generally not happening - to anything like the same degree - in the rest of Europe. This business of "unrecognised peculiarity" will be another abiding theme of this blog.

A notable post-Snow phenomenon has been the attempt to demonstrate that “scientists are just like everyone else”. I would agree wholeheartedly that scientists are not robots, but the idea that they are just like everyone else is not only patently untrue but does them a grave disservice. Nobody is likely to assert that poets are “just like everyone else”, or to believe that a poet who is, is likely to be any good. Scientists are, in fact, very special, unusual people – who for that reason have commanded my lifelong interest and respect. In a world that embraces diversity, they should be out-and-proud about their differences - while at the same time accepting that distinctive differences also bring peculiar limitations. These limitations must be avowed before they can be addressed.

As a problem, Snow’s “two cultures” was, and is, chimerical. Moreover, it has led us down some very long garden paths that had better gone untravelled. This blog seeks to explore those byways. It seeks to explain where I believe scientists and their cheerleaders have gone wrong. It sets out to describe the embedded ideas and fixed mindsets that give scientists their curiously skewed perceptions and unrealistic expectations of the world. And it seeks to encourage a different approach, based on rather old-fashioned journalistic and PR know-how.

It also seeks to explore scientists’ trademark characteristics of mind. From these, it attempts to explain how scientists’ anxieties have allowed a huge and almost entirely ineffectual “third culture” to grow up around them, of unskilled propagandists and academic parasites and a circus of conferences and talking shops that have become (for those old enough to remember it) a Tanganyika Ground Nut Scheme de nos jours.

London, July 2006

The big plan...

I wrote this blog backwards, in a series of ten polemical "fits", over a space of a few fevered days. So the first written "fit" was Number 10, and this Introduction forms the latest entry by date. This means the blog can now be read like a book from beginning to end.

The entries that follow are:

  • Fit 1 – Not like us or, why the things that make scientists good at being scientists may not be universal blessings
  • Fit 2Little helpers or, the tale of the professor’s lovely assistant
  • Fit 3Climbing Mount Impossible or, why opening your mind to incredible notions is not always a good idea
  • Fit 4: - Oh no they love us after all or, why scientists secretly rather like feeling neglected and miserable
  • Fit 5: - Public relations is not education or, why things seem obvious when you don't know anything about them
  • Fit 6: - Mayflies & termites or, what makes science different
  • Fit 7: - Fun will now commence or, the curse of organised rejoicing
  • Fit 8: - Waiting in a row or, all eager for the treat
  • Fit 9 - It’s official or, the kiss of death
  • Fit 10: - Getting real or, why it’s really a lot simpler than we imagine

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Fit the first: Not like us – or, why the things that make scientists good at being scientists may not be universal blessings

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
For a world so dependent upon science and technology, you would expect to see scientists everywhere. Wherever people congregate for everyday reasons unconnected with who they are and what they do - in bars, clubs, waiting rooms, foyers, bank queues and massage parlours – throw a stick and five times out of ten, you should surely hit a scientist. Strangely, though, this is not the case.

According to the Office of National Statistics Labour Force Survey for 2001, within the UK working population, just over 1.8 million people hold qualifications in science or engineering. If we accept that in total there are about 58 million people in the UK, that makes just about 3% - about 20 times the number of people in prison, but only half the minimum estimate for the number of Class A drug-users.

And don’t forget, that figure of 1.8 million is just for those who hold a qualification. Most people qualified in science are not scientists by profession – like me, for example. Although even fewer philosophy students go on to be philosophers, science degrees are not necessarily “vocational” either. Most are the passport to something else, like accountancy. There is no shame in this. Arguably, scientists who don't work in science do science more good than those who do. But it is clear that the world just doesn’t need that many scientists to be scientists.

Even if we were to add in retired qualified scientists and technologists, we would be left with an unknowable but considerably smaller number of folk who wear, or have once worn, the white coat. Such people may comprise only 1% of the total UK population. By contrast, 3 million people are registered members of Bingo clubs, while about 5 million belong to UK badminton racquets clubs.

I don’t know about you, but I expect to go to my grave not knowing anyone who plays either bingo or badminton, let alone belongs to a club dedicated to either. Despite living in Stoke Newington I don’t even know any Class A drug-users. For this reason, I believe it fair to say that most people will exit the mortal coil never having met a working scientist. This is very significant. Just as you can explain a lot of things about Britain by the fact that it is an island (and more about that later) you can explain a lot about scientists by this curious discrepancy. Scientists are not a political entity: they are few, divided and together have little influence in the ballot box. By contrast, the fruits of what they do are all-pervadingly powerful. This, I believe, lies at the root of the continuing incomprehension among scientists over their position in society, over society’s perception of them, and the value placed by society on what they do.

Birds of a feather

You don’t have to know the statistics to appreciate that scientists must be pretty rare birds – there is qualitative evidence too.

Scientists themselves would be the first to agree that portrayals of them on TV and in films are always wildly unrealistic. But then so are most portrayals of musicians, journalists, violinmakers and others whose numbers are so low that most people never meet one. Many scientists sneer at the media for this, and fret about how it may be damaging their image.

I do not. Clichés tell you a lot about the people who create them. The portrayal of minority professions like scientists is enlightening about attitudes, precisely because those images are unconstrained by reality. This is not “misperception”. These portraits are not based on perception: they are based on expectation – on how the audience thinks such a character should be. And no profession recognises or likes its fictional image.

In this respect, scientists are just like everyone else. However it is a sign of deep insecurity that they take it so much more badly, and worry more about being portrayed as “mad and bad” than, say, journalists do. Now you might offer, by way of explanation, that this is because of outrage at the injustice. CP Snow asserted that typical scientists think of themselves as being on the side of the angels. Perhaps the unfairness of the Dr Frankenstein accusation really hurts.

Well, possibly. Scientists are just like everyone else in the sense that their capacity for self-delusion is infinite, too. My experience is that scientists are no nobler and have no more (or less) belief in the rightness and importance of what they do than journalists. Journalists also think of themselves as working to the common good, and take what they do very seriously indeed. They may not like the way the public chooses to see them (picture - Kirk Douglas as manipulative and unscrupulous Chuck Tatum in the 1951 classic (Paramount)), but they don’t whinge about it.

Like all rare beings, scientists huddle together for warmth and security. In the days when I pretended to be a scientist, I studied the way encrusting organisms, like barnacles and oysters, choose the place where they should settle for life. This is a big decision for a larval encruster, for whom location is as important for success as it is for any newsagent. If the larva gets the location wrong, the adult – which cannot move once it is fixed – will die.

Not surprisingly therefore, the presence of others of its kind, and even the attachment scars of long-dead forebears, is a powerful recommendation for a site to settle. For this reason, most encrusting organisms tend to cluster – even generation after generation. As the old saw has it - the acorn rarely falls far from the tree. Even for an oyster or a barnacle, the presence of attachment scars renders the decision of whether to settle much simpler. There are no spectra, just yes or no; no weighing up of environmental pros and cons required. Dad liked this place, so will I. Dad did all right here, and what’s good enough for Dad…

It is easy to construct sociobiological arguments why an analogous pattern should emerge among human beings. If your parents are good at something, you begin with the two advantages. Your genetics are likely to predispose you: if dad was good at fishing, you probably will be too. Secondly, you have nurture on your side because you start learning young. So it is that dynasties - in science as well as in business, media and the arts - grow up.

Like any other group drawn together by common aptitudes and interests, scientists grow up together, learn together, marry each other and grow old together. Their offspring stand a high chance of wearing, in adulthood, hand-me-down white coats or hard hats bequeathed by their proud forebears.

What this fact of life achieves is to reinforce the already present tendency for scientists’ perception of the world to be akin to that of – I am tempted to say a barnacle – but I shall say instead that of a ghetto-dweller.

It is easy to see how this can set up a mental conflict. From inside, it looks to scientists as though scientists are everywhere, for all to see. Yet, views of scientists evidently persist that are wildly at variance with reality – and “reality” is a concept very dear to the scientific mind; more of which below. They begin to fret.

Why are WE not powerful like science is?

They look around at the pervasive influence of science and technology. They see people who are delighted to accept the conveniences, but are absurdly over-sensitive about the negligible harm that could possibly arise from things that seem to bring them no benefit. Scientists feel ignored, misunderstood, by-passed and powerless. Once again, the world of non-scientific humans seems even more illogical and incomprehensible than it already did. Why don’t science and technology exert more influence over planning decisions? Why are scientists not believed? Whence this pervasive suspicion? Why does not science have a greater influence over the media and political agenda?

In all generations, but especially since Snow, scientists are apt to conclude that there must be a conspiracy at work. Perhaps it’s those louche but influential artistic degenerates in Chelsea (see the Introduction), or whatever the updated version of Lord Snow’s caricature might be; people who are better connected; who are more gregarious, perhaps; who can do all that small-talk stuff and get invited to parties. And thus, scientists find themselves gloomily participating in their own stereotype; tacitly admitting that they are precisely the isolated, socially inept people they often appear to be in films.

Image: © Hoover Candy Group

The truth is very different. As we shall see, scientists are far from being generally misunderstood and reviled. Science is very far indeed from being politically powerless – it’s merely weak in the ballot box, which is a different thing. Science does exert a lot of influence over the planning, political and media agendas – it’s just that some scientists would not be satisfied until it became the only - or at least the dominant - influence. (The unreality of scientists’ expectations will be explored in Fit 3. )

But we have come far enough to draw a preliminary conclusion. In response to the question: “what are scientists like?” we can say that they are few, that like other professions they tend to cluster together, and that they don’t recognise themselves in the way they are portrayed. They think (characteristically) that portrayals should reflect “reality” as they would define it. But in fact, portrayals only reflect the reality of expectation.

Charles Percy Snow had clear ideas about how scientists ought to be, and he devoted quote a lot of The Two Cultures to giving his audience the benefit of it. The white coats have attracted a few stains since then, and his high-minded, disciplined, puritanical secular saints, motivated by the improvement of the human condition, seem ludicrous today. A liking for flattery is yet another thing that makes scientists just like everyone else.

However, faced with the need to earn money and get on in life, scientists are also part of the ugly world - it’s just that the low strategies they must adopt to survive in it are, naturally, adapted to their own piece of country. For an estate agent, one strategy for getting to the top probably involves dressing in a suit and wearing cufflinks. For a scientist, it will not; however it might well involve suppressing doubts about a dominant theory because that theory was erected by the grandees who now sit on peer review committees, grant-awarding bodies and appointment panels.

In both senses of the expression, these aspects of scientific behaviour are not enlightening. We all express feebleness in the face of the human condition, and we do it in our own ways according to our circumstances. What I am trying to get at are the things that make scientists different. Why? Because in the end we all make our own luck and get precisely the press we deserve. If anything needs fixing in this area, scientists have to look inside themselves for it. And I strongly suspect that the things that make scientists good at being scientists are the same things that make them bad at promoting themselves, communicating with non-scientists, and getting other people on their side.

What I now present is one answer to the question “what are scientists like?” phrased in the form of a negative horoscope for the 13th sign of the Zodiac – the scientist.

I’m not paranoid; it’s just that everyone’s against me

It is the major premise of this blog that, just as the fear of crime is said to be a greater social evil than crime itself, scientists’ own problems – which lie well within their power to change or adapt to – are much greater than any threat “out there” among the (largely imaginary) conspirators. That misplaced suspicion leads scientists to adopt misdirected strategies – almost always for other people than themselves to adopt, naturally – to improve the situation.

This blog contends that most of the “problem” is imaginary, or based on expectations that need a reality check. Once these bogeys are exorcised, the real problems that are left behind as the phantasms fade away, lie with scientists themselves. Unless scientists wake up to this, large amounts of their time (and money) will go on being wasted. For, as the last 20 years have shown (to my satisfaction at least) although plenty of other people are prepared to “help scientists get their message across” as they would say, such folk usually end up helping themselves and achieving absolutely nothing.

Establishing that scientists are in many important ways different from ordinary people runs counter to one of the most conspicuous PR efforts made by scientists and their cheerleaders in recent years; namely, to try to deny their uniqueness and convince the public of the complete opposite. This movement reached its zenith in the 1980s, when everyone (not just scientists) was more than usually concerned about their image.

Scientists in the 1980s looked upon their stereotype and despaired. Then, extending arguments that were already gaining currency at that time about social embeddedness – the notion that scientists do not work in a pure vacuum isolated from their historical and social context – commentators began to write about what warm and cuddly people scientists were, too. Not only was science not conducted in isolation from society; it was carried on by intuitive and creative folk who were most definitely not robots, not heartless and cruel, and most of all, not peculiar - just like everyone else, in fact. And you may ask: “If people are happy with the notion, where is the harm?

  • First, if it isn’t true, it won’t wash. Contrary to popular belief, successful Public Relations (which is what this is) relies on truth - and the one thing that always gets you found out is a lie.
  • Second, why should scientists not wish to be seen as special and different? Why would scientists not wish their unique qualities to be recognised and respected?

The key to “why not” lies in respect. Some scientists – Darwin, Newton, Einstein - are scene-shifters and change our world forever. But the rest are for the most part deeply conformist in outlook and sensitive to what other scientists think of them. This curious fact comes about because science is overtly collective - which makes it unique among human intellectual endeavours. But collectivity, while it has many positive aspects, also has its down side.

Mob mentality

Science journalists are fond of noting how many scientists, when they think they are addressing the public down a microphone, are really thinking about how their performance will play with their colleagues, so terrified are they of being thought idiotic or publicity-seeking. That is one reason why “standing out from the crowd” is unpopular with scientists – they have a mob mentality.

But even more basic than this is the simple dread felt by the swotty kid who tires of getting his satchel kicked around the playground. He wants mostly to blend into the general background (while enjoying, if possible, star status among like-minded friends in the Bus-spotting Club). Science provides an outlet for such people (classically, men) with low social skills and obsessive attention to detail in limited fields of inquiry; people who fall at the mild end of the so-called autism spectrum, and are said to display Asperger’s Syndrome.

Characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome are relatively common in the population, but are much more common in some sections than others. The characteristics of a typical Asperger’s patient occur ten times as often in men than women, and the figure may may be even higher than that. Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen, a clinical psychologist at Cambridge University, has found that Cambridge undergraduates in science and technology were much more likely to show Asperger traits than those in the arts and humanities. Mathematicians come top of the Asperger league, followed by engineers, computer scientists and physicists, and with biologists showing the lowest tendency. Baron-Cohen has since written a book about his belief that Asperger’s Syndrome is an extreme version of typical "psychological maleness".

The typical traits of an Asperger’s character involve finding social situations difficult, a low ability to make small talk, a very high ability in picking up details and facts, a tendency to find it hard to know what others are feeling, a very high ability to concentrate for long periods on the same thing, a tendency to have strong but narrow interests, to like routines, to do things inflexibly and repetitively, and – unsurprisingly perhaps - a certain lack of success in making friends easily.

It is not hard to see why such mental characteristics may be real advantages to a scientist or computer technologist, but disadvantages in, for example, a career in public relations. Taking all these things together, such mental attitudes and social conditioning can – in other contexts - be highly disadvantageous. They lead scientists to shy from the world and take refuge in delicious and maudlin self-pity. Sometimes I fear that this is a condition from which scientists collectively will never break out. It is one of my main reasons for writing this blog.

Meet my friend Thing

Realising that most people are not very interested in things and ideas comes early in the career of any would-be science writer. In my case, the scales fell when a publisher handed me back a book proposal (about geology) and said: “I am sure this would be a very good book. The referees were all positive about it. I agree that we would be well placed to publish it. But we won’t. We won’t because there are no people in it. People, you see, are interested in people”.

He might have added, “…and most people, unlike scientists in the main, live their lives entirely through their emotions and sensations”, because turning science back into something about people that will excite the emotions and the senses is what the professional science populariser’s job largely consists of.

At that time I had just emerged from the oil business, where I had been involved in technical writing – writing scientific reports as a consultant to various client companies. This is a form of popularisation, but it is not the Daily Mail. Though the folk you write for may not be scientists, they are highly motivated readers - they have dollar signs in their eyes. All a "technical writer" must do is translate jargon.

So I remember this interview as something of a personal epiphany. Not only did it dawn on me that as a popular writer, my readers must always be the focus of everything I write; I also realised that, as a scientist, I had been gradually retreating from life all my career.

I had begun as a zoologist. Then, plants seemed more interesting and I veered botanical. Then fossil animals claimed my attention and I became a geologist. Then fossil plants seemed to offer the sort of challenge I was after. Finally, in the oil business and earning money, I found that I had developed an overweening desire to understand the chemistry that drives the processes of solution and precipitation during the post-burial history of limestones.

Lots of bucks there, but not a lot of life.

Chemists would undoubtedly view it differently, but this drift from the very alive through the once alive to the inanimate, marked an act of retreat; of craving for the safety of controlled conditions and predictability. It seemed that the deader things were, the more I liked it.

I had already decided that my scientific career had been more or less a sham, conducted by someone whose talent, if he had any, lay with words – a memory for which (combined with a knack for literary imitation) had enabled him to carry off the white coat long enough to fool a university into giving him a doctorate. But now, facing the grim reality of work, I had a fright. I suffered that mid-20s crisis that sometimes grips people who leave the congenial world of education to find themselves emerging from a door in a back alley on the wrong side of town, surrounded by thugs.

I ran away to the circus and became a science journalist.

"...Awkward at parties, shy with strangers, deficient in irony - they have had no choice but to turn their attention to the close study of everyday objects."

Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life (1976)

Specialist journalists (at least on UK papers) are not excused the need to make their stories relevant to the everyday lives of their readers. I am easily (alas) old enough to remember when an education specialist for a worthy broadsheet like The Independent could bash out a 400-word scoop on some arcane policy shift in a dispute between university funding bodies and vice-chancellors over the Dual Support System for university research. I know because I used to help them write them.

There are relatively few such ghettoes left in newspapers these days and all news must fight for its right to live in the pages alongside everything else. Today’s news editor will throw your 400 erudite words back with the cry: “Where are the students/lecturers/parents in this garbage?” In other words - like the man said - people are interested in people.

But the real business of science is things and ideas, not people, emotions and sensuality; and what makes scientists unusual is the fact that they are happier with things that way. I have felt the pull, so I know. The world of things and ideas – the world of science – embodies simplicity and safety. Things are manipulable, facts testable, behaviour predictable. This is a world where, the more you understand, the more predictable everything becomes because the rules don’t change. What’s true today is true tomorrow. Such reliability is what makes science powerful. It is also what makes it safe. It doesn’t let you down.

It’s not only scientists who have this unusual penchant for things over people. All academics and intellectuals are to some extent wired up the same way, to a greater degree than the average fare-payer on the Clapham omnibus. It’s just that scientists are more closed off because of the nature of their subject.

The ideas of a literary critic, for example, about a thing called a novel are more accessible to the layperson because a human being with a life story wrote the novel; the novel is a tale about fictional people’s lives, and is itself intended as an act of accessible communication. Scientists, by contrast, study things that really are just things. And some of their ideas are not even rooted in everyday objects. This natural penchant may not preclude an interest in people, but as usual there tends to be a spectrum. And scientists tend to be nearer the other end of it than most of us.

Taking the epistemology

Scientists do not lavish much time on the philosophy of knowledge – one more characteristic that they do share with the rest of humanity. When Thomas Henry Huxley glibly (and rather misleadingly) defined science as organised common sense, he was reflecting an attitude of mind among researchers, not describing science itself. Actually, much of what scientists discover is completely contrary to common sense. But scientists do take a straightforward approach to reality and truth that is, basically, commonsense. If they have ever heard of it, scientists applaud Dr Johnson’s footballing proof of the true existence of material things. The scientific method gives them all the philosophy they want.

Scientists believe in an objective truth. They look for knowledge that is self-evidently true because it works and can be used as a basis for prediction. Most scientists envisage their explanations as ever-nearing approximations to this absolute truth. Newton is fine as far as he goes, but Einstein is better and one day someone else will better Einstein.

But by and large, workaday scientists just think of themselves as finding out what is. And for some it is a small step from this approach to the belief that only science can provide valid knowledge at all – but more of that below. First, I want to look at how scientists go about explaining what they have found by putting it in words.

Having discovered what “is”, scientists believe they should express it directly, and unambiguously in a manner that is style-free. They want to say only what they mean, and to mean only one thing at a time. Their approach to language is quite the opposite of, say the literary critic, for whom the what (the idea being communicated) cannot be separated from the how of the language in which it is put. For scientists, there is complete distinction between what is being said, and the means by which it is expressed. For those who believe in the existence of ideal and external truth, the idea and the word exist independently.

Working alongside scientists as a journalist, or better still as co-editor of a publication, you quickly discover that this desire, crystallised in the mannerisms and conventions of their chosen literary form the scientific paper, is very deeply ingrained.

The scientific paper is a work of fiction that presents the process of scientific discovery back to front. After a proper contextual introduction, scientific authors adduce observational evidence, consider multiple hypotheses, and then reject all but one, which emerges at the other end like a newly minted coin. The form reinforces the false notion that the scientific method is a handle-turning process like a calculating engine.

But all scientists know that what really happens is nothing like that. The true process goes more like this. Scientist observes something odd. Scientist has momentary flash of insight, in which scientist sees answer perfectly. Scientist then goes around amassing evidence to support guessed conclusion. Finally, scientist turns whole process on head, and pretends it was all deduction.

For those who might not recognise it from this oversimple account, the process is called “hypothetico-deductive” as defined by William Whewell, whom we have met already.

It is odd that the revered scientific method – which is what we are talking about - is enforced by the dictates of a fictional form. The actual scientific process is intuitive; but the method of explication is what underscores science’s verifiability. This is more than window-dressing, yet it is actually applied in the perspiration phase, the bit scientists generally hate, not at inspiration – the moment they all crave.

This crucially important literary form demands that scientists write in simple, straightforward objective language. Of course this is rarely the case, because of jargon (which cannot be avoided yet which could be avoided much more than it is). The tone is neutral, impersonal, divorced from the messiness of how things actually happened, and of course, aimed at telling the story deductively, one thing at a time, without confusion or ambiguity. These literary tics are also, coincidentally, what makes nearly all scientific papers deadly to read, since the impersonal expressed in the passive voice are unmistakable hallmarks of truly bad literary style. Scientists generally think in black-and-white, and write in grey.

Conveyancing fact

But for scientists, communication means what I call “conveyancing fact”, and doing so impersonally and unemotionally, with all excitement rigorously expunged. Just as their penchant for safety and predictability can make them prefer the world of things, scientists’ literary habits reinforce another interpersonal shortcoming often observed among them. Scientists can be rather bad at picking up “metamessage” – information hidden in the main signal.

This talent is sometimes called “reading people”, since very often in the messy world of human beings the most important stuff to know is conveyed in metamessage. To scientists, however, metamessage is ambiguity – noise in the signal; an impurity, that needs refining out. The idea that real writers may deliberately layer their meanings to convey many things at the same time; that much of this information is often not factual at all, and that this, too, constitutes communication - is alien to them.

Their colourless, utilitarian approach to expression does not improve scientists’ chances of communicating what they do to the public. It is very difficult to learn to write in more than one manner, especially if your very thought-processes, engendered by your genetics and enhanced by your nurture within the scientific ghetto, cry out together against it.

A scientist friend of mine, who also chafes at these conventions but has to live within them, once asked me about a sentence in one of his papers beginning: “Numerical experiments suggest that”. Alas, the journal’s US-based scientific editors had objected to this because in their view an interpretation was being given - numbers themselves, after all “suggest” nothing – and demanded a rewrite to reflect that. Hence he was left with having to rephrase his shorter, more lively words with the appalling “Results of the numerical experiments are interpreted by the authors as suggesting that…” to satisfy his pedantic referees (though there is a long history in US science about the separation of fact from interpretation, about which books have been written). I suggested he say: “We interpret the results of our numerical experiments…” but that, being in the active voice and good writing, also runs counter to the scientific cult of impersonality.

This is the sort of stylistic sterility that scientists find themselves up against when they write for publication. Examine any of the works of the most successful scientific communicators – I would suggest Richard Fortey and Stephen Jay Gould – and you will see that they owe their stylistic success to the fact that they have shucked the surly bonds of science’s arid, linear, literal and monothematic stylistic constraints.

Lastly, habitual literalness of mind (which comes as a job lot with their concern for what is, and its impersonal expression) further exacerbates scientists’ problems. For one thing, it means they tend to underestimate the public’s ability to discount - or at least qualify - what they see, for example, in the media. This also goes some way towards explaining why scientists react so badly to what they see as unhelpful stereotyping. Scientists have an unfortunate tendency to think that such evidence has much more persuasive power than it really has. Ordinary folk have a greater ability to detect and discount nonsense than intellectuals give them credit for.

Method acting

However post facto the scientific method is, and however epistemologically threadbare it can sometimes seem to the sophisticated, scientists are very proud of it. In fact, they tend to be a little too proud of it. As we have seen, this is especially true in Anglophone countries because of the restricted meaning of the term “science” in our language. Alas the word is therefore more easily appropriated in English by what I (and others) have identified as a baleful tendency to strut among some scientists and their self-appointed spokespersons.

Professor Stefan Collini who edited C P Snow’s The Two Cultures for publication by Cambridge University Press in 1993 makes the point well in his insightful introduction:

“In the second half of the nineteenth century, in the heyday of the scientistic aspiration, this could mean discriminating those enquiries whose methods gave us “real” knowledge from those which did not. Many practising scientists continue implicitly to endorse this assumption, and occasionally a self-appointed spokesman for science will articulate it in its most arrogantly imperial form” (p. xlvi)

When I encounter scientists who fall into this category I often suffer subliminal flashes of three historical groups: Roundhead soldiers smashing centuries of mediaeval heritage, barbarian crusaders disgracing themselves at the Ottoman Court, and Viking raiders. The Roundheads had moral certitude on their side. The crusaders had it too, and rampaged through more sophisticated cultures to which they believed themselves superior. And the Vikings also had at their disposal a new and superbly successful method for discovering things – the longship. They had a strong culture and made great contributions to world literature. But as the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark wrote of them:

“…one must admit that the Norsemen produced a culture. But was it civilisation? The monks of Lindisfarne would not have said so, nor would Alfred the Great, nor the poor mother trying to settle down with her family on the banks of the Seine.”

When I see the longships of scientific imperialism nosing upstream, I do not think that what I am witnessing is the arrival of civilisation, nor even 50% of a thing called “culture”, but one rich, powerful - and therefore occasionally dangerous - contributor to the way we live and think.

But - partly, perhaps, because they are compensating for the chip on their shoulder - scientists too often present an embarrassingly swaggering, hairy-arsed arrogance to the world. They often pretend to believe (and some perhaps do) that science is not only the most powerful way of investigating the natural world – but the only valid way of looking at it - or indeed at anything else.

This is destined to alienate people who might otherwise be their friends and helpers. The wider practical consequences of this blinkered worldview will be explored in Fit the Second.


A good friend of mine, the distinguished geologist Prof. Richard Selley of Imperial College London, once wrote: “All generalisations are dangerous – including this one”.

This does not mean that generalisations are not useful – it is a warning lest some idiot think that they apply universally. Scientists are not the Snow-white sepulchres of The Two Cultures, any more than they all resemble over-indulged - or borderline autistic - children (though a few come pretty close).

All the best clichés are rooted somewhere in truth. And the truth is that all professions favour people with certain personality characteristics. It is hard, for example, to believe that you can ever be a really good journalist if you are not a gossip. Conversely, there are plenty of professions where being a gossip would be a distinct drawback.

Scientists share, to a greater or lesser extent, many unique and enviable characteristics of mind – characteristics that in other circumstances might be defects, but which to a scientist are very positive indeed. Rather than pretend to be ordinary folk, scientists must recognise these and be proud. However, these characteristics, combined with the sociology of the scientific community, lie at the root of that community’s frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the way it is regarded by the non-scientific world. They are also the very factors that prevent scientists from reaching the level of self-awareness required for them to understand why they have only themselves to blame for this.

There has been quite enough bootless whingeing from scientists about how everyone is against them (an unsceintific assertion for which there is nothing but negative evidence - see Fit the fourth), and how others must change their ways to suit them.

Worse, innumerable, useless and expensive initiatives, mostly from government but some also from industry and its collectives, have managed a wonderful combination of squandering resources while raising false hopes. Far from improving matters, and while other folk just got on with the real job of communicating the excitement and sheer beauty of science to a wider audience, we have somehow given birth to a futile and increasingly self-serving Public Understanding of/Engagement with Science industry. This has dragged in conference organisers, pollsters, PR companies, Government departments, scientists themselves and their learned societies, until it has become the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme de nos jours.

But that is for another Fit. Let me conclude this Fit with a general principle. Only when scientists accept that they are not just like everyone else and come to terms with it, will they also be able to come to grips effectively with what afflicts them.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Fit the second: Little helpers – or, the tale of the professor’s lovely assistant

"The greatest ignorance of all is the one that believes it knows everything."Albert Camus

An editor – who was neither feline nor oblique and offered no support whatever for CP Snow’s Chelsea salon conspiracy theory - once asked me to write him a piece about “oil on other planets”. I blinked. “Are you sure boss?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you rather I do something about metals and such?”

Like many editors, his face was well adapted to conveying complex messages in a single glance. This one was saying: “You are completely lacking all news sense and a moron and about this close to getting no further work on this paper”. Metals weren’t sexy. Why not oil?

Now - freelances don’t get business by telling editors they are ignoramuses, and I needed the money. So I tried again. “What I meant was, wouldn’t it make more of a piece”, I said, “if I were to broaden it out into resources generally?” To this, mercifully, he agreed.

My editor knew nothing about science (thank goodness – that was why he was employing me). He knew that oil came out of the ground, and things that come out of the ground are mineral – it says as much in the dictionary. In his world, the only criterion of any importance was news value – about which he knew a lot. People would read about oil, but not metals.

His opinion on news was worth something - but I doubt he would have been presumptuous enough to advise, say, a cosmologist or a molecular biologist on how to ply their respective trades. Unfortunately there is something about some scientists that makes them think they are entitled to pronounce on everything. This seldom endears them to the professionals they need to help them “get their message across”.

Being proverbial doesn’t guarantee that everyone gets it, so it may be worth repeating that in a free society everybody is entitled to his or her private opinion. If Uncle Denis wants to believe that the Earth is flat and created in seven days along with a moon rich in hydrocarbons, he is perfectly within his rights, no matter how much it offends scientists.

The public clearly understands this, and (as revealed in a survey of public attitudes (October 2000) about which I shall have a lot more to say later) treats the opinions of scientists with respect when it comes to their professed subjects, subtly diminished according how and where they get their shilling. This is all as it should be. Scientists are relatively well trusted, but commonsensically treated more or less like anyone else.

However, many scientists think all their opinions are more worthy of attention, by virtue of being arrived at by someone whose razor sharp scientific intellect has given the matter some free processing time. The source of this arrogance is the revered scientific method – the rigorous process by which, according to a myth many scientists tend to believe - they live and breathe. You see it laid out to best effect in those works of fiction called scientific papers, which as I mentioned in Fit the First, present the process of scientific discovery completely back to front.

Now I know there are shades in all of this. There are scientists who are big on ideas and low on the backbreaking grind of proving them, and conversely, those who are low on ideas but high on drudgery. This is how we have armwavers and nitpickers. And there is undoubtedly a character spectrum, ranging from scientists on the physics and chemistry side, whose data can be complete, and those on the geology/archaeology side who have to make deductions from data that can never be complete. It is interesting also that the latter tend to be bolshier and less respectful of hierarchies than the former, and to be more fun at parties. Probably this is a group that would agree with WH Auden (whose brother John was a geologist after all) when he says: “guessing is always/more fun than knowing”.

But as a rule, all scientists of whatever stripe abide by the great “method” – the discipline enforced by the scientific paper with its curious but necessary back-to-frontedness. And this they hold up as the thing that sets them apart from sloppy thinking folk, giving them a right to determine all things and lending their opinions and observations special weight.

Problem is, it doesn’t. At their best, scientists are creative, intuitive, impulsive and irrational and all their much-vaunted discipline is actually post facto rationalisation. Before they embark on the drudgery, scientists’ brains are no more disciplined than anyone else’s. And it shows. For example, they are frequently heard to complain - to folk in science journalism and PR as well as one another - that there is “no” science on television. They also frequently claim never to watch TV. Many scientists I know are well able to make both statements in close succession without blinking. If pressed, they may then say: “Ah, well I never watch TV because there’s no science on it”. Thinking is rarely clearer than when it is circular.

Muddiness of thought and a willingness to believe their own prejudices is a characteristic found as much among scientists as everyone else, and goes right to the top. When the grandees of the Royal Society set up their Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) in the mid-1980s, the multiplicity of mistaken assumptions that underpinned it was truly staggering. However, what was even more amazing, in a way, was the publication – in 1988 – of a paper (or at least something dressed up as a research paper) in that most distinguished scientific journal, Nature.

This paper, all eight pages of it (that’s long for Nature) – was written by John Durant, a leading science cheerleader at that time and later Professor in the Public Understanding of Science at Imperial College. The paper made shocking reading, but not – at least as far as I and other science journalists privately thought - for the reasons the author intended.

Without going into detail, Durant et al. concluded that the public (whoever they are), were ignorant of science. This assertion was made on the basis of a frankly ludicrous pub-quiz style questionnaire to which a number of “members of the public” had been subjected.

This survey had asked a set of questions best exemplified by the oft-quoted, almost talismanic: “Can antibiotics kill viruses?” (I may be paraphrasing). The only allowable “correct” answer to this was “No”, but actually this is a question that many a biologist would struggle to answer. Sure, we have no antibiotics at present that work against viruses. But this does not mean that in principle antibiotics might not kill viruses.

In any case, does knowledge of a set of nerdy facts such as how many planets there are in the Solar System (another moot point, actually) really test understanding of anything? Like anyone else, I know rather a lot about quite a lot of subjects on which, however, my command of detailed factoids (such as might win me a round of drinks at the Dog and Duck) is decidedly shaky. I understand quite a lot about the geology of the moon, and can explain the difference between the many theories of its formation, and even venture a suggestion as to why the leading theory is leading at the moment. I can explain how geologists know that once, the Moon was much closer to the Earth, and what that meant for life on our planet. But am I really confident about the current distance in kilometres of the Moon from the Earth, with John Durant peering at me from the quizmaster’s desk and saying “Have to hurry you…”? And would it matter if I were? Would it betoken any higher understanding? No. So need we wring our hands over anyone not knowing such things? No.

However, despite the obtuseness of this “survey”, Nature – which seemed to have relaxed its usually famous rigour (referees, evidence of controls on samples and so on) – published it almost in a spirit of public duty. The paper created great publicity. Questions were asked, perhaps even in the House. Newspapers told the public straight – they were ignorant. The “deficit model”, and the assumption that “science” consisted of the contents of, to pick a random example, Professor Lewis Wolpert’s brain, was born. The public had to be made to know what scientists know.

COPUS pocus

This approach of COPUS – that only “we scientists” are the keepers of the Truth and therefore only we can explain it – flattered great and small alike and made it easy for scientists to accept the model as correct. It played well with those scientific professors (many of whom were on COPUS) who wrote occasional books for what they imagined to be “the public”, and who considered their subjects too complicated and important to be left to anyone but them to explain. It pandered to scientists’ secret desire to remain a priesthood, or at least regain that status, already well lost by 1988. That this view ran counter to the very nature of science – its openness, accessibility and challengability, the things that make it the complete antithesis of a religion – seemed to occur to no-one; at least no-one in COPUS.

It also drew deep draughts from the almost unassailable arrogance that is the subject of this Fit – that only scientists know anything that is any use, and that should they choose, they can do anything in the world – relegating every other field of expertise, and every other non-scientific professional, to the role of little helper (picture).

In the literature of cliché (and what literature is not cliché?) one is familiar with the character of the scientist’s little helper – one which is only now being written out as scientists themselves take on more dashing dramatic guises. Indiana Jones was an unusual film character, portraying as he did the academic scientist as action-man. Hitherto, however, lovers of science fiction were much more familiar with the scientist as sexless philosopher-wizard, an arrogant, unworldly, occasionally megalomaniac obsessive with a beautiful daughter (to provide romantic interest for the hero action-man). This ancient dramatic tableau, portraying in allegory the timeless theme of sexual liberation, can be traced back to an obvious model in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

This play was written about 1611 and has no very obvious authored models. A German play called Comedia von der schonen Sidea by Jacob Ayrer of Nuremberg features a sorcerer prince with a spirit attendant and an only daughter who falls for the dashing son of her father’s greatest foe. The model for this, critics believe, was probably English, however; since the traffic of dramas in the early 17th Century mainly involved German remakes of English originals. Folk tales abound with examples of sorcerers with only daughters. It was all there waiting for Shakespeare to pick up, just as Shakespeare was for 20th Century science fiction writers.

Science fiction has quarried The Tempest mercilessly, often overtly - as in the 1956 classic Forbidden Planet, wherein –with the help of a vanished race of aliens whose civilization he is investigating - monsters from the Id of Prospero character Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) try to prevent his version of Miranda (Alta, played by Anne Francis) from being sexually liberated by dashing spacetrooper Captain Adams (Leslie Nielsen). But hardly a sci-fi movie since then has not given the arrogant egghead megalomaniac scientist/sorcerer character a daughter or lab assistant to provide romantic interest for the hero action-man who has, generally, to foil the evil father.

The first Dr Who (William Hartnell) was furnished with a daughter called Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), and that lengthy BBC drama spawned many more young ladies who filled her role as the one who screamed a lot, twisted her ankle while fleeing and generally getting into trouble. The producers are said to have written one Doctor’s assistant out of the series (a scientist, Liz Shaw, played by Caroline John) who because of her scientific education failed to behave cluelessly enough for the audience to identify with. For dramatic reasons, because she did not need to have things explained to her, she made the writers’ job (of getting the message across to the audience) more difficult.

Digging deeper still into the BBC sci-fi archive, Professor Bernard Quatermass also had a daughter. Played by Monica Grey, she provided a human foil for the Quatermass, who conformed well to the forbidding sorcerer model of screen scientist. Consequently she had a habit of going misty eyed, squinting vaguely off camera and speculating distractedly about what horrors might befall if her father were not successful in his fight against the latest cosmic threat.

Cliché and truth

This may be all very well and amusing but what does it have to do with reality? All good clichés are rooted in truth, and there is more to this “little helper” scenario than dramatic necessities and expository tools. Scientists, particularly academic ones, have historically been ploughers of lone furrows. Big-team cooperation is much more a feature of US science than it has been in Britain. By and large, the romantic notion of the lone genius (read any of Sir Fred Hoyle’s science fiction to see the lone anti-establishment central character triumph against all the odds) still dies hard. It is the revenge fantasy of that quiet kid in the playground while his satchel is being kicked about, waiting for his aggressors to become bored.

Also, scientists’ actual experience is one of a world peopled by little – and, it has to be said, often female – helpers. Librarians, research assistants, PhD students and armies of technicians of one sort or another, render their small services and might gain (if they are lucky) a condescending thank-you in the acknowledgements of the great paper when it is finally published. Aspiring successors (like PhD students) might get co-authorship as a privilege of caste. But it is a world peopled by “scientists” and “little helpers”.

In the wider world this manifests itself in many curious and trivial ways. I once had to recruit a Parliamentary liaison officer for a scientific organisation, and found it impossible to dislodge the job-title “research assistant” from the mind and writings of the responsible committee chairman, even to the point where he wanted it in the advertisement. We all interpret the world in terms of what we know. But this attitude of mind, this division of the world into two castes, “scientists” and “everyone else”, is perhaps one of scientists’ most irritating and unsympathetic characteristics. In a world where they are effectively out of the water, or perhaps in the water and out of their depth, scientists need all the friends and help they can get.

Some time ago I sat in on a meeting, and heard one attendee say of the magazine I edit: “I never read the thing, but I think it lacks…”. He uttered this self-contradiction without a blink, and proceeded to list some things he thought should be in the magazine – all of which, of course, were.

Next day I received an email from him - by way, he said, of "clarification". What he had meant was that he “only rarely” read it. And he then went on at some length to explain to me how much better a magazine it would be, if.

For example, what if the attractive but uninformative colour photograph on the front (which conveyed no information at all) were replaced with text, so that interesting facts could be seen immediately - presumably without the bother of opening the polybag the magazine is delivered in? This would surely lower the “activation energy” (an example there of scientific metaphor) required to delve into the thing.

He was full of wonderful ideas of this sort. Removing the colour, for example, would reduce costs, surely? And filling up all the white space in the page design (what was that about?) with words (the more to conveyance further facts) would increase the magazine’s capacity, and drive down page costs. The fact that no magazine you ever see anywhere possesses these characteristics, obviously cut no ice. Well why should they? That would assume that the idiots who put magazines together for a living knew anything about what they were doing.

He closed by assuring me he was full of admiration for my work but the application of a scientific mind to everyday problems could always be of immense benefit.

So, I hope he also felt it an immense benefit to be asked to shove his incisive scientific mind where the Cercopithecid primate (left) shoves his woody, indehiscent, pericarpal fruit (Much more about groundnuts in Fit 7, below) . When it comes to scientists’ communication through the media, dealing with mostly non-scientific people (whose profession, though, is not notably less imbued with mental rigour and discipline) such condescension might be characterised as “part of the problem rather than the solution”.


Underestimating one’s fellows is not, of course, unique to scientists – it is a characteristic of all intellectuals. Scientists, however, add, their own special twist to it, just as they do to their next common failing: namely, making unrealistic expectations. And that brings us to Fit the third.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fit the third: Climbing mount impossible or - why opening your mind to incredible notions is not always a good idea

“But Scientists, who ought to know,
Assure us that they must be so....
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!"

Hilaire Belloc, The Microbe

Believing that what everyone thinks impossible might just be possible is generally held to be something of a virtue in scientists. After all, the Earth is round. Space is curved. Continents do move. And we know these things because someone once had the courage to believe the impossible. But it isn’t always like that. Sometimes the impossible really is impossible.

Ichthyologists, the happy band who study fish, are almost unanimous in the view that yogic breathing techniques provide absolutely no protection against shark attack. Behavioural ecologist Erich Ritter, a Swiss researcher based in Miami, held a different view, however. He had long espoused the method that all his colleagues pooh-poohed as impossible. And in April 2002 the world’s media reported that he was now recovering in St Mary's Medical Centre, West Palm Beach, Florida, after an adult bullshark - unimpressed by the yogic inhaling - took a chunk out of Dr Ritter’s leg (on camera).

Dedication to proving sincerely held theories - to the point of folly and beyond - is one of those things for which the public admires scientists. Stories of scientists risking their lives in the pursuit of truth do them no harm in public relations terms, even when they are spectacularly wrong – which, writing about his story at the time, I offered as some slight consolation to Dr Ritter during his convalescence. Happily, Dr Ritter has made a good recovery and is now back in the water.

However, concern about the image scientists have with the public – so much the vogue in the 1980s (Fit the first) – has now taken on a more serious cast. Scientists today seem to have given up worrying about how to combat unhelpful media clichés and the like. In the wake of foot and mouth, mad cow disease, nuclear waste disposal and all the rest, the big issue of the moment has become - public trust.

So serious is this situation thought to be that The Royal Society dedicated its very first National Science Forum to examining the subject (Do we trust today’s scientists? Royal Society, March 6 2002). Several of my media and media relations colleagues spoke at it. There was a debate with non-scientists. There was a panel of the great and good, who agreed to answer questions from the floor. There were regional versions too, linked by video. All in all, it was quite an effort, and a measure of the seriousness with which the UK’s de facto National Academy of Science takes this subject.

However, those who have sat through many such earnest gatherings (as I have) know that the trouble with the "public trust" debate is that it rarely honestly conducted. When scientists ask "why does the public mistrust us?", what they usually mean is "Why does the public not trust us implicitly?". Thus if anyone dare suggest that the right answer might be "Yes, you should trust scientists, but no more (and no less) than you would trust anyone else, so use your common sense", their view tends to be regarded as in some way less than satisfactory.

It is not long before one begins to wonder how much of this alleged problem resides only in scientists’ minds. The 2001 Wellcome Trust/Office of Science & Technology survey Science & the public – a review of science communication and public attitudes to science showed clearly that the public does, in fact, trust scientists - up to a point. They trust university scientists more than government scientists, and government scientists more than commercial scientists, because it seems obvious to them that anyone who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Most folk would say this was an eminently sensible attitude. To expect more (as many scientists seem to) would surely be believing the impossible…

Concern over paymasters’ influence on science was also borne out in a MORI poll commissioned to coincide with the Royal Society’s Forum. Of those questioned, 55% agreed (28% strongly) that science funding was becoming too commercial. This might be encouraging – it suggests we are not witnessing a failure of faith in science itself, but merely the public’s suspicion that filthy lucre and the heavy hand of Government are corrupting it. Would the belief that scientists are far too pure in heart to yield to the allure of money and the approval of the powerful, constitute "believing the impossible"? I believe it does. Yet that would appear to be what many scientists think their due.

It took maybe as long as a decade, but now at last the "Public Understanding of Science" lobby (as it no longer calls itself) has been officially born again in the knowledge that what is needed is not so much more understanding of science among everyday folk, but more scientists who understand the public. So, in 2002 when the Royal Institution’s new (and independent) Science Media Centre opened (March 28), the opinion poll it commissioned concentrated on helping scientists do just that. What are the public’s expectations of science and scientists? We had had polls on the image of scientists, and attitudes to science; but we don’t know very much about expectations. The results were significant.

The SMC’s poll suggested that 71% of the public "looked to scientists to give an ‘agreed view’ about science issues", while 61% expected science "to provide 100% guarantees about the safety of medicines". In other words, the public tends to want science to do the very thing it cannot do – provide absolute certainty. As Dr Mark Peplow, then Science Information Officer at the SMC (now Editor of Chemistry World), said in the covering statement released with the findings: "The public’s expectations of what science can deliver are wide of the mark. Disagreement is a fundamental part of scientific enquiry." The poll also revealed that 85% of the public felt scientists needed to improve the way they communicate their research findings to the public through the media; good news for the Science Media Centre, because that is what they were hoping to do.

On the one hand the public expects the impossible of science (that it should provide certainty) while on the other, many scientists continue to believe the impossible of the public (that they should trust them absolutely). With each having placed such unreasonable expectations on the other, domestic strife cannot, surely, be far away. The public feels let down when it doesn’t get certainty. They look for reasons and sensibly assume that money and power lie at the root of it. Scientists, still fondly hoping they can wash the stains out of their labcoats, begin to despair that nobody trusts them at all – which is both an over-reaction and untrue.

There is no moral to this tale, except perhaps that probably things are not as bad as they seem. Young scientists are keen to get trained in public presentation. According to yet another survey (published on March 21 2002 by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), while 60% of scientists questioned had at one time done some communicating, almost none had received any training. They evidently felt bad about it because 76% said they would take up the Council’s new Public Communication Training Funds (PCTFs).

These grants were made available as an option on all research grants made by EPSRC from April 2002. They provide £500 per grant for courses covering the skills required for effective communication via the broadcast or written media, and for presentations, lectures, demonstrations or debates for the general public and school audiences.

Perhaps, when these aspiring communicators take up their PCTFs, they should be sent a list of things that really are impossible:
  1. Rivers flowing uphill
  2. Using yoga breathing techniques for shark protection
  3. Absolute certainty in science, and...
  4. The total trust of a sensible person.


    It is easy to see why the issue of public trust matters so much to scientists and the governments who fund and benefit from their work. Governments don’t want to see profitable technologies stymied by mass panic, and taken up by countries who can afford fewer qualms. Scientists want to be free to do what they wish to do. Both would secretly like a return to the good old days of blind faith.

    Note secretly. To make such a claim in public would be unthinkable, and anyway, the intellectuals of the process have already declared that the Two Cultures, the Public Understanding of Science, the “deficit model” approach and much more besides are dead and gone. Not so. Not only are these attitudes alive, they are ingrained. Indeed, scientists rather like being misunderstood and unloved. Wallowing in self-pity is, after all, a lot easier than doing something useful, or parting with money…

    No, blind faith is not possible when the public is not ignorant of what is happening. When the public is not ignorant (and thanks to the media they are much less ignorant today than they were in the 1950s and 60s) you have to settle for faith of the sighted variety. For that you need people to feel warmly about you, and for that you need public relations. But now I am getting ahead of myself.... time for another Fit.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Fit the fourth: Oh no they love us after all or, why scientists secretly rather like feeling neglected and miserable

"With Oblomov, lying in bed was neither a necessity…nor an accident…nor a gratification. Rather, it represented his normal condition. "

Ivan Goncharov, 1858, (Trans. CJ Hogarth, 1915)

As I mentioned in my previous fit, a much-awaited report by the Wellcome Trust and the Office of Science & Technology (OST, within the UK government’s Department of Trade and Industry) was finally published in late 2001 after a long gestation period when it seemed to emulate the famous Campbells – always coming, never arriving.

There is something about “long-awaited” reports that tweaks a journalist’s antennae, because the reasonable question arises as to why the report was delayed. The suspicion is always that somebody couldn’t believe it, or didn’t like it. Perhaps disturbing conclusions were blue-pencilled, or fatally weakened with cavilling caveats; that committees had rendered its conclusions meaningless; that the strong message of the original writer has been subjected to what ad-men call vanillacide, by many hands.

But whatever the suspicions, when the Wellcome/OST Report finally landed, it was a bombshell. It was the first ever in-depth analysis of public attitudes to science in Britain, and for the first time it allowed us to make deductions about public attitudes that were based on real evidence, rather than the usual assertions based on hearsay or prejudice.

The results surprised and shocked many scientists. It appeared that the British public was not anti-science; scientists were loved and admired for their work; news about their work was a source of amazement; most people (including those who did not care personally) thought science and technology (and even blue-skies research) was important to the country and to the individual and should be paid for out of general taxation. Three quarters believed science offered good career prospects. And university scientists were especially valued for their independence of mind and status.

These revolutionary findings were always destined to take time to sink in, because they ran counter to much (if not most) of the received wisdom among scientists. Yet on the following St Valentine’s Day, at a Parliamentary event organised by a consortium of scientific and engineering bodies in a mass lobby of political parties, it was clear that even in that forum, the OST/Wellcome Report’s findings had made no impression at all. I sat in disbelief as I listened to the short speeches given by senior scientists and Party Spokesmen, waiting in vain for it to be quoted. And if we are to believe it (and I think we are), every single assertion made there by politicians and scientists alike about public and media attitudes to science was false.

However the OST Wellcome report was welcomed joyfully in other quarters. Before it appeared, science PR officers and journalists could only feel that scientists’ suspicions about the way they were perceived were mistaken. Now, at last, there was evidence to back them up.

So, while it was indeed a bombshell, it went with more of a whimper than a bang. There is a particular reason why the report made slow progress among scientists. The fact that they and their work have broad approval ratings that estate agents, solicitors, surveyors (and these days, perhaps even GPs) would give their eyeteeth for was met with incomprehension - and disbelief. The truth is that a lot of scientists secretly rather like being martyrs in their cause, not least because as well as being deliciously isolating, frankly it is a lot easier to feel that way.

For years now, scientists have slowly developed a bunker mentality. This dates from the end of the 1960s, whose death knell were rung – at least for scientists in universities - by Labour Secretary of State for Education and Science, Shirley Williams. It was on the cusp of the dismal 1970s that she launched her so-called 13 Points at the universities, and wrote a major article for The Times urging a new social contract upon scientists and announcing, in her words, that “for scientists, the party’s over”. What she meant was that blind adulation and blank cheques were a thing of the past. The Government knew that chill economic winds were blowing, and expectations had to be lowered. Scientists henceforward would have to justify what they did to those who paid for it, because they (the public) wouldn’t be taking it on trust any more.

The universities appeared to take no notice of the 13 Points beyond a certain haughty sneer of the sort they used to do so well, and scientists felt insulted - but pretended not to notice. Both were actually rather shaken in their complacency, though not enough to do anything.

Science budgets began to decline, but when the gathering economic storm broke, it was worse than expected. The oil shock hit. The miners struck. Inflation took over. The three-day week blacked out homes. Rubbish piled up in Leicester Square. Corpses went unburied. Schools closed. I studied for my O Level Chemistry in my school’s labs at weekends, warming myself on a roaring Bunsen.

Nothing worked; indeed by the end of that low, crushed decade, nothing at all seemed possible. At least scientists had fellows in their sorrow while helplessness, despair and ennui reigned as the prevailing mood. In fact, this was perhaps the last recent decade when scientists have found themselves in tune with the zeitgeist. They had revelled as revered role models in the obedient, hopeful 50s. The often-overlooked utilitarian socialist Puritanism of the 1960s, where anything that was not functional was a bourgeois indulgence and a sin, also suited their natures well. And in the 1970s they could share in despair and impotence. Had they known their Goncharov, they would have recognised in themselves the pure strains of Oblomovism.

Eventually, it was sheer impatience with the prevailing feeling (expressed in language appropriate to the period) that “everything we touch seems to turn to shit” that brought Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979, with a bold simplistic promises to cure the patient with stiff medicine - medicine that might well kill in the process. But by that time nobody much cared one way or the other. It was a time when desperate remedies were called forth, and they didn’t get much more desperate than Mrs Thatcher’s.

Yet, way after the 1980s boom times were rolling, as late as 1988, I interviewed scientists (at University College London, left) who were still shaking their heads and saying “everything we touch seems to turn to shit”. The effect of this anachronism was as shocking to me then as it recently was to hear a child of the 1960s (now retired and affluent) refer to something called the “Establishment”. I had not heard that word spoken with an upper case ‘E’ since about 1974, and even then, the Afghan coats worn by those who spoke it had developed more than just a touch of moth.

But in 1988, academic scientists – unless they had bought sharp suits and Filofaxes and got on the train from Salford to hawk their wares around the City like they were supposed to - thought they were going the way of the miners. And of course, with that attitude, they were - and the good Margaret wasn’t that bothered one way or the other. And neither was anyone else. Self-pity had come to look not only unsightly, which it always did, but – much worse – it had become unfashionable.

Aware that they needed to come out and fight their corner but fearful to participate in a task that frankly bored them, scientists have, since then, used the supposed (and entirely mythical) uninterest and hostility of the public - and various other bogus excuses, such as the myth that all journalists are unsympathetic and sensational - to pardon their own failure to engage with either. Many top-down initiatives were started from the early 1980s, about which I shall have more to say later. But the personal psychic retreat of the individual scientist began even as the sun of their funding’s golden age went down in the west.

Alas for delicious Oblomovism, the OST/Wellcome survey showed there has been no failure in the public’s interest, or the media’s willingness to cover science, or (by and large, despite BSE and the rest) the public’s faith in scientists, or the (quantitative) level of media coverage. The media and scientists’ own press agents have been telling them this for years and encouraging them to stop tearing their clothes and gnashing their teeth in this self-indulgent way. Perhaps, these folk thought, clutching their surveys, there being some real evidence, scientists might believe it. Scientists, after all, are supposed to place great reliance upon data. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Shirl's pearl

To turn round Shirley Williams’s infamous phrase, the party is not over for scientists at all. It never has been, as far as the public were concerned, even during bleak funding crises that soon followed the election of Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister.

At the time the OST/Wellcome report appeared I wrote: “Scientists have been invited to the party. The public genuinely wants them there, thinks they may even be cool and wants to hang out with them. Now, there really is nothing for it but for scientists to wash and go”.

Unfortunately, the evidence since the appearance of the report is inconclusive at best, and at worst, suggests that those who most needed to read and accept this document ignored it. Partly this is the Oblomov-like laziness I refer to above. Scientists in the main approve of communication because it is in their interests. But they want the coverage on their own terms, and most want someone else to do it for them. They certainly don’t seem to want money diverted from the scarce resources allotted for research, as that would be taking bread they could eat and casting it upon the waters.

If you detect the aroma of a double standard at work, you are right. The only reliable evidence available shows that the British public’s admiration and affection for scientists is not as low as scientists think. However, this result is so at variance with received wisdom that scientists are loath to believe it.

Some very wise scientist whose name I can no longer remember because of that beefburger I ate in 1985, said: “To see a thing, you must believe it to be possible”. The history of science is filled with examples of evidence ignored because scientists simply could not believe it to be possible. Mechanisms really matter, and scientists are generally unwilling to follow the Holmesian thought-process (which says that after the elimination of the possible, the impossible must be true).

There are good reasons for this, and bad. There are many who, for example, believed their senses when they saw the mounting evidence that continents had drifted across the globe, evidence that was much more elegantly explained than by the various lash-up land-bridge theories that were offered in its place. Yet they could not explain how the continents could move and almost none had the courage to say to physicist objectors “The mechanism is your bloody problem”, as one senior British palaeontologist I know did, when (as a young man) he was cornered by sceptical anti-drift Americans.

We have seen how scientists can be as unscientific as anyone else – especially when not discussing science. So it has proved in the case of the OST/Wellcome report. Scientists are very well able to ignore the evidence if it confounds their prejudices – a process not unlike the necessary filtering that all scientists apply to the noisy, confusing evidence that Nature, when quizzed, tends to throw at them by way of an answer.

Although my main thesis is that scientists should be proud of the differences that make them scientists, they are still human. They may have odd personality traits, but they also share the illogic and reasoning defects of ordinary folk – and are doubly willing to embrace them if it means they can sulk effortlessly rather than get off their backsides and do something.

Truth is, though, most still really just want adulation and a quiet life. And who can blame them?


Stuck in their Oblomovism, unable to abandon their preconceptions about how badly they are used, scientists conclude that something should be done – though of course, by someone else and free. What they mean is that they need to do some public relations on themselves. What they end up doing, however, is dashing for the last-but-one refuge of the scoundrel – education.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Fit the fifth: Education is not public relations or, why things seem obvious when you don’t know anything about them

“Many people in the world, even educated ones, don’t know much, and it doesn’t actually matter at all.”

Geoff Dyer, Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it

Cast your mind back to those schooldays you loved so much. Do you remember how parsing the odes of Horace made you so much more sympathetic to classical scholarship? Did not the revelation of the mysteries of the quadratic equation fill you with human sympathy for the mathematicians who had made it all possible? And did not the act of committing the entire Krebs Cycle to memory engender a lasting respect for the work of biochemists everywhere?

Of course not. Education – at least in the way it is inflicted upon most of us - is torture; one that all sensible persons willingly and joyfully relinquish when the days of their sentence are finally up and they can at last escape the clutches of the whole sorry racket. The “joy of learning” is a myth, put about by those few people for whom it is true. Yet, much of the effort that has been expended in attempting to improve the public perception of science and scientists has been expended in vain attempts to teach the public more about science – to educate them. It is in this sprit that most people hired by scientific organizations to do their PR, are employed. Scientists worry deeply that most people don’t know what they know.

There was a time when a man could mend anything in his house. As life became more complicated, this ceased to be true for most. My own father was perhaps not typical, being a craftsman engineer by inclination. He could not only build beautiful furniture and make window frames with complex mouldings, but dismantle his car and decarbonise its head, and even build a television when nobody else in the street had one, using an oscilloscope screen and bits of war surplus. The denizens of Hazel Road, Swansea in 1955 watched Nigel Kneale’s BBC series Quatermass II in my parents’ front room at number eleven. And because it was an old oscilloscope tube, they also watched it in colour.


But even my father gradually found that sealed units, computers, software-driven appliances and the visual language of the pull-down menu eventually deposed him as master of all he surveyed. He didn’t like it, and still doesn’t; but the 21st Century has finally put him into much the same position as most people throughout the 20th – one of relative helplessness in the face of technology.

But how, in a scientific age – scientists ask - can people who are not like them possibly be fully functional, fully enfranchised beings? How can they make informed political decisions in such areas as, say, nuclear waste disposal, without being – in effect – educated in science? It’s a monstrous hubris, combining general intellectual snobbery with the scientific imperialism I mentioned in Fit the first. But the answer seems obvious; the public cannot – and something has to be done. The public must be educated.

And should this prove so difficult? After all, scientists know how fascinating science is (to them). Surely these people who don’t like it or don’t care about it were merely the victims of dodgy learning. Scientists set themselves to put this right (for many consider themselves natural teachers and one or two are right). As I have already pointed out, scientists don’t know that they are unusual in not finding facts and ideas about inanimate or non-human things intensely dreary stuff. They don’t know that most people are only interested in people.

Surely once the sheer joy of “knowing what they know” becomes manifest (one presumes, after Mr J. Public peruses a copy of Thursday’s Daily Telegraph on the Clapham Omnibus) then the sweet light of reason will dawn and scientists will again be seen as the wonderbeings they were when Professors Quatermass and Challenger reigned supreme. And then – job done - they can all go back to doing what they like.

This is all very curious, but it is not hard to see where the general attitude comes from, given what we now know about where scientists come from. As I have already said in an earlier fit: everybody interprets the world in terms of what they know. And all intellectuals know education, because they all went through it, their forebears mostly all went through it, and many of them never leave it.

With this approach in mind - namely that the media are a delivery mechanism for information (the conveyancing of fact) and that the purpose of the exercise is education (in a teaching ‘n’ learning sense); that the journalist stands for the lecturer, and the reader or viewer or listener for the eager student - it is hardly surprising that scientists often entertain a low opinion of the results.

This is frustrating to them, but more importantly it annoys their friends a great deal – these being, of course, science journalists and scientists’ specialist employees, who work in scientific public relations. Professor Richard Dawkins, in his collection of essays A Devil’s Chaplain, spoke of his feeling “that scientific journalism is too important to be left to journalists” and his hope that “true scientists may be better at it than journalists anyway”. And there you have it in one.

This whole sorry cross-purposes fiasco is most difficult for the Public Relations professionals whose job it is to act as midwives for science stories emanating from their institutions. On one side these doughty folk have journalists hungry for entertaining stories, preferably exclusively because most of them are soft news. On the other they have scientists with all their unreal expectations and mistaken assumptions, their hubris and their imperialism. If PR folk dare to tell their employers the truth, they risk being sacked. But if they do their job well and obtain lots of coverage, they will frequently be on the receiving end of complaints – either about the coverage not being sufficiently blanket, or about dumbing down and the subordination of serious scientific matters to the dictates of the trivialising media. Or both.

But the truth whose name its very practitioners dare not speak is that Public Relations is not about teaching people about things. It is about engendering warm feelings.

Knowing how to engender warm feelings takes skills that scientists usually don’t have , find it hard to grasp, and cannot conceive others to possess in greater measure than they do. One thing is certain however – scientists certainly don’t engender warm feelings by strutting around denigrating those who are there to help, martyring themselves on the self-imposed cross of their calling, hectoring people for their ignorance and insisting they learn something they think they don’t like.


Which brings us to consider the ways in which scientists, with all the personality characteristics that make them good at being scientists but which may not be universal blessings to say the very least, actually interact with others – others whose professional services they desperately need if they are to be successful in gaining favourable media profile, and thus engendering those all-important warm feelings. I feel another fit coming on.