Blogroll Me! The Madness of Scientists - scientific misunderstanding of public and media: Fit the ninth - It’s official! or, the kiss of death

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Fit the ninth - It’s official! or, the kiss of death

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting”

Wordsworth: Ode: Intimations of Immortality from recollections of early childhood

In 2003, over the barely cold corpse of the old COPUS, the Royal Society established its latest playgroup – to study best practice in the public release of scientific information, and the peer review process. The main motivation for this was the suspicion that the public was being confused by media reports emanating from non peer-reviewed “grey” publications, but reported as though they were kosher. This, the RS thought, might be undermining public trust in science.

Perhaps, they thought, it was time to reveal the peer review process to the public, in the hope that they would then ask the pertinent question whenever they were faced with another story about human cloning, the NMR vaccine, intelligent underpants, or whatever. Perhaps the public would find peer review’s very existence reassuring. Peer reviewed publications, after all, are in a sense “official” science. Surely the knowledge that they were reading officially sanctioned research would reassure the public – and at least help them sort out what they could safely believe and what they could take with a pinch of salt. Then, the thinking goes, we might be on track to "restoring public trust".

More of all that in a moment. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the forest, science as a profession was about to become a little more officially regulated, as a result of somewhat similar instincts.

I am a scientist. You are a gorilla

Who exactly is “a scientist”? What do we in the media mean when we write “Scientists say”? Is anyone who has a degree in a scientific subject “a scientist”? What gives a person the right to be quoted as “a scientist”? Things are OK at the top end of the market - Fellows of the Royal Society have been elected by their peers. Things are OK too if the “scientist” is blest with chartered status under a properly regulated system of professional formation – and carries a title like Chartered Engineer (CEng), Chartered Chemist (CChem), or Chartered Geologist (CGeol), and so on. But is it OK if these people are just paying members of such bodies? Are the election procedures rigorous, or is it just a matter of paying the annual dues? And how can we know, when all these bodies were set up in different ways? Furthermore, many bona fide scientists who are ordinary members of learned bodies either cannot or do not wish to qualify for Chartered status under the rules of their professional body. Yet should this debar them from being described as “scientists”?

Here is a dilemma and a conundrum and a bit of a facer.

In an attempt to address this alleged problem, the Science Council (which sees its role as being an umbrella body in the UK for learned societies) has invented a new designation – Chartered Scientist – which they hope will be popular, conferring official status upon its holders as spokespersons for science, and bringing with it distinct responsibilities that will act as a reassurance to the public that these are decent, legal, honest and truthful persons who can be trusted.

Do you feel the warm hug of a security blanket closing around you? Or does it, perhaps, feel more like a straitjacket? Or, perhaps, the shades of a prison-house closing about the boy scientist, as his clouds of glory thin and vanish? Well, however it makes you feel, the trend towards reinforcing and packaging the peer review system for the public good on the one hand, and towards formal recognition of status of individuals on the other, encapsulate the ‘official’ road to respectability.

Those who follow it are rooted in the belief that, by beefing up professional formation and the processes of scientific sanction over publications, scientists’ status will rise in the eyes of people at large, and their work will benefit - in that if those who report science in the media fully understand the difference between the peer-reviewed “white” literature and the non-peer-reviewed “grey” literature, and mention this distinction in their writings, the public will know what stories and people to believe, and which to discount. Public trust will have been restored.

It is difficult to list the number of flaws in this plan, any one of which is fatal to it – such as, for example, that the chances of any journalist mentioning whether any quoted “scientist” is a chartered anything, are precisely nil. But instead of picking out these little gnats from the apothecaries’ ointment, let’s go for the big juicy fly in the middle.

Ever since the OST/Wellcome report (much quoted already in this blog because it should be the daily reading of all scientists with an interest in public communication) we have known that most of the public put more trust in scientists than in many other professions, and that this trust is subtly modified according to how independent the scientist in question is perceived to be.

Thus, university scientists are seen as more trustworthy than those working for the Government, or commercial companies. Strangely – naively perhaps – the words of scientist spokespeople working for "Green" pressure groups are not seen as being tainted by their employment as much as those working for government or companies. But there are good PR reasons why this is so.

That caveat aside, the public’s attitude to the trustworthiness of scientists is therefore exactly as it should be. The public should not mistrust scientists per se (and they do not) but nor should the public be expected to trust them implicitly – or any more than anyone else - just because they are scientists. The public shows subtlety and maturity in its evaluation of trustworthiness, and makes commonsense adjustment according to where the scientist gets his or her shilling.

What this finding also shows is that what gives rise to suspicion is not "scientists", but "The Establishment" – however defined. The more embroiled a scientist is in government, the civil service, departments of state, commercial companies etc, the less trusted he or she will be. The more apparently independent that scientist is, the more trusted. Universities are widely seen as bastions against such special interest. Their apparent disinterestedness explains why university scientists are relatively more trusted. So what about the Greens?

The perception of the public is that scientists working for Green pressure groups are in some sense playing the role of the underdog. The perception is that they do their work not for love of success, status and money, but because they are passionate in the service of a noble cause – hence they come over as "independent free spirits" rather than establishment goons. This is why they are relatively more trusted. This distinction is important, for a reason that brings us right back to where we started.

Attempts by scientists to bolster what they imagine to be generally flagging public support by boosting their "officialness" (e.g. by professional accreditations of one kind or another such as the Science Council’s forthcoming “Chartered Scientist” designation) are missing the point. In fact, they are engaging in an activity that will have an effect exactly 180 degrees from that intended. Normally, it is wise to leave such spectacular shootings in the foot to Government policy.

So much for that. What about “strengthening” peer review– the sacred vetting procedure that makes scientific publishing "scientific"?

The end of the peer show?

Adherents of this course – and one can see that most of the Royal Society’s review group number themselves among them - pursue the peer review route in the hope that it will lead to the sunlit uplands of public trust. In doing so, however, they take a very optimistic view not only of the system, but also of people’s likely reaction to it.

Let us take public reaction first. The most likely attitude that non-scientists would take to peer review is what might be termed the "King Lear" perception. They will assume, once its mechanisms are explained, that peer review is probably a corrupt system whereby those in authority (the scientific Establishment) stamp on unorthodox ideas and enforce a (probably false) consensus upon their subject; where old men of failing ability sit in positions of power like toads on lily pads, protecting their achievements by suppressing new ideas in print, and perverting the course of grant money away from those they regard as enemies.

Peer review can never be perfect, and surely only the most blinkered idealist would hold that it is not, from time to time, corrupted in just these ways. But apart from that, its track record in preventing fraud or the publication of badly conducted research is far from admirable. Much of the research over whose media coverage there has been such scientific hand-wringing in recent years (take Mr Puzstai’s mice and the GM potatoes, for example), was published in reputable journals. Some of these journals have been recently forced to retract papers that passed peer review but turned out to be completely false. In many cases this has been because peer review is ill equipped to detect fraud; but in others, poor procedure – which is exactly what peer review is meant to spot – also survived into publication.

So - the public would be right to regard peer review as potentially corrupt and dangerous, because it is; and they would be right to believe that it often fails to do precisely what it is supposed to do, because it has.

Fortunately, however, people at large will never wish to engage with peer review sufficiently to form any strong opinion of it, even assuming they have not lost the will to live half way through the explanation. Peer review is not likely to excite much interest among any body of people, except scientists and publishers, and it is expecting far too much to think otherwise. Moreover most journalists, and certainly all science journalists, fully understand peer review already and do not need to be lectured further about its importance.

Perhaps scientists should turn their question around. Forget “strengthening”, in the sense the RS means. Perhaps it needs changing. If the peer review process could be changed in such a way as to render it less obnoxious to public instincts, this would have to involve removing the cloak of secrecy that often surrounds reviewers. (This practice varies from journal to journal these days, but in the classic process, the identities of those who comment on submitted papers are withheld from the author.) The invisibility cloak is, in any case, a lot less effective than Harry Potter’s, since most researchers always have a very shrewd idea of who their reviewers are.

If there were a genuine case for anyone in the peer review process to be anonymous, then surely it should be the author. Such anonymity could be defended on the ground that it would allow the reviewer to form an unbiased opinion of the work – for the same reason that in orchestral auditions applicants play behind a screen, so as not to allow extraneous factors (like age, gender or physical beauty) to influence their peers’ judgement. But of course, this would be about as unlikely to work as the current situation is, and for the same reason – the world of science is too small.

From the PR perspective, peer review would be more defensible and excite more respect if academic publishers and reviewers adhered to the axiom that governs the rest of those who scribble for a living – namely, that they should never express any opinion that they would not, if necessary, be prepared to defend in public. The reasons given for allowing reviewer anonymity are rarely strong, and serve only to conspire with, and give oxygen to, natural pusillanimity. Worse, anonymity lays peer review open to corruption, and will always appear odious to the general public. Moreover, it rarely works even by its own criteria.

Inherent secrecy – however strongly it is believed to be beneficial in particular circumstances – is anathema to any chance of lifting the peer review process’s – and hence science’s - public image. Perhaps it is time for scientists and their reviewers to call for an end to what remains of the peer show’s futile and odious secrecy, grow up, be mature, and most of all, be prepared to defend what they write to an author’s face with humour, humility and humanity.


Let me now attempt to sum up the argument of this blog so far.

Scientists are not like everyone else. They are excessively interested in things and ideas over other people, but tend to live in a ghetto and make the mistake of thinking everyone else is like them (and hence that they are like everyone else). They have obsessively literal habits of mind, and believe meaningful communication can only involve the conveyancing of fact. They tend to see only one reality – the factual reality of nature, which is their area of special expertise.

They see science as the only valid way of interpreting the universe, and everything in it, including every aspect of the human experience. For the rest they reserve the technical term "bullshit" (see Fit the first).

Hence it follows that the world is divided into scientists and everyone else, people who are not scientists, but have to be found something to do, and hence become little helpers.

Scientists tend to undervalue their expertise, because these folk are not scientists cannot have anything special to offer that scientists couldn’t themselves provide if they had the time or could be bothered to give the matter in hand some processing time (Fit the second).

It is therefore with a large measure of conceit that scientists face their position in society. They are unaware how rare they are in terms of percentage of the population, though they are only too well aware how powerful their subject is, and how it affects our daily lives. They become distressed about what they see as general ignorance, and make the mistaken assumption that it is impossible to function in a world that science made without being a scientist – without knowing everything that scientists know (Fit the third).

Their habits of mind also make it difficult for them to understand that governments, in framing policy, must balance the demands of science against others – this being their job. Scientists think this means that Governments don’t understand them. Actually, Governments understand them very well, and accord them much more influence, in recognition of science and technology’s central role in our economy, than any similar-sized group could expect (Fit the fourth).

So scientists, usually acting collectively, decide that they need to do PR on themselves and their work – or as they would put it, “do something” to “get their message across” - two expressions always used by those who neither know what the message is that they wish to convey, nor how to convey it, nor to whom. Everyone tends to interpret the world in terms of what is familiar to them, and as intellectuals, scientists interpret the whole world in terms of education (the conveyancing of fact and idea). They misunderstand the limitations of the media by misinterpreting it as a means of education – this being a peculiarly British disease that we may also call the "Curse of Reith" (Fit the fifth).

Like any other interest group, scientists want media coverage on their own terms. However they are not sympathetic to those whose expertise might be employed on their behalf, because their mindset is basically that of a termite where media folk think like mayflies (Fit the sixth). Scientists often imagine they are in a position to tell other people how to manage their affairs. Typically then they do not believe what they are told when they do consult people in the know about such matters (because not being scientists, nothingthey have to say can possibly be of any worth). And so they blunder on, complaining about any coverage they do get because of factual inaccuracy (usually) – as though a newspaper article were a textbook or a set of lecture notes. They have no idea that Public Relations (which is what they actually stand most in need of) is about engendering warm feelings. Alas much of what scientists say and do – and particularly the way in which they say and do these things – engenders quite the reverse kinds of feeling.

This is not a linear sequence of events – all of these things are happening all the time. But the “next” stage in the process is that scientists complain to Government.

Governments too worry about science, but not out of concern for science as culture. Rather, governments are anxious for economic reasons for the public to accept all potentially profitable new technologies. Unfortunately as the population becomes more aware of the interconnectedness of things, they begin to assume a measure of consumer responsibility. This is limited, however, because the most of the public’s conscience is easily assuaged in cases of technologies that are of direct personal benefit. The problem applies only to technologies that appear to benefit only businesses.

Governments cannot do very much. However, one thing they can do is launch national and international initiatives, attempt to improve awareness and recruitment, boost interest, foster links, map activity, and set up Web sites. Most of these are designed to persuade the young that something they think uncool is cool – and are for this reason completely counterproductive. The use of “official rejoicing” is as internal PR; but the hopes scientists have of the technique (all of which are located externally) never materialise (Fit the seventh).

Such things tend to be organised by governments, either through the Department for Trade and Industry, the Office of Science and Technology, or by recruiting the various semi-official non-governmental bodies that represent science to Government (Fit the eighth). Thus these bodies become sucked in to the “official” (see below), a black hole whence nothing – least of all light - escapes, and where the gravitational attraction is money.

Wads of cash (trivial in Governmental terms but irresistibly large to those to whom they are offered) are handed out, which then tend to do all those largely ineffective things listed above – and who need to recruit contractors to help them do them. This industry goes by different names, but it used to be called the Public Understanding of Science and is now dubbed Public Engagement with Science and Technology (PEST).

The other “something” that collectives and Governments tend to “do” is seek to regulate (Fit the ninth). Many scientists also see this regulation as a route to reinforcing what they believe (falsely) to be a general diminution of public trust in all scientists. Scientific bodies instigate (under national or EU frameworks) systems of official professional accreditation – known in the UK as Chartership. They also look towards Peer Review – the process whereby scientific literature becomes scientific – as a bulwark against media scare stories and other examples of dodgy science that can run like brush fires through the popular press.

Unfortunately these attempts are completely misguided because we know that the public is not suspicious of science, per se, as much as it is suspicious of authority and the Establishment. By tying themselves into the Establishment ever more closely, scientists will achieve the precise opposite of what they wish.

So what now?

This is how things go wrong. I must repeat one thing - we must not think of this as a linear process – all parts of it are happening all the time; the more so because in not understanding their history, scientists are doomed to repeat it.

But cheer up - everything is not going wrong. In fact, there is more to be joyful about than scientists believe – it’s just that they can’t see it…


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