Blogroll Me! The Madness of Scientists - scientific misunderstanding of public and media: Fit the second: Little helpers – or, the tale of the professor’s lovely assistant

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.


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