Blogroll Me! The Madness of Scientists - scientific misunderstanding of public and media: Fit the sixth: Mayflies and termites or, what makes science different

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Fit the sixth: Mayflies and termites or, what makes science different

“In matters of grave importance style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

Oscar Wilde

James Turrell, one of America’s greatest living artists, has an ambitious and long-standing dream to create an artwork and exhibition space at Roden Crater, Arizona. Roden Crater is one of a cluster of extinct volcanic cinder cones that encrust the Painted Desert, not far from the Grand Canyon – and which he has been transforming into a "celestial observatory" for the past quarter century. This "great geologic eye" brings the heavens down to Earth in a series of sky-lit spaces excavated from the volcano’s heart. Turrell’s work experiments with fleeting effects of light and space - effects that he hopes create a sensation, he says, "like the wordless thought that comes from looking in a fire".

I am not much given to quoting Immanuel Kant and I promise not to make a habit of it. However, this idea of wordless thought goes back to him. Kant acknowledged that art consisted of a kind of thinking that was concept free, a cognitive play, untrammelled by the restrictions of words and linguistic structures. It is a way of understanding art that is particularly applicable to music and the visual arts, which offer great subtlety of expression while avoiding the limitations imposed by words. Thus the thought invoked by music in the musical have no verbal equivalent, which is why attempts to explain music (witness the inanity of so many programme notes) seem rather like trying to explain a Mark Rothko canvas in terms of the chemistry of acrylic paint.

Like some modern-day Stonehenge, Roden Observatory as it is called – its very name seeming to hint at art/science crossover - possesses the same sense of nameless significance that Stonehenge once had when it merely sat (as it did when I first visited it as a child) in total isolation just off the A360, on Salisbury plain. Stonehenge’s sense of meaning derives partly from a collective cosmic inspiration, defining for an ancient people the place of humans beneath that vast Wiltshire sky. What Roden Crater offers is the impression of being involved in one man’s personal quest to negotiate his relationship with the cosmos. And that, of course, is where art and science unite – each striving, in its own way, to define our place in Nature.

As the text for an ecumenical one-culture sermon, this would all seem very cosy. However those who sit as I do on the cusp of the arts and the sciences have often observed that scientists’ impatience with those who do not share their peculiarly different mind-set damages their chances of bringing the scientific heavens down to Earth. These rather gloomy thoughts recur most often at great science medaifests where their duties bring two contrasting fellowships – scientists and media folk - together. But in what ways do they contrast each other


Yesterday evening, I was sitting before a different keyboard, blundering through Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor op. 13. I was doing so in the (vain) hope that the harder I work at it, the more effortless I might come to seem. Effortlessness in execution is the mark of anyone who is any good in nearly all spheres of human activity. You see the same approach among – to choose at random – actors, pole-vaulters, ice-skaters, poets, soufflé chefs - and science writers. It goes for almost every profession because in one way or another, they are all performing arts.

But science is different. Geneticist and science commentator Professor Steve Jones has written that science is the most – and maybe the only – "democratic" field of endeavour, wherein - with diligence and application - any intelligent person can make a genuine and worthwhile contribution to the whole. Science is a group effort, a massive common undertaking, like a great termite nest. The joy of this is that you can be merely a mediocre scientist yet still be useful. Alas, nobody has any use for a mediocre poem or a third-rate performance of the Pathétique.

I am sure Steve Jones would claim no originality for this observation. Sir Peter Medawar made the same claim for it. In fact, in The Limits of Science Medawar used this admirable aspect of scientific endeavour to highlight its great social benefit in elevating large numbers to the ranks of the professions. Likening science to cricket in the West Indes (he might just as well have chosen boxing in the East End) he described science as a means whereby a poor boy of average ability could, with application, lift himself out of poverty: “a certain place in life, a measure of self esteem and a reason for feeling it”.

This sort of thing is straight out of Snow. It gives one, today, that sense of time-warp one gets from reading The Two Cultures, or watching TV advertisements for Meccano from as late as the 1960s, offering boys the chance to get with the romance of mechanical engineering; a hobby today, a passion and a career tomorrow.) It all seems absurd by today’s mores. Engineers frequently bemoan the fact that they are longer to be objects of such admiration – usually just before bewailing the eclipse of this very boy’s toy. In fact, Nobel Prizewinner Sir Harry Kroto FRS (no less) recently went on record to blame on the demise of Meccano the lamentable modern habit of turning taps off too tightly. I don’t know, young people today…

But I digress. Science, that great collective enterprise, is a much more useful occupation for the dogged and careful among us, because at least there they can be useful. Yet alongside this “democratic spirit” (sensu Jones) and the amassing of information, comes a stolid work ethic that views effortlessness as a sin, and renders ephemerality an insult. And thus, at every conference with a media presence, one encounters scientists who - faced with the surprisingly hard graft required to get coverage for even the most newsworthy stories – have become a bit demoralised. "The trouble with this PR game” you can hear them moaning in the bar afterwards, “is that it all has to be done again tomorrow".

Think how odd it would be to hear an actor say that. No, when scientists work, they want something permanent to show for it. Such mighty evidence of years-long graft as Darwin’s monograph on the barnacles, for example, stands as an immortal monument – even, to those who appreciate its beauty, a joy forever. The comic cuts, by contrast, really don’t seem worth the candle.

Some years ago the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s Festival of Science became the launch pad for a new Natural History Museum booklet entitled Amber: the natural time capsule. The Museum’s PR machine was at the BA in force to see that the book’s birth into the world did not go unremarked, and the tactic worked. Jurassic Park was fresh in everyone’s minds. Amber, and the possibility that it sometimes contains perfectly preserved insects, had become familiar. The semiprecious stone was even becoming newly fashionable. The time was ripe.

In the event, media coverage was good, and focused on the poignant case of a mayfly, which had become enmeshed in resin one Tuesday afternoon in what is now Mexico, 25 million years ago. It had but a few hours to live; but it lived even more briefly - and so was preserved for eternity. The public loved the story, which left them with fleeting bits of knowledge and a strong, lasting sensation that science can be touching and fascinating.

I watched newspaper science writers, their copy filed, ending their day satisfied that they had told a good tale, confident that their pieces would make it into tomorrow’s papers, and that they would convey a vivid sensation. Next day I saw the Museum’s media relations folk reading the cuttings and being happy, because people were being left with favourable feelings about science and the Natural History Museum. People at large who read the story would, some moments after finishing it, forget Mexico, 25 million years – and, probably, the mayfly. But they would remember the pleasurable experience – just as an audience remembers the atmosphere of Cat on a hot tin roof but not the dialogue.

I would lay money, however, that some of the scientists involved in that fairly gruelling day may have slumped into their armchairs that evening feeling they had spent a day with nothing to show for it - and wondering why they’d bothered. It happens like this all the time.

But they, after all, could return to South Kensington, and - long after the public’s eye had moved on – take the mayfly, study it exhaustively and compose their deathless scientific papers. Every step of the investigation duly documented, another heavy brick would eventually be placed in the walls of the great edifice of science. Real, permanent, lasting, satisfying – their real reward.

This quantity and solidity are what matter in science. In its culture, less usually isn’t more. In the scientific exaltation of every valley and mountain, every reference and exposure shall be made plain. Every scrap of fact shall be recorded. And the more evident effort, the more stitching that shows, the better - because the stitching (the sacred data) is the point. Small wonder then, that those who work to achieve something as momentary and transient as a newspaper article or radio interview often find their work leaves some of the scientists who get caught up in it puzzled, infuriated – and frequently alienated. Mayflies do not mate easily with termites.

What we do helps define our psychology. Why else would scientists be so obsessively literal-minded? Why would we so often find among them the odd conviction that any form of communication can be evaluated according to its efficiency in coveyancing factual information? Not for them, Turrell’s "wordless thought that comes from looking in a fire".

It is difficult not to love the idea of science as a common, democratic project that finds a useful place for average as well as the brilliant. It makes the arts seem – like Nature herself - horrifically cruel and wasteful. Unfortunately, as Harry Lime reminded us, democracy exacts a price. The Swiss paid for it in cuckoo clocks. Scientists pay for it every time they decline to leave their nest and fly with the mayflies.


So what have we learnt so far?
  1. Scientists are distinctive people and should be proud of it. But the trouble is, they are a bit too proud about the wrong things.
  2. They think they are more important than they are, and expect too much of the public.
  3. They confuse what’s possible via the media (public relations) with what is not (education), and hence
  4. try to use the media to teach people things, instead of using it to get them on their side.
  5. Armed to the teeth with the weapons of the scientific method they assume they can do everything and fight every battle themselves.
  6. They underestimate the unique difficulties of other professions and undervalue those who profess them.
  7. And when they do engage with others, their very different professional culture, which has reinforced their innate differences of character, militates against their forming constructive relationships with people at large and those who know how to communicate best with them.

Scientists end up frustrated by their misconceptions and unrealistic expectations, and retreat into self pity, despite the fact that the public really do want to know what they are doing – and actually have a right to expect cooperation.

What happens next happened first in the middle of the 1980s, and is happening all around us today. Scientists who know the media game and are good at it just get on with it. Science journalists, whose job it is to tell the public about what is newsworthy in science, do the same. Despite nearly all their protestations, most scientists’ dissatisfaction with the coverage they get (as opposed to the coverage they are getting but don’t know about because they can’t be bothered to look) arises out of unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved through the media, and what the media are there for.

It is at this point that discontent tends to boil over into collective action. This is where the fun starts. For, as you will know if you have noticed the difference between any individual human being and a holiday group composed of their fellow nationals, people in groups rarely present well…


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