This week I gave the Henry Sidgwick Memorial Lecture at Newnham College – an open, public lecture – using the above title. I wanted to talk about my science in the context of the need for better communication between scientists and non-scientists. What follows is roughly what I said, omitting some of the detailed science.
There are various themes I want to cover today. I feel the area of communicating and understanding science is something that touches everyone. I get nervous when I hear people say ‘I don’t understand science’ or I don’t like science’ because some grasp of the issues is important for everyone at an individual level. Even more so for the media and politicians, who both have serious responsibilities – as of course do I as a scientist. So I want to cover some of these underlying issues today, to shine a light on why this matters. I’ll also touch on a bit of my own research to illustrate why I feel so excited about science, and how I see it as an innately creative endeavour.
Once upon a time, in a land not far far away, science and the arts were not seen as opponents, and both were part of the general (educated) population’s education. At the end of the 18th century we find both scientists such as Erasmus Darwin writing poetry (indeed being regarded as the foremost poet of his age) and poets like Keats and Wordsworth weaving science and science imagery into their poems. Science was seen as exciting, relevant and something to be embraced. A little later Davy embodied this at the Royal Institution, with popular lectures which were hugely fashionable and well attended. Wright of Derby, slightly earlier, captured it in his paintings.
Fast forward a couple of centuries. Times have changed. Science and scientists are often regarded with suspicion; it is regarded as difficult so that it is OK to say ‘oh I never could do physics at school’ without embarrassment. My position is that this is bad for all of us both individually and collectively for society too.
Things changed during the 19th century, with an increasing suspicion about science as ‘the tree of death’ (Blake), ‘destroying wonder’ (Carlyle) and ‘needing to be controlled’ (Nietzsche). I don’t want to revisit the too-well-worked CP Snow lecture and consequent Leavis response, although those arguments are relevant too. Instead let me look at the earlier rather similar but better-tempered debate between Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold. The former said
advocates of scientific education……..have been excommunicated by the classical scholars, in their capacity of Levites in charge of the ark of culture and monopolists of liberal education.
…while we shall all have to acquaint ourselves with the great results reached by modern science, and to give ourselves as much training in its disciplines as we can conveniently carry, yet the majority of men will always require humane letters; and so much the more, as they have the more and the greater results of science to relate to the need in man for conduct, and to the need in him for beauty……
Both valued the coupling of ‘humane letters’ and science as part of a decent education, but both clearly could see the challenges of successfully educating children in both.
I believe that part of the discontinuity between science and the arts, loosely interpreted, can be attributed to ideas of class in Victorian society. It is no accident that many of the 19th century scientists were of relatively humble birth – Faraday, notably, also Huxley who was always very conscious of this. Both these illustrious scientists had received their education outside the norm of Oxbridge; Faraday as an apprentice; Huxley, very much an autodidact who trained in medicine through various short-term apprenticeships or, as I guess we would call them now, internships with family members. Additionally, there were class distinctions arising from the idea that ‘making things’ was not something gentleman did. This harks right back to the ancient Greeks, who distinguished between episteme, roughly translated as natural philosophy or knowledge, and techne, translated as craft. So craft, making things and making things work, appears always to have been seen as less pure, less worthy, possibly simply because it involved getting your hands dirty.
The same debate continues in the 21st century with Larry Summers – whatever his other faults – neatly summing up the feeling that society collectively seems to think it is OK to be ignorant about science, but not literature, in his 2001 inaugural address at Havard:
We live in a society, and dare I say a university, where few would admit — and none would admit proudly — to not having read any plays by Shakespeare. It is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome.
Does any of this matter? I think it does. Whether you like it or not, science is pervasive and each and every one of us is going to have to make judgements about scientifically-based matters at a personal level. Knowing all the science is inevitably going to be impossible, but making informed judgements based on the level of evidence you can access ought to be a desirable end. For us as individuals, and for us as society – and for politicians. Many of today’s hot topics are rooted in science, ranging from climate-change to GM crops, from disputes over the MMR vaccination to the safety of nuclear power.
Clearly there is a lot more involved in setting policy than simply getting to grips with the science, but if you don’t understand at least the basics how are you going to make sensible decisions? There is also only so much an individual can do about some of the topics, as opposed to governments. Nevertheless, we ideally all need to have a grasp of risk and statistics in order to understand the choices being made. David Nutt’s (former Chair of the Advisory Committee on Misuse of Drugs) comments on the relative risks of ecstasy and horse-riding made this explicit, spelling out the difference between the real risks and what society may be prepared to do to reduce them. David Spiegelhalter locally is doing an excellent job of making these concepts accessible to the lay person. He has built on a concept, introduced in the 1970s by Ronald Howard, the so-called unit of a micromort: a one-in-a-million chance of death. By making simple comparisons, for instance of distances you can travel per micromort, it makes the risks visually accessible.
Of course, knowing the risks doesn’t stop people doing risky things – like going paragliding or climbing Mount Everest or even eating a packet of crisps a day – but it may be more relevant when comparing medical treatments if you can get the information in an accessible way. It relies on the facts being correctly presented. The MMR vaccination is a classic case of a debacle where misinformation, lacking scientific rigour was presented and widely disseminated in the media.
Now what about creativity? We saw the Blake statement that
Art is the tree of life; science is the tree of death.
Lots of other writers have made similar comments. I think there is confusion between the idea there is a scientific method which weighs evidence, and the idea that science is somehow sterile. First let me illustrate how I see creativity in my own work, using an example which also ties in with the ideas about risks and perceptions, that of GM foods, and then I’ll come back to the broader debate.
At this point I discussed my own work on starch, with some details of the science methodologies and results, which are to some extent covered by an earlier post. This led into a discussion on GM.
The public did not react well to GM, but the debate got terribly polarised. Either people got hung up with ideas that GM was somehow meddling with nature, adopting a ‘loss of Eden’ viewpoint with all the consequent deep-rooted nostalgia; or they saw it as poisoning us with Frankenfoods. It was hard, at least in the UK, to have a rational debate, and indeed any attempt to carry out field trials was doomed by activists who trashed the fields. (It is interesting that this phenomenon is now also occurring in developing countries like Brazil and China). People understandably bring in issues way beyond science into the debate, something scientists sometimes find hard to swallow. Examples of such values that are brought into play include religion and faith; different views on intergenerational justice; economic valuations and assumptions; freedom for the individual versus the good of the state; our acceptance of risk/ psychological factors. The Government of whatever complexion may want to rely on scientists for advice, but if they don’t like the answers they get they may follow political expediency rather than advice, whilst simultaneously claiming virtue because they did indeed seek that advice.
MP’s may also be pretty scientifically ignorant, and not well-placed to analyse issues with scientific content deeply, a problem recognized more than a century ago by William Cavendish (founder of my own department) in 1875:
‘In a science dominated world, such a low level of scientific understanding among our parliamentarians is a problem’.
This has been a message reinforced recently by our local MP, himself a scientist within the university and this same department until his election to Parliament last year. However, despite their ignorance MP’s go ahead and make decisions frequently based not on fact, for instance around homeopathic medicines on the NHS, an issue that caused particular fury amongst scientists.
Scientists believe we follow the ‘scientific method’ and like to think this means our methods of weighing evidence is not only appropriate but correct. Briefly I’d like to pause and look at the scientific method in comparison with what is termed ‘critical thinking’ on the humanities side. The two seem very similar – and also to Henry Sidgwick’s own ideas on ultilitarian philosophy – although each community no doubt thinks the way they do things is special. Nevertheless clearly neither have been applied to the GM debate, or indeed many other arenas where politics mixes with the science. In the GM debate, either using the scientific method or any power of critical thinking becomes impossible when field trials are trashed and the debate simply becomes an emotive issue.
As I have said, for many current issues there is far more at stake than simply the rightness or otherwise of science and scientists. But less and less do the public seem willing to accept the scientists’ interpretations eg around GM or global warming. There appears to be growing distrust of scientists. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which the David Nutt affair I alluded to earlier embodies. Some of which tie in with the other values people may have which they can perceive scientists as ignoring. Historically lack of trust was attributed to lack of knowledge and misunderstandings. But there are deeper cultural values here too. It goes right back to the story of Frankenstein and the pervasive images of mad scientists – typically men with wild hair and a white coat. And it ties right in with the suspicions of science, that it is not for instance in touch with nature, that it is somehow sterile – despite the fact the 21st century public rely on it – or that the scientists have vested interests. However, undoubtedly scientists need to engage more and attempt to understand the public’s concerns, not just talk down to them.
There have been interesting developments in how the science-public interface is viewed. Some years ago the so-called ‘deficit model’ held sway. In this model it was assumed that if only the public were told how things were, if they just got to grips with the facts, then they would agree with the scientists and all would be well. This was what one might term a top-down approach, with the scientists assuming a position of superiority. This approach is no longer seen as adequate, with an increasing appreciation that people may have reservations about science even if they do understand it. So there have been various progressions in ‘received wisdom’ about how interactions between scientists and the public should take place, progressing through different acronyms including Public Awareness (PAS) and currently Public Engagement with science (PES). The former was still fairly passive, the idea that science fairs and scicafes might interest the public sufficiently. Now the more active sphere of public engagement is seen as a better model (and presumably this too will evolve). In this case the public’s views are actively sought to see what the issues for them as new technology comes along. This has played a part for instance in policies about embryo research in the past, and more recently – and having learnt from the GM experience – around nanotechnology. In this area citizen’s juries have been utilised and in one case funding streams were affected by the results which came out of the debates.
What about the role of the media? They clearly have a huge role to play and can influence public opinion by the way they portray stories; let’s not use the emotive word spin. In the case of the nano story I just mentioned, however, even such a respectable journal as the Times Higher Ed managed to put a negative spin on the idea of consultation. Instead of congratulating the research council for having had the imagination and courage to do this it implied that it was a kick in the teeth that the public were more enthusiastic about some potential research areas than others. If the Times Higher Ed can do this, how much less we can expect useful behaviour from the tabloids. And yet this is likely to be one of the key places the individual will get information. The individual may need to be empowered to make decisions – and there will be a variety of situations where things are in their hands – but they may be being bamboozled. For instance there is a website solely devoted to stories from the Daily Mail about things that cause or cure cancer, often the same substance. This is the trouble with reports in the newspapers that have motivations that may be more to do with selling newspapers than accuracy. So, they run regular stories which will catch the eye, sparked by some half-baked press release or a misreading of a study.
But let me return to the situation for the individual. Whether GM is allowed to be grown or not in the UK, which individuals can do little about, if there is adequate labelling consumers (individuals) can make their own choice whether to eat it. In climate change, individuals can make decision about the cars they buy, the miles they fly or the temperature they set their central heating thermostat at – but not the subsidies governments give to different energy producers. So in many of these transnational debates there is only so much individuals can do.
In other areas, they have more control, and they need to have the facts to enable them to exercise it. Nowhere more importantly than in the issue of ‘informed consent’ about medical procedures. If presented with statistics about a treatment that has a 75% chance of success but a 2% mortality rate, how on earth is an individual to make a decision? It is something I personally find hugely difficult, and I at least have some idea of what risk and the numbers mean. This comes back to Spiegelhalter’s work.
If a patient is offered a treatment, how do they decide what to do? Most people will accept treatment, regardless of side-effects, as there is a very emotional response to disease and what to do about it. But before this point, for instance if they start trying to work out if some diet is particularly good or bad for them, they will be bombarded with ‘information’ in the media, most of which is based on very little. The media, as well as the scientists themselves, have a responsibility to present things accurately and well.
Let me finish with another example from my own research which reaches out to the medical arena and I hope reminds you of the creativity of scientists as well as the inaccuracy of the press. Over the years I have been working on how and why protein molecules stick together. This started with a study of the milk protein beta lactoglobulin which gives yogurt its much thicker consistency than milk. When we started looking at the structures that form with light microscopy we found some striking aggregates (which coincidentally look very similar to those we saw in starch, but for different reasons) which we went on to study. We then realised that very similar aggregates were seen in the pathology of diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease, and we have gone on to look at these too, working with biomedical scientists. When I won the L’Oreal prize in 2009 and was interviewed by the Guardian I was very careful in how I presented this work and, to my delight, the write-up conscientiously reflected that. But, when I appeared earlier this year in the Guardian’s 100 most influential women list, some reporter just looked up this earlier report and loosely translated it into media-speak, so that it gave a very different message, namely that I was working on ‘revolutionary treatments’ for the disease. The Hay Philosophy Festival has gone even further, left out all the science and just called me ‘revolutionary‘. No doubt the Chinese whispers will continue.
Scientists and the press both have responsibilities in helping to inform and engage the public. I have come late to feeling that I must engage, not least due to unpleasant earlier experiences with my science being trivialised in the press. But I am trying much harder now through a variety of channels and, in essence following the admonition in the Times editorial earlier this year:
–Scientists are not known for their communication skills; their language is symbols and sums, rather than metaphors and allegories. It is this that we need to address. We should send chemistry graduates to poetry slams, physicists to literary festivals, while the non-scientists should be welcomed on to lab benches until we all learn to speak the same language and appreciate what each other does.
So I am doing my bit by getting out to the festivals – albeit the philosophy one at Hay next week, rather than the literary one.We all have to play our part in putting across the importance, excitement and, yes, creativity of what we do and why it matters to everyone, not just to us or global interests.