Why Scientists Are Under Attack

Curator's Note

The programme excerpt shows the start of a television programme which was the BBC’s response to ‘ClimateGate’. It was presented by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel winning president of the Royal Society. The programme posed the question: Why in a world that is so dependent on science, do some people not trust scientists? He has a point. Ten years ago, in the US, 70 percent of the population believed in climate change; now only 50 percent. Clashes among politicians, business interests, and religious belief are shaping public awareness about climate change. In the US, this is the result of clear political and quasi-religious propaganda from the likes of oil company lobbyists, Fox News, and Glenn Beck, and in the UK from James Delingpole and Lord Nigel Lawson. Nurse’s attempt to add value to this debate was troubling on a number of levels, firstly, in its framing. Why ask a scientist to front a documentary designed to investigate and consider the problem with scientists? With its many shots of the warm affable Nurse, doing affable normal things, that affable scientist do. Walking down the street and even doing the odd bit of harmless pipetting in the Laboratory.

A recurring problem in the reporting of science is that of asking the scientist to investigate themselves. Much of what is being produced by science journalists is about re-telling science stories rather than investigating science. Too many journalists approach scientists as priests rather than as fallible sources thereby rendering themselves as unquestioning vessels instead of professional diggers and reporters. When they begin their careers they want to be torch bearers for science, correcting erroneous facts, oversimplified concepts and misrepresentations in the media. They also want to engage the public by ensuring that they understand science. These are honourable aims but not those of a science journalist. They are the goals of the science writer and the science communicator. Much of the coverage that is called science journalism is PR and communications masquerading as journalism.

This is a perilous moment for science journalism to be confused. It needs clarity and purpose. The endless myopic science reporting of new discoveries, wonders, devices, findings, gadgets and promises, creates an artefact in the public’s mind of a house of science, a neutral but formidable institution, not located in culture but set apart from society. Who is scrutinising and calling scientists to account? Hopefully not just Sir Paul Nurse.

Comments

David Castillo's picture

Who watches the watchmen?

I can’t believe this got zero replies until now. Fantastic piece, emphasizing a subject this is too easily ignored, in part by design: science is not an easily digestible forum for discussion, even among experts.

The primary issue, I think, is in the assumption that a scientist’s work is inherently neutral, which to me, makes little sense. What could be less neutral, and require more public debate, than being able to split atoms inside a weapon, or altering human germ cells?

Scientists are the watchmen of knowledge, which begs the Alan Moore-ish question: who watches the watchmen? Who is there to mock Max Planck for his Nazi salute, or deride Fritz Haber for nourishing the development of poison gas? Who demands that we are bound more by our social principles than our technological ones? These are important questions, especially as civilization nears Ray Kurzweil’s prophesied "singularity".

 

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