Jonny Berliner - science through song

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Opinions and reflections on the dissemination of science from a science troubadour, educator and sci ed researcher.

Is Sci-Comm Too Smug?

Having now notched up 15 years of experience disseminating scientific ideas in almost every way possible, as a tutor, teacher, entertainer, and presenter, I have managed to work with consumers and communicators of science from almost every background and perspective there is. Along the way, I have gained a fairly unique perspective and with that in mind, this is the first of many blogs to share my thoughts and experiences, with the aim of contributing to the discussion of how science communication (sci-comm) and science education can speak to and affect as large and diverse an audience as possible.

I want to start with a question that has been playing on my mind recently. Is sci-comm too smug? Sci-comm refers to any form of interaction that the public may have with scientists and their research outside of a classroom and there are more ways to engage with it than ever before. Youtube explainers, podcasts, radio shows, TV documentaries, magazines, blogs and newspaper articles are easy to find. There is also a growing community of entertainers offering science cabaret and comedy at one off events and festivals, and informal science discussion groups such as Pint of Science and Café Scientifique have popped up all over the country. We’re spoilt for choice and the growth in sci-comm has undoubtedly been fantastic for the public image of science and scientists. Scientist are widely trusted and although there is a long way to go, we are seeing increased gender equality and diversity in students across all scientific disciplines.

Despite these successes, we have to be wary of a backlash. The defining sociological phenomenon of the 2010’s may well be polarisation. It’s not just science that’s on the rise. Anti-scientific feeling is also rising, and a couple of recent experiences have led me to suspect that the sci-comm community should take some of the blame. Too much science communication is either delivered with overly positivist claims and often involves ridiculing those who do not agree. Given the huge improvement in quality of life, technological developments and insights into our origins that scientific thinking has given us, it’s a very easy mode of thought to get caught up in, but we often forget that criticism of scientific thinking is sometimes perfectly valid, and that scientific thinking is based on scepticism. We should welcome it!

A major issue that we face as sci-commers is that our audiences are invariably the people seeking out sci-comm. We are preaching to the choir. In itself this is not a bad thing. This is a community with shared common interests who want to celebrate and enrich their knowledge. We wouldn’t condemn a comic convention for not catering to lovers of renaissance art. That would be absurd, but scientific knowledge is more than just a cultural pastime. It commands more of government budgets (perhaps a disproportionate amount when we consider the contribution of arts to the economy) and affects the decisions made about our well-being. A public understanding of science is important for an informed democracy. Sci-comm should be about nurturing an interested community but shouldn’t it also seek to engage those who do not identify as science lovers to involve them in the conversation?

By cultivating an overly positivistic, and inward-looking culture of science we have created a filter bubble, where the communicators shout about how great science is and the audience agree. Within this bubble it is commonplace to laugh at consumers of alternative medicines, deride the findings of social science as meaningless, the religious as deluded, and the critics of scientific progress as regressive dinosaurs. I have heard these opinions expressed by audience members and sci-commers alike. Indeed, I am guilty of religion bashing to get a quick knowing smug laugh out of my audience. The truth is, the sci-comm community loves to feel clever but aside from serving to exclude a huge proportion of the population, this attitude should be offensive to anybody with even a rudimentary understanding of the history and philosophy of science.

I will begin with the ‘social science is meaningless’ fallacy. Backstage at a recent science communication event, a physicist explained to me why psychology cannot be considered a science. She told me that unlike psychology, real sciences have controllable variables which allow hypotheses to be falsified. To her, science can be summed up that simply. As was clear from the level of her condescension, she was dumbfounded that as a science communicator I didn’t understand this. For anyone interested in philosophy of science, these criteria for what constitutes science were propounded by Karl Popper in the first half of the 20th century. Whilst they provide a great model for a scientific ideal, Thomas Kuhn in the 1960’s, and many others since then have shown it to be just this, an ideal. And like all ideals, it doesn’t really exist. She objected when I pointed out that she couldn’t possibly consider ecologists scientists since they cannot make verifiable predictions. You cannot prove that there are 1000 tigers left in a jungle? By the time you have counted them some may have died and there is no way to know that you spotted them all. When I pointed out that particle physicists run experiments millions of times as they too cannot control their variables, just like psychologists her level of condescension started to drop. To claim that science produces better knowledge than social science assumes there is a way to define either. Both enterprises make claims to truth based on evidence and some claims are more certain than others. However, the ‘truth’ of a psychological finding is no more open to interpretation than the assertion that dark energy exists, so we must stop dismissing social science as inferior. It is not even that different in many cases.

Now to challenge the smugness levelled at the religious. I fully accept that scientific thought can challenge literal interpretations of the bible, but most religious people, the Pope included, do not do this. It is also perfectly possible for people to hold conflicting beliefs, such as ‘the big bang happened 13.8 billion years ago’ and ‘the bible is true’ quite happily if they are not forced to choose. Everyone carries irrational conflicting beliefs. It is human. There is no need to be irrational belief Nazis if the irrational beliefs are not harming anyone. We can divide religious life into its cultural, ritualistic practices and its claims to spiritual knowledge. There are few areas of religious culture, with the exception of something like ritual slaughter that scientific thought can inform. Yet even then, to assume that science makes claims of right and wrong is mad. It can only inform the arguments. With respect to spiritual beliefs, which are often loosely defined notions of a creator or a spiritual oneness with the universe, physicists can only recreate conditions close to, but not before the big bang. Science cannot therefore make claims about whether a creator exists or not, and if anything, scientific thought has shown how interconnected each one of us are with the universe. We are, after all, literally made of stardust.

Finally, we should tackle the superiority of the scientifically and technological positivists over the sceptical regressive dinosaurs. Scientific advances have not always brought the advances in quality of life that we hope they do. Given the existential uncertainty resulting from nuclear weapons and the damage to our environment that technological advances have brought, it is understandable that many people distrust scientists. Academics now understand the need for public engagement to win the trust of the public, and public trust in scientists is growing. We cannot, however, look down on the public for not believing the claims of science. On the contrary, we should be glad that they hold scientists accountable. It can be frustrating at times. The green movement will accept research on climate change but refuse to accept research on GM crops. I have no idea why some research is acceptable and other research is not, but we will only win them over by involving them in the conversation and listening to their concerns rather than ridiculing them. Rather than laughing at homeopathy, perhaps we should ask why people still seek it out in the face of evidence against it and try to cater to that need ourselves.

I’ve recently been running discussion sessions about science in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room. Unlike most science communication, it is not advertised as overtly scientific. The people who frequent the Wellcome Collection come from a variety of backgrounds and whilst many go for the scientific content of their collections, some go for the artistic content and some for the spiritual content. I allow the discussants to choose whatever they wish to discuss, although I will push the conversation towards scientific ideas, and I have found that without exception, everyone enjoys the discussion, even if they display outward distrust of scientists and find empirical thinking to be narrow-minded and conceited in its claims to truth. We almost always end up exploring philosophy of science and in order to remain impartial and value all contributions, I allow people to voice their beliefs however far from scientifically valid they may be. But by genuinely listening, and allowing them to voice their beliefs, we can pick apart the inconsistencies whilst being honest about the limits of science to inform their beliefs. A discussion about how rats on opposite sides of the world seem to learn new skills at the same time led a believer in a universal consciousness to understand that correlation does not mean causation, whilst feeling validated in that science has not disproved her paranormal explanation. Nobody was offended, nobody felt the need to argue and the scientific thinking was considered even if it was not fully accepted.

I believe that this respectful approach will be more effective in the long run to creating a more inclusive and successful culture of sci-comm. This is basic psychology. We are tribal by nature and if we identify with certain worldviews, we will fight for them when they are threatened, even if they are irrational. Shared beliefs allow us to stay within our tribes rather than be ostracised and that is good for survival so when we tell people they are wrong, they generally dig in the heals, but when we find out where we can agree we send the message that we are in the same tribe. If we use evolutionary arguments to disprove the bible, then people who identify as Christian are forced to challenge the science to maintain their identity. If we allow them some irrational beliefs, they may well respect the science and feel less strongly about literal interpretations.

I am not suggesting that science communication should stop catering for those who identify as atheists, geeks or technophiles. Geeks have been outsiders for a long time and they should have a space to feel like the cool kids but sci-comm needs to appeal to a wider audience too and that won’t happen whilst it is ok to ridicule other belief systems for being wrong.