Two cheers for Sir Paul

Earlier this week, the BBC flagship science programme Horizon screened Science Under Attack. This was billed as an examination by Sir Paul Nurse – Nobel laureate and new president of the Royal Society – of why science appears to be under attack, “from the theory that man-made climate change is warming our planet, to the safety of GM food, or that HIV causes AIDS.” In reality, it was much more focused on the first of these, using stunning visuals from NASA, and some telling analogies to reaffirm the reality of man-made climate change. He really only touched on the other issues to learn what climate scientists could learn from these ‘controversies’.

One thing I learnt is that if science is under attack, I want Paul Nurse as the linchpin of my defence. He quietly cut down to size people who were badly in need of it (Tip: if you are a jobbing Daily Telegraph journalist, do not pick a fight over science with the Nobel laureate President of the Royal Society), without hitting the pit-bull mode of some other defenders of science. He dealt with the HIV-AIDS issue with compassion but firmness, was gently dismissive of octogenarian contrarian Fred Singer, and did a thorough debunking of the media hyperbole over climategate.

Why only two cheers then?

Well, I just felt the programme rather fizzled out in the usual platitudes about what ‘we’ (scientists now, not the general viewer) need to do to restore public trust: concentrate on doing excellent science, stay out of politics, but communicate what we do well.

OK. But how, exactly? I would argue for instance that it is now impossible to have an apolitical stance on climate change. The very act of studying climate change – in particular if your work adds to the overwhelming consensus view – will be seen as a political stance by the credulous (or ‘sceptics’, as they like to style themselves). Climate scientists have been communicating their science extremely effectively, probably more so than almost any other group of scientists, for many years. Yet trust is broken, and I don’t think that simply piling up more evidence will restore it.

More generally, it’s a fallacy anyway to say that scientists are not already engaged in communicating their work. Tim Radford’s piece in Nature this week nicely tackles the ‘canard’ that scientists are not good communicators. (Although he does repeat the idea that “the language, form and conventions of the published scientific paper could almost have been devised to conceal information”, which I think is only partly true these days: sure, technical publications assume technical knowledge, but it’s certainly my impression that scientific writing is far less opaque than it used to be, with the widespread replacement of the old stereotypical convoluted passive-tense clauses (‘an experiment was conducted…’) with clearer, much more active prose (’here’s what we did…’)).

Radford concludes that “…alas, people… listen selectively, even to the best communicators”, which I think gets to the heart of the matter. The so-called (and much derided) ‘deficit model’ of science communication states that, if we can just get sufficient information out there, the public will finally understand. But if people passionately believe something different, or don’t trust where the information is coming from, then this is bound to fail.

I don’t have an answer, but was hoping Sir Paul might have.