Demystifying science

To promote public understanding of science, it is essential not only to initiate openness and dialogue between the scientific community and the public, but also to focus on ways of 'empowering' the latter

Published: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- earlier this year, the science and technology committee of Britain's House of Lords produced a long-awaited report on the relationship between science and society. The very first paragraph sets the scene for why such a report was considered necessary. "Society's relationship with science is in a critical phase," it says. "Science today is exciting, and full of opportunities. Yet public confidence in scientific advice to the government has been rocked by bovine spongiform encephalopathy ( bse , popularly known as the mad cow disease); and many people are uneasy about the rapid advance of areas such as biotechnology and information technology -- even though for everyday purposes they take science and technology for granted. This crisis of confidence is of great importance both to British society and British science."

Two aspects of this report are particularly striking. Firstly, there is little particularly novel about the situation it describes. Historical records show that scientific advance has almost always, and legitimately so, been accompanied by public qualms. One can think back through the accidents at Three Mile(s) Island and Bhopal to the early 1970s, when issues triggering this feeling ranged from chemical pollution of the environment by dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls to concerns over the safety of nuclear power and use of defoliants in Vietnam. For an earlier generation, the central issue was the use of science in the design and manufacture of nuclear weapons. And so on back to the Enlightenment itself.

In each historical situation, the issues (may) have been different. But the underlying focus of attention -- the two-edged face of scientific progress -- was very much the same. The key question today, of course, is not why there are tensions between science and society, but why governments and politicians feel it appropriate to address them in the (specific way) that they currently do.

Perhaps the answer lies in the second striking aspect of the report, namely the way that its analysis avoids addressing a central factor in the debate, that of political power. The diagnosis of the current problem by the House of Lords committee is that it is primarily due to a lack of awareness and understanding -- the public's lack of awareness of the essentially beneficial nature of scientific progress or that of scientists and politicians in understanding the full nature of public concern.

The committee's prescription is to go beyond conventional demands for increased efforts to promote public understanding of science to recommend a new set of initiatives aimed at encouraging more openness in decision-making and greater dialogue between all actors involved, in the hope that it will restore the basic trust in science that the modern high tech society demands.

Both, of course, are laudable objectives. But do these suggestions go far enough? They do not. For without additional attention to the political factors determining the way science is used in society, there is unlikely to be a resolution of the tensions created by the distrust that originates in the exclusion of individuals from decision-making. Significantly missing from a report written by a panel of politicians is the single, familiar phrase of an earlier British politician, Francis Bacon, that summarises this fact: 'knowledge is power'.

Take the case of bse , for instance. The common perception is that the British public distrusts government science advisers because they lied in the early 1990s that beef was safe to eat. What is frequently ignored is the public's (correct) perception that the lies originated in the influence of the beef industry over the ministry of agriculture, food and fisheries. They were not the result of either misbehaviour or excessive secrecy on the part of the scientific community itself.

Or take the issue of genetically modified ( gm ) foods. The critical issue is not science, but the way science is being applied. It has been the exclusion of consumers from decisions about the use of gm soya in stable foods, or of farmers from the chance to choose whether to preserve seed from one season to the next, indeed often what seed to plant, that have generated the sharpest conflicts of gm food issue.

Perhaps the most tragic manifestation of the current distrust in multinational-controlled science lies in the current dispute in South Africa over whether hiv is the cause of aids . The unwillingness of President Thabo Mbeki to accept this scientific fact has little directly to do with his grasp of the scientific issues, nor I would argue even the influence of so-called 'aids dissidents'. Rather, it appears to reflect the deep-seated mistrust on foreign-based pharmaceutical companies, in particular of the way such companies' ownership of the intellectual property rights has allowed them to set the prices of drugs in developing countries at levels designed to satisfy shareholders, not to meet those countries' ability to pay. The link between modern science and corporate power is indeed complex. At the most obvious level, high tech industries spearheading the current phase of economic growth depend on the products of a healthy science base, so that the latter benefits directly from the health of the broader economy. And providing the conditions that secure such economic health is a key goal of modern politics.

In this context, efforts to promote public understanding of science clearly represent a bid to legitimise science-based growth strategies. A strong theme running through report is that a lack of sufficient appreciation of science carries an economic -- and thus ultimately social -- price, and that this is why both governments and industry have a responsibility to alter the situation. When it suggests greater dialogue between science and society, its main goal is to restore and promote this legitimacy -- the 'trust in science' that it claims is essential to a modern high tech democracy.

Conversely, of course, any criticism of science is seen as a direct challenge to the paradigm that scientific progress leads inevitably to social progress. In one telling paragraph, for example, the report says that resistance "whether well-founded or misguided" on the part of the public "may inhibit technological progress" -- referring explicitly to gm food, therapeutic cloning, food radiation, and the seep-sea disposal of offshore installations. The lesson seems clear: if you want to benefit from the achievements of science, stop protesting at the way that these achievements are being implemented. More graphically, those who continue to maintain such protests are frequently lumped into a massive, homogenous 'anti-science' movement -- often over their own denials of any such broader strategy.

This is clearly not a healthy situation. Nor is it a particularly productive one, as the two sides in what is intended to be a dialogue appear to have different agendas, focus on different long- term goals, speak in different languages, and play the game according to different rules. In such a situation, dialogue as such is inadequate. If we remember that 'knowledge is power' or to translate it into the language of contemporary economists, that we are moving into a global knowledge economy in which access to and control over intellectual capital is as important as access to natural resources and financial capital has been in the past, then it is not surprising that fundamental conflicts arise over that knowledge. Or that such conflicts manifest themselves as the familiar disputes central to the troubled relationship between science and society.

All this points to the need for a new type of dialogue, one that acknowledges the true nature of such disputes, and allows space for creative criticism and politically-base challenges, rather than dismissing them as a manifestation of a lack of public 'awareness' -- or even of a more general cultural malaise.

The required dialogue has two dimensions. One must be based on an appreciation of the positive social achievements that have been made possible by science. We may dispute some of the products of modern science. But I don't think that anyone would espouse the idea that the negative consequences of modern science outweigh its massive contributions to human health and well being.

At the same time, however, we need a dialogue that accepts that there is a negative side to the applications of science, and that criticism is not only legitimate but healthy, indeed even essential. After all, no one tries to stifle public criticism of political leaders, or argue that we need government-backed programmes in the public understanding of politics to rebuild public trust in political institutions. Is science so different? The public is not stupid. It may get carried away at times, pursuing causes -- such as the campaign against therapeutic cloning or the uses of animal in research -- that counter the ethos of the research community. But a democracy should thrive on debate around such issues, however heated this may get at times. It should not try to stifle it in a way that many scientists often indicate they would like to do in the name of 'rational discourse', whether at the local, national or international level.

It is here that the media has an important function. We are all aware of the shortcomings of the narrow role into which some people attempt to channel the media in the 'public understanding of science' debate, namely as a conduit through which such 'rational discourse' can be transmitted from the scientific community to the public. This is a role that is actively encouraged by the scientific community and the corporate sector, often backed by government programmes. It is based on what has been criticised as the 'deficit' model of public understanding: all that is needed, this model suggests, is for someone to 'top up the tank' with accurate reporting of scientific discoveries, and much of the public distrust will evaporate. It leads directly to conclusions such as that in the House of Lords report that there should be an official complaints procedure to examine allegations of inaccurate scientific reporting. Who knows, we science journalists might even be fined for getting our facts wrong !

More recently, this 'deficit' model has been giving way to one that is closer to the 'dialogue' approach. In this model, scientists have a responsibility to listen and respond to public concerns, not merely have their views transmitted via the media. This includes making scientists aware of the need to speak the language in which these concerns are expressed. It embraces a more inclusive role for the science journalist, one that encourages a greater pluralism in reporting on the significance of scientific results. But it still tends to imply that this role is essentially to construct a rational discourse around science.

But neither of these two approaches goes far enough. What they lack is the idea that effective science journalism is that which allows individuals to challenge the way decisions on development and applications of science are made. This is not just about making up for a deficit in public knowledge about science, or in helping to construct a dialogue around its potential impacts. It is also about providing individuals with a full awareness of the way scientific knowledge is produced and applied so they can make or endorse properly-informed decisions about both processes -- not decisions based on the descriptions that those formally responsible for such decisions are keen to project.

Sadly, such an approach to science journalism is not in favour, perhaps because it runs against the zeitgeist within which the 'public understanding of science' movement operates. In a culture dedicated to 'selling science', in all senses of the term, those who choose to look a gift-horse in the mouth find declining support. Look at what has happened to Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review , previously a bastion of healthy scepticism, today hooked on the high tech bandwagon. Or to magazines such as New Scientist , where a radical critique of science has too often become overshadowed by a desire to become integrated into the dominant currents of scientific culture. Or even, perhaps more conventionally, the London Times , whose experience and respected science correspondent was recently moved to the health desk, replaced by a young recruit able to report at length and in flamboyant style the latest concern of the British government -- the danger that an asteroid might collide with the Earth.

There is a process of 'dumbing down' here that, while enabling a form of dialogue to take place between science and its public -- and encouraging a form of openness of the part of decision-makers -- remains opaque to a genuine understanding of the process by which science is developed and applied. Indeed, I would argue that, in many ways, the public understanding of science movement encourages an opaqueness that, while promoting Enlightenment ideal of a rational discourse around science, also helps to screen the political basis of this rationality.

There are options. Some lie in the use of Internet, whose great attraction is that the low cost of technical infrastructure and production costs allow, at least in principle, the possibility of greater independence from corporate control. I would like to mention one such project I am currently engaged in to communicate information about the application of science to Third World development. We had been tempted to call it Global News on Science in Society -- or gnosis for short -- but found that that domain name had already been taken. Now it is developing under the name (see> ). Hopefully this website (itself, under whatever name we eventually fix), will reflect a commitment to the idea that genuine social progress can emerge from close scrutiny of the interaction between science and society, a goal to which all of us are dedicated.

The writer is the news editor of Nature and author of Alternative Technology and The New Politics of Science

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