The dangers of science behind closed doors

The growing gulf between science and the public

The dangers of science behind closed doors

Great scientific breakthroughs have often historically been presented to general readers in compelling and accessible ways. In the 21st century, however, the gulf between what is written for specialists and what is accessible to the average reader is widening, writes Martin Rees.

 

Darwin’s The Origin of Species, published in 1860, was a best-seller: readily accessible – even fine literature – as well as an epochal contribution to science. But that was an exception. In glaring contrast, Gregor Mendel’s 1866 paper entitled ‘Experiments with Plant Hybrids’, reporting the classic experiments on sweet peas conducted in his monastery garden was published in an obscure journal and wasn’t properly appreciated for decades. Darwin had the journal in his library, but the pages remained uncut. It is a scientific tragedy that he never absorbed Mendel’s work, which laid the foundations for modern genetics.

It’s unlikely that any twenty-first-century breakthroughs can be presented to general readers in such a compelling and accessible way as Darwin’s ideas were. The barrier is especially high when ideas can be fully expressed only in mathematical language: few read Einstein’s original papers, even though his insights have permeated our culture. Indeed, that barrier already existed for mathematical science in the seventeenth century. Newton’s great work, the Principia, highly mathematical and written in Latin, was heavy-going even for his distinguished contemporaries like Halley and Hooke; certainly, a general reader would have found it impenetrable, even when an English version appeared. Popularisers later distilled Newton’s ideas into more accessible form – as early as 1735 a book appeared in France entitled Newtonianism for Ladies.

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Darwin had the journal in his library, but the pages remained uncut. It is a scientific tragedy that he never absorbed Mendel’s work, which laid the foundations for modern genetics

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What makes science seem forbidding is the technical vocabulary, the formulae, and so forth. Despite these impediments, the essence (albeit without supportive arguments) can generally be conveyed by skilled communicators. It’s usually necessary to eschew equations, but that by itself is not enough. Specialist jargon, which is especially impenetrable in biomedical topics, must be avoided. It’s easy for scientists to forget, too, that their use of familiar words (like ‘degenerate’, ‘strings’ or ‘colour’) in special contexts different from their everyday usage can be baffling as well. And, to take another example, climate scientists calculate that the warming directly due to extra CO2 can be amplified by the effects of enhanced water vapour, changing cloud cover, and so forth. This dangerous process is termed ‘positive feedback’ –  a phrase which for many readers would have benign connotations (it’s what you hope for after a job appraisal, for instance).

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The gulf between what is written for specialists and what is accessible to the average reader is widening. Millions of scientific papers are published, worldwide, each year. They are addressed to fellow specialists and typically have very few readers. This vast primary literature needs to be sifted and synthesised, otherwise, not even the specialists can keep up. Moreover, professional scientists today are depressingly ‘lay’ outside their specialisms – certainly a contrast to the 17th-century polymaths who founded the Royal Society. My own knowledge of recent biological advances, such as it is, comes largely from excellent ‘popular’ books and journalism. Science writers and journalists do an important job, and a difficult one. I know from bitter experience how hard it is to explain in clear language even something I think I understand well. But journalists have the far greater challenge of assimilating and presenting topics quite new to them, often to a tight deadline; broadcasters may be required to speak at short notice, without hesitation, deviation or repetition, before a microphone or TV camera.

Science only earns newspaper headlines, or prominence in TV bulletins, as background to a natural disaster, or health scare, rather than as a story in its own right. Until Covid-19 struck us, this happened rarely. Scientists shouldn’t complain about this any more than novelists or composers would complain that their new works don’t make the news bulletins. Indeed, coverage restricted to ‘newsworthy’ items – newly announced results that carry a crisp and easily summarised message, or of course spectacular feats like a probe landing on Mars – distorts and obscures the way science normally develops.

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The gulf between what is written for specialists and what is accessible to the average reader is widening

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Scientific themes are better suited to documentaries and features. The terrestrial TV channels offer large potential audiences, but commercial pressures, and concern that the viewers may channel-surf before the next advertising break, militate against programmes like Jacob Bronowski’s classic ‘The Ascent of Man’ (BBC) or Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ (PBS) - two classic 13-part series commissioned in the 1970s. Fortunately, big-budget commercial channels like Netflix, Discovery, and Amazon have entered this arena. Even the great David Attenborough defected (at least partially) from the BBC. But there continue to be excellent programmes from Jim Al Khalili, Alice Roberts, Neil Tyson and others; the internet opens up niches for more specialised content – webcasts and podcasts flourish.

I would derive less satisfaction from my astronomical research if I could discuss it only with professional colleagues. I enjoy sharing ideas, and the mystery and the wonder of the universe, with non-specialists. Moreover, even when we do it badly, attempts at this kind of communication are salutary for scientists themselves, helping us to see our work in perspective. As already emphasised, researchers don’t usually shoot directly for a grand goal. Unless they are geniuses (or unless they are cranks) they focus on timely, bite-sized problems because that’s the methodology that pays off. But it does carry an occupational risk: we may forget when we focus sharply on one problem, that we’re wearing blinkers and that our piecemeal efforts are only worthwhile insofar as they’re steps towards addressing some fundamental question.

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In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, radio engineers at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the US, made, quite unexpectedly, one of the great discoveries of the twentieth century: they detected weak microwaves, seemingly pervading all of space, which are actually a relic of the Big Bang. But Wilson afterwards remarked that he was so focused on the mundane tasks of optimizing his apparatus, which even included scraping the equipment free of pigeon droppings, that he didn’t himself appreciate the full import of what he’d done until he read a ‘popular’ description in the New York Times, where the paper’s leading science writer, Walter Sullivan, described the background noise in their radio antenna as the ‘afterglow of creation’.

Not all who make discoveries are as lucky in their ‘laudator’ as Wilson was. The best way to ensure that one’s views get through undistorted is via one’s own written words, in articles or books. Some distinguished scientists have been successful authors. But most of us dislike writing – though present-day students are far more fluent (if not more literate) than my own pre-email and pre-blog generation ever were. And unless we’re very lucky, we’ll reach fewer readers by writing ourselves, than if our views are amplified by a ‘media star’. Many of the most successful writers of scientific books are interpreters and synthesisers rather than active researchers. Bill Bryson, for instance, has marvellously conveyed his zest and enthusiasm for ‘nearly everything’ and ‘the human body’ in two books that have been read by millions. And the polymath journalist Philip Ball has written books on themes ranging from quantum weirdness to ancient Chinese waterworks, as well as an amazing range of articles.

Incidentally, scientists habitually bemoan the meagre public grasp of our subject (and it’s indeed dismaying that, in a regular poll conducted in the US, this year is the first in which more than 50 per cent of Americans accepted Darwin’s theory!) But maybe we protest too much. On the contrary, we should, perhaps, be gratified and surprised that there’s wide interest in such remote topics as dinosaurs, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, the James Webb Space Telescope, or alien life. It is indeed sad if some citizens can’t distinguish a proton from a protein, but equally so if they are ignorant of their nation’s history or are unable to find Korea or Syria on a map – and many can’t.

Misperceptions about Darwin or dinosaurs are an intellectual loss, but no more than that. In the medical arena, however, ‘fake news’ could be a matter of life and death. Hope can be cruelly raised by claims of miracle cures; exaggerated scares can distort healthcare choices, as happened with the Covid-19 vaccines. When reporting a particular viewpoint, journalists should clarify whether it is widely supported, or whether it is contested by ninety-nine per cent of specialists – as were the claims about the dangers of the MMR vaccine. Noisy controversy need not signify evenly balanced arguments. Of course, the establishment is sometimes routed and a maverick vindicated. We all enjoy seeing this happen, but such instances are rarer than is commonly supposed. The best scientific journalists and bloggers are plugged into an extensive network that should enable them to calibrate the quality of novel claims and the reliability of sources.

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We may forget when we focus sharply on one problem, that we’re wearing blinkers and that our piecemeal efforts are only worthwhile insofar as they’re steps towards addressing some fundamental question

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Scientists should themselves expect media scrutiny. Their expertise is crucial in areas that fascinate many of us, and matter to us all. This happened on an unprecedented scale during the pandemic. As a community working under extreme pressure, they acquitted themselves well – disagreeing respectfully, and (unlike their political masters) cooperating openly across national boundaries.  And they shouldn’t be bashful in proclaiming the overall promise that science offers – it’s an unending quest to understand nature, and essential for our survival.

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A similar ‘culture gap’ is faced by scientists who serve as political advisors, Certainly, the UK and US would benefit from more technically trained people in politics and the civil service. But I don’t go along entirely with those who would advocate a government of technocrats, as in China or even Singapore. Such people’s expertise may be profound, but spans only a subfield of science. Indeed, I’d rather our university-educated senior ministers had studied history than dentistry. In the UK, I’ve observed that the individual politicians and ‘opinion-formers’ who have been most effective in influencing science policy have mainly been ‘generalists’.

Martin Rees' new book If Science is to Save Us is published by Polity Press in November 2022.

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