Tag Archives: Science Under Attack

Science Under Attack?

Well, by some people anyway. It’s the title of an excellent BBC Horizon documentary which went to air in the UK in January. It may never reach our shores but at least you can view it on YouTube. I have embedded it below

YouTube – Horizon: Science Under Attack.

Sir Paul Nurse. Credit BBC

The new President of the UK Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, fronts the documentary . He is an excellent communicator and not at all polemical. The documentary delves into the problem of the drop in public trust of science. Nurse uses the topics of man-made climate change, vaccine safety, HIV/AIDS and genetically modified food as examples. All areas where scientific consensus is under attack.

Basically the documentary asks, and attempts to answer, the questions:

  • Why is science under attack? and
  • Are scientists partly to blame for this?

Nurse interviews critics of science as well as scientists. So there are non-confrontational chats with climate change sceptics/deniers/contrarians Fred Singer and James Delingpole (a daily Telegraph well know for his  polemics). On the other hand he also chats with a NASA scientists, about what the overall data is telling us, and Phil Jones about the “climategate” email controversy.

While the documentary gives a more balanced history of the “climategate” issue and attacks on scientists it doesn’t run away from the lessons provided by the scandal.

Dealing with strong views

Nurse believes that scientists must do more to communicate with the public and pay attention to how we communicate. One problem he identified is that of communicating the inevitable uncertainty in science. Also the sceptical nature of science where theories are “tested to destruction. At” the same time he drew a distinction between healthy scepticism and denial.

He believes that the new forms of media and ease of communication have raised new issues for science. We now have to deal more directly with situations where there are strong political and ideological influences. And the new media tends to promote preconceived prejudices better than it does balanced consideration.

As he said that sciences now have to deal with “point of view” as well as the old problem of “peer review.”

A question of trust

The new media have also provided the person in the street with a multitude of interpretations of evidence. Some of them very strong, and with undeclared political or ideological motivations. While on issues like climate change it may be possible for those with some scientific training to make sense of mall this confusion, those without it must get by on trust. They must rely on the trust they have for their information sources.

Nurse leaves the viewer with this message. Today science communication is vital. And so is attention to how it is done.

It is this thoughtful and respectful communication which will help scientists to recover any trust they have lost.

Hat Tip: Nick

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