In Brian we trust
It’s totally depressing that so much mainstream science coverage at the moment is about this crisis of trust in science.
It’s a positive feedback loop: reporting on lack of trust reinforces the original story. Reporting on public opinion is a nonsense that diverts attention from the actual issues. In the case of climate science, the real question- and let’s cut to the chase here- is whether or not we’re all fucked, and whether or not there’s anything we can do about it.
There are some specific issues related to trust in specific areas of science, and important ones, but they should be treated separately and seriously, not stuffed into a generic sack of over-simplification.
The safety of nanoparticles or GM foods, the efficacy of medicines and the veracity of climate data are all intrinsically separate questions, and none of the answers lies in public debate. Let me be clear on this point- public debate will not resolve whether a medicine is effective or a technology is safe in certain circumstances. Nature doesn’t care what Barry from Wigan has to say.
That’s not to say Barry doesn’t have a right to know whether issues affecting his life have been well researched, and how it all works. This is one reason why communication is so important. But I think it’s just as important to engage people with more fundamental science to make communication about applied science more effective.
It’s worth distinguishing between science as a fundamental study of how the universe works, and the scientific method applied to technological and social questions. If you want to engage people with the latter, get them interested in the fundamental side!
I wrote a blog piece recently about the need for trusted champions of science in the public domain, so it was fantastic to see the start of Brian Cox’s BBC series wonders of the solar system on Sunday. If proof were ever needed that it’s the communicator as much as the science people connect with, read this almost embarrassingly gushing review of the first episode. Whatever the content, it’s his raw and unchecked love for the subject that comes through.
As it happens, I wish the episode had included more, as it seemed like some really interesting points had been edited out, but it is still a great piece of aspirational film making about fundamental science.
If more people like Professor Cox can inspire people to take a fundamental interest in science, it is far more likely that they’ll gain an understanding of the scientific method and all it can achieve. If you then talk about science in a more general applied sense, it’s much easier to trust something you understand.
It’s also well worth checking out Brian Cox’s TED talk from 2008 on the large hadron collider.Climate change, Science communication comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.