Enough of these mindless attacks on scientists’ integrity

This post was written for the LayScience website

We are all different, as scientists and as people, with individual aims, beliefs and motivations. Some do their best to communicate what they do and why they do it, and some people respond with curiosity and interest. Just see, for example, the excellent periodic table of videos and sixty symbols websites from my alma mater, The University of Nottingham.

Yet despìte these efforts, some will do their best to engender an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. I have just read Simon Jenkins´assesment in the Guardian CIF of Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees’, Reith lectures for the BBC.

Before looking at the finer points of the argument, it’s worth looking at Jenkins’ style in this and other articles. Invariably, he will use a comparison with an oppressive regime (in this case the lectures themselves are reminiscent of a “soviet academy”, while comparing Rees to a religious leader above question or criticism, going on to set up science as a whole in the same light). In his articles on the Icelandic ash cloud, he used ludicrous comparisons with McCarthyism and claimed that those stranded by the grounded flights needed a rescue operation akin to the D-Day landings.

At about 40 minutes each, Lord Rees’ lectures are difficult to summarise here, but essentially he examines the role of science, as a shorthand including engineering and technology, in society. His calm, rational and well-delivered talks are well worth a listen. He talks about the importance of science in facing the greatest challenges, with numerous examples and the insight of one of the world’s most respected scientific voices.

Nobody is above question or criticism as Simon Jenkins suggests. Yes, there are some pre-submitted questions, but their selection seems no different in principle to that in radio phone-in shows. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious bias in the selection, as there might be in a soviet academy.

As a specific example, Jenkins cites a question on the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. Rather than comment myself, here is Jenkins’ version;

The giveaway was a questioner who doubted the value of the Large Hadron Collider, on a par with aircraft carriers and Olympic games for useless extravagance. Rees stuck to the party line that forbids him to say that £7bn and “thousands of scientists” buried under a Swiss mountain might have been better employed on energy research. Politicians must show a sense of “priorities and perspectives”, he said, but scientists do not do priorities. They just want money.

and here is what actually happened, taken from the lecture transcript. There are a few other references to the LHC in the questions sections of the four lectures, but I’m not sure which one Jenkins is talking about. Still, this serves as an example of the tone of the debate;

PETER HARPER: Do you think that some of the more fun stuff, we should do less of? I’m thinking of things like the moons of Saturn, the origins of humanity, even the mighty Higgs boson. Perhaps it’s time to stop doing that stuff or defer it until the 22nd century. Isn’t it time for all hands on deck?

MARTIN REES: Well I think I would disagree because the amount spent in actual pure research is only a tenth of what’s spent in the development stage. And I think if we look back in the past, we have found that the research that’s paid off has been the unpredictable part, and I think it’s in the development and the applications that we need to make the choices. And obviously I think we need to spend more on the developed countries; and in terms of energy research, I think we could afford to multiply the amount spent on energy R&D by a factor of 5 or 10 very easily.

Rees calls for energy companies to spend a far greater proportion of their vast budgets on R&D, rather than taking funding for alternative energy from fundamental research. This is vastly different from the blanket “give us more money” demand that Simon Jenkins reports.

Jenkins distorts this to fit his own prejudice. He calls Rees “shameless” and “two-faced”, while missing the point of the lectures by a country mile. While many call upon scientists to be more open in communicating their work, others call for journalists to be more responsible in reporting the facts. I would like to call for an end to needless character assasinations disguised as journalism.

Update: The tweet-o-sphere has come up with #spoofjenks. This Monday is Spoof Jenkins day: blog in the style of Simon Jenkins!

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2 Comments on “Enough of these mindless attacks on scientists’ integrity”

  1. Adam Shulman Says:

    Nice post, thank you.

    As an attendee at the last Reith Lecture,that held at the Open University, I can perhaps clear up the issue of questions to Lord Rees.

    There were some very eminent people in the audience, who had submitted questions beforehand and were invited to ask them. However, before the lecture, everyone in the audience was handed paper and a pen, and urged to write down questions as they occurred to them during the lecture. Throughout the recording, these were collected and handed to the producer/s who passed on the most interesting ones (I presume) to Sue Lawley, who then invited those audience members to ask them ‘on air’.

    Yes, a more open debate would have been enjoyable and enlightening, but that’s not the format of the Reith lectures.

    Apologies for the long explanation, but in light of Jenkins’ apparent cynicism, and your comments above, I though I’d clear this up.

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