Science under attack? Not exactly…

In many ways, last night’s BBC Horizon (Science Under Attack) could have been a piece of comedy programming – in the style of The Office, say, or Pineapple Dance Studios. White-haired white male Sir Paul Nurse lovingly strokes a copy of Newton’s Principia in the basement archive of the Royal Society (“I have to touch it!”) while puzzled that some people just don’t connect with scientists.

Nurse goes on to skewer Telegraph climate change denier James Delingpole with a question about whether he would deny medical consensus if diagnosed with cancer, then visits an American man who is living, apparently healthily, with HIV – without taking the medical consensus treatment of antiretroviral drugs. The irony is lost on Nurse.

Luckily, there are other white-haired white male scientists to share the pain of not being understood. Phil Jones, for instance, the man who refused to deal with a co-ordinated set of Freedom of Information requests from climate deniers (designed as a bureaucratic Denial of Service attack) and set the whole climategate scandal in motion. “I wish people would read the peer-reviewed literature,” Jones sighs. No, really, he said that. Out of touch with the general public? Us?

While Nurse’s hand-wringing voiceover repeatedly asks why not everyone believes the pronouncements of scientists, we get to see Nurse in his lab, surrounded by busy young post-docs of varying race and gender (no doubt working at close to minimum wage, but let’s not go there). We are slightly fed up with the self-pity by this stage, and shouting at the TV: “Look at them. They look normal, they look like the rest of us. Ask them! Ask them about how science should connect with the modern world !” But no, we go to Norwich instead, to talk to a white-haired white male scientist who is growing blighted potatoes in a rainy field.

This one doesn’t understand why people won’t accept genetically modified crops. In a Cameron-esque moment, Nurse explains that he met a member of the public once, and they said they “didn’t want genes in their food”. From this he concludes that if people were just better informed about genetics (that is, if they just bloody listened to we scientists), the whole problem would go away.

Perhaps the most heinous moment is when Nurse has tea with another white-haired white male scientist. Professor Fred Singer doesn’t believe global warming is caused by human activity and does his level best to get this point of view heard everywhere he can. Nurse listens politely over some Earl Grey, then goes to a (white-haired white male) NASA scientist who says Singer’s point of view has been examined and found wanting.

What is so heinous is that Singer’s is presented as a valid, independent scientific viewpoint that just doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. There is no mention of Singer’s previous convictions for anti-scientific lobbying. Could this be the same Fred Singer who, in the 1980s, when he sat on the White House’s Acid rain review panel, told us that acid rain wasn’t worth worrying about? Who, as the US Department of Transportation’s Chief Scientist repeatedly denied that CFCs were responsible for ozone depletion? The one who was on the advisory board of Alexis de Tocqueville, an organisation that defended the tobacco companies in their attempt to avoid higher taxes and responsibility for causing cancer?

Nurse is likeable in an avuncular kind of way, and I can’t help feeling his new role as President of the Royal Society is going to be a tough gig. I have always thought the Royal Society to be less like an uncle and more like my grandfather: pre-feminist – slightly misogynistic, actually – and wary of foreigners, especially those with dark skin. Oh, and toothless.

These days we need scientists, and those who preside over them, to bare their teeth. When it comes to public confusion over the truth about climate change, Nurse seems to want to blame the media, mischievious or credulous journalists, or a lazy public who don’t read the primary literature. The reality is, scientists such as Singer – who got off scot-free in this programme –are to blame for the fact that the public doesn’t know who to believe and that, consequently, governments feel no compulsion to take action on climate change. Scientists willing to compromise their integrity for money and positions of power are a much greater threat to climate science than the likes of James Delingpole, who is nothing more than a mouthpiece.

The issue this programme tried to address is of enormous importance – I think it’s the most important issue in science today. Which is why my next post about this programme (hopefully to come later today) won’t be nearly so snide.


19 responses to “Science under attack? Not exactly…

  1. I thought Jones’ crack about wanting people to read the peer-reviewed literature was aimed not at the general public but the self-appointed critics in the blogosphere (the ones issuing the FOI requests) who are challenging the science. If they are serious about that, they bloody well ought to be reading and responding to the literature. Dellingpole’s “it’s not my job” was a pretty pathetic defence.

    Thanks for the background on Singer – knew none of that…

    All in all a bit frustrating – even I was sitting there wondering how manipulative the producers had been with the material.

    • Thanks, Stephen. Even if the critics in the blogosphere did read the peer-reviewed papers, does Jones really think they’d change their minds? People – especially those people – don’t tend to change their minds on the assimilation of new evidence, especially when it comes from those deemed the enemy.

      Why are we surprised at Dellingpole’s defence? Did we really think he reached his conclusions only after carefully reading all the literature? His job is to put out a particular line and stick to it. And you can be damn sure that if he didn’t, the people on the Telegraph would replace him with someone who did.

  2. Thank you! I thought I was the only one to have found the relegation of “the public” (whoever this generalisation might be) to an offscreen non- speaking part a touch… patronising?

    I totally agree that the real issue – vested interests – can degrade confidence in scientists. People don’t live in a vaccuum! Politics, advertising and business are constantly bombarding citizens with self- interest hidden behind so-called ‘truths’. If scientists don’t painstakingly display the impartiality they claim, then they cast themselves in with the rest. Don’t blame a “public” for their cynicism. It may be founded on bitter experience. Show why you deserve to be treated differently. And prove it in your actions.

  3. Not to be nitpicky, but isn’t going on about “white-haired white males” at the very least ageist? If people consider it absurd that anybody could value the input of older men, then I think the entire documentary is right to point a finger at the media.

  4. “I wish people would read the peer-reviewed literature,” Jones sighs. No, really, he said that. Out of touch with the general public? Us?”
    Having sat on citizen jury panels (not commenting on their usefulness) I had my opinion about the ‘general public’ and their ability to digest leading science severely challenged. I think you are just as guilty of making sweeping generalisations as Jones. Actually there are many people who take a keen interest in science and read research summaries. Also, the majority of people can, if given the chance, can make informed decisions based on research.

    • That’s interesting, thanks. Yes, it was probably a generalisation, and I agree that people are entirely capable of digesting science and making informed decisions regarding it (in fact, I wish there were more opportunities to do so: last time I asked a research council about it I was told they don’t do that any more). But that’s a bit different from expecting them to keep up to date with, or set aside time to read, research papers in an area over which they actually have an interest but very little voice.

  5. Smart post (especially the white haired white male observations!) — I’m looking forward to the next one.

  6. A pretty stupid article really. For one, Nurse repeats whole heartedly throughout that he believes it is the scientific industry and academic publishing bodies and individuals that are likely to hold a large responsibility in why people will close mindedly go along with popular denialists.

    Secondly, you clearly just have some kind of personal bias against Nurse that was bound to leave you winging about him from the start. I didn’t find his narrative hand-wringing. And to look at how much of your text is basically making cheap shot, ad-hominum arguments against Nurse’s hair colour, age, voice, skin colour – we do see little else you’re really trying to say.

    The thing about the cancer treating drugs etc – was a good analogy. And a true one. One for something where the man clearly didn’t want to even pretend that he would stubbornly disobey medical consensus.

    As for the HIV patient, it wasn’t really irony. You’d love to think it was I know, but the truth is as a respectable scientist (not lets say, a narrow minded sensationalist Telegraph journalist) he probably was very interested as to why this man’s body had survived the HIV virus for so long.
    As you will know, people die in their millions worldwide since medication is not available to them. And there will have been one hell of a lot of people died to contrast against this one example’s opinion – who I’m sure, were they alive today, would testify that maybe they should have taken the medication, because they did die as their doctor told them they would if they didn’t take the medication… But this one, individual example – that because the doctor emphasised the importance of a drug, and he ignored this, and discarded the drug, and managed to still be alive to tell the tale – doesn’t say a lot, not against the overwhelming body – in fact – astronomically large body – of evidence against his view that HIV isn’t causal to AIDS. Its a pretty story, and for people who like the controversy and the ‘Fuck you I wont do what you tell me’ approach, you can’t help but clap like his audience did at him telling the doctor’s opinion where to go – but its not really, a scientific study.

    The bloke had already shown a clear bias against concensual views on HIV treatment. So he said, he read lots of books. No doubt books that had titles that he wanted to believe in. Maybe ‘why HIV doesnt cause AIDS’… I only hazard a guess. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to convince other people in his broadcasted speech at the beginning – not to take their medications. Or whether he was just documenting his wonderful tale but advising others to listen to actual doctors, not somebody who has read some books.

    If the latter, that’s OK. If the former, then this is only a step away from the crazy, shameful, scum of the earth religious fanatics that go around telling people to ditch chemotherapy for prayers. But that’s a different debate.

    Rubbish article anyway, hope you do better in future.

  7. Like everything, doesnt this come down to communication? Scientists are increasingly having to deal with business, the media and the public. If only to further their own funding as well as engage the public. Yet what training in communication/business/management do phd scientists get?

  8. Thanks for your comment Adam R. For the record, I have no personal bias against Nurse. I’ve never met him, but those I know who know him have nothing but praise for him. My point about the prominent figures in the documentary is that if you want to appeal to a broad audience, why not reflect the diversity in the audience in your choice of interviewees? And if you’re reflecting on whether the modern world has left science behind, as Nurse did on a number of occasions, why not talk to younger scientists?

  9. It seems wrong to say that post-docs are working “at close to minimum wage”. The minimum wage for those over the age of 20 works out at (roughly) £12,000 per year before tax. All the postdocs I know (and I’m one) earn considerably above that figure (in the £20,000-30,000 range). I appreciate that many (most?) postdocs often work many more hours than they are nominally expected to but that is a choice even if it doesn’t feel like it.

    PhD students really are working nearer to the minimum wage although they do so for a limit time and with the expectation of a much higher salary after that.

    • Stuart is right – postdoc salaries are pretty decent these days.

      I would go further and suggest that PhD stipends are much improved (certainly from my day) – research councils in the UK typically pay £13.6k pa outside London and £15.6k in the capital. These stipends are not taxed. The Wellcome Trust and the EU pay even better stipends to students.

  10. My thoughts where that the programme was very well judged in terms of tone and content. There are some pro science folks who are very visible to the general public who tend to be on the attack. What this programme was about was simply presenting the situation. So it it did not go for the attack on Singer, it was there to try and understand why people hold those views. In effect it was about understanding not debating those topics, although there was enough information presented to show that these views may be misguided.

    I personally thought it was exactly what was needed in terms of science communication. Not quite sure what minimum wage etc has to do with it or younger scientists. It was about a few examples where science communication has failed and, I felt, hit on some major ones. Given more time I’m sure it would have gone on to cover those who where anti-vaccination.

  11. Interesting article, but I disagree with your points to a large degree. I’m also not entirely sure what response you’re trying to elicit by your repeated reference to skin and hair colour throughout the article, but I’m not sure it’s relevant to the point you’re trying to make.

    The message that I took away with me from the program was that Nurse recognised that Science as a whole has a duty to improve and present its message in a more complete and clear fashion to the public. It avoided finger pointing, avoided slagging off the opposition, and suggested that the scientific consensus has to take responsibility for its message being lost in the ether.


  12. Haven’t yet seen the Horizon but will watch with interest in light of this post.
    Re Singer, there’s an excellent analysis of his background, and discussion of why he thinks as he does in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Eric Conway
    If you haven’t got time to read the book, Oreskes also gives a great talk and some of these are on the web:

  13. “Phil Jones, for instance, the man who refused to deal with a co-ordinated set of Freedom of Information requests from climate deniers (designed as a bureaucratic Denial of Service attack) and set the whole climategate scandal in motion.”

    Sorry but this is hopelessly, hopelessly wrong. I hope you will fix the head post.

    1. Jones had been refusing requests for the temperature data since 2005 and refusing FOI requests since 2007 (although he was happy to send the data to people he viewed as sympathetic). What you call the denial of service attack was in late 2009 and followed a further refusal to release his data.

    2. The FOI Act has an exemption for what you call bureaucratic DoS. CRU could have refused the 60 requests if DoS was a tenable reason. This was confirmed by the Information Commissioner at the hearings into Climategate. He also said that the number of requests at CRU was not large.

    3. In fact, CRU’s response to the requests was to point the 60 applicants to a single webpage with the half dozen or so agreements that the applicants were asking to see. Responding to all 60 probably took less than half an hour.

  14. Pingback: Science under attack? Not exactly… - Health Impact News

  15. “What is so heinous is that Singer’s is presented as a valid, independent scientific viewpoint that just doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny.”
    Well , looks that you not very familiar with Fred Singer’s viewpoint and others scientists on climate change on this web site

    Fred Singer’s viewpoint is not empty handed. If we talking about scientific scrutiny, then Jones’s and Mann’s Hockey stick graph didn’t come through very well, isn’t?

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