Monday, 28 February 2011

Sharing the love of science: thoughts on Beddington

There was much chatter on the blogs last week about John Beddington’s apparently unscripted outburst at the end of a speech to science and engineering civil servants reported by Research Fortnight. Beddington, the Chief Scientific Adviser, urged his audience to be as 'grossly intolerant' of bad science as we are of racism or homophobia:

"We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality... We are not - and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this - grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method."

My first reaction was to feel a tad sorry for Beddington. Not that long ago the beautifully crafted full speeches made by Chief Scientific Advisers at such meetings, undoubtedly checked over by an army of civil servants and press officers, would have been the only thing available to the press and mostly went unnoticed. Now, in the age of online journalism, twitter and the blogosphere, the off-the-cuff comment in the closing remarks has become the main event. While his comments are now being celebrated on the science blogs, I suspect John Beddington has had better weeks in government.

But what of the comments themselves? Since coming into science I have become pretty partial to the scientific way of looking at the world (or 'gone native' as my friends put it). Scientists' commitment to evidence, accuracy, reason, rationality and all that stuff has totally won me over, and nine years on I wonder whether I can ever take my PR skills back into the worlds of politics or campaigning NGOs who work to a rather different set of norms. Evidence-based policy works for me every time over policy-based evidence, and when David Willetts talks about his vision of the scientific discourse becoming the common language of society I get a ready-brek style glow.

Where I depart from the comments above is over how we get the scientific approach to prevail. No matter how many times scientists demand that science should trump ideology and pseudoscience, it will not happen unless people are convinced. The role of scientists like Beddington should not be to demand intolerance of anti-science but to win more people over to his rationalist way of explaining the world. If others do not share our love of the scientific method then we have to try harder to convey why they should.

The SMC could have tackled our mission, 'to help renew public trust in science' after the rows over GM, BSE and MMR in a variety of ways, and I’m sure that some of our champions would have cheered us all the way had we chosen the route of attempting to close down debates, demanding the censorship of minority views, and condemning the media’s failure to do either. However, the philosophy we chose was a rather more humble one – that the media would ‘do’ science better when scientists start to ‘do’ the media better. Far from raging against debates over vaccines, GM and climate change the SMC has always encouraged scientists to see these rows as opportunities rather than threats. Every scientist thrown into the fray by the SMC is encouraged to use their moment in the spotlight to communicate something of the way science works as well as answering the questions or responding to critics. In my view it is a tribute to the manner in which scientists have engaged in these arguments that they have, for example, overturned government opposition to the use of human-animal hybrid embryos and persuaded 83% of the UK public that climate change is a current or imminent threat.

I’m still more of a fan of this approach . The House of Lords report that led to the establishment of the SMC talked about the need for scientists to earn their right to practice. They also have to earn support for science and the evidence it provides. People will naturally become more intolerant of pseudoscience when they have learned to love the same rationalist approach that Beddington espouses – much like I did.

Of course if Beddington is simply calling on more civil servants to speak out and engage more effectively with those who misuse science, as suggested in a clarification of his comments published on the New Scientist website, then I couldn't agree more. Beddington says:

"It is time the scientific community became proactive in challenging misuse of scientific evidence. We must make evidence, and associated uncertainties, accessible and explicable. In a world of global communication, we cannot afford to only speak to ourselves."

That beautiful quote could be put on a plaque and hung on the door of the SMC. It reflects the similarly stirring comments made by Paul Nurse at the end of his recent Horizon documentary. John Beddington has some form here – in a good way. In the middle of 'climategate' he made a public call for more openness on uncertainty and in the SMC a couple of weeks ago he told a room full of national media that the world should embrace GM crops where appropriate. But if Beddington is feeling angry there is more he could do. Many scientists still see media frenzies and controversy as a signal to retreat back to the safety of the lab, allowing those who would misuse science to dominate the debate. And scientists advising government on controversial issues still feel that their advisory role probably means they should step back from the media fray – a process not helped by the common use of confidentiality agreements and the official secrets act for scientists appointed to independent advisory committees. Only a few weeks ago a leading expert on talking therapies was told the government no longer needed his scientific advice after he raised important questions about the new Mental Health Bill – showing that the civil servants and ministers need to be reminded to re-read the Principles governing the use of scientific advice that Beddington helped to draw up.

In the meantime I think those of us who love science need to start sharing the love rather than spreading intolerance – not only is it a nicer way to carry on – it’s much more likely to achieve our goals.