Interestingly, just seconds after the previous post on the disservice done to science by the conflation of science and technology, Lisa Jardine also tweeted a link to this Sue Nelson piece on “BBC lads’ science” in the Telegraph. And, only hours after Jim AlKhalili had tweeted to “boast” (tongue in cheek) about acquisition of his iPhone5 – the “latest boys’ toy”. Man, what a tangled web.
[Hold – still trying to find 5 minutes also to comment on this “Round III” response by Pinker to Wieseltier on the interminable science vs the humanities debate in New Republic, tweeted by Tiff Jenkins.]
Where to start? Scientists, science journalists and science media-folk, do science a disservice, when they promote science wrongly. And, in doing so, that is also a disservice to the society they aim to serve. So what could possibly be wrong about the way science is promoted?
Promote science as an enterprise of wonder in its own right, and as as a route to understanding the wonders and workings of the world. Go for it, surely the core aim of science.
Promote science as the source of understanding, discovery and development of enabling technologies that underlie the sustainable advancement of human society in the cosmos. We’d be mad no to. Remember, a flint hand tool, whose development depended on recognising cleavage planes in otherwise continuous naturally occurring hard material, was new technology once, as all technology is.
By promotion, I’m talking about informing and educating society about the above, to attract interest and resources – individuals to join the enterprise, and funds to support their work and their organisations, both commercial and institutional. All valid, laudable and indeed essential to the enterprise and to society itself.
But let’s not confuse promotion with education, and let’s not confuse education about science with science education. Sure each contributes to the other in a self-reinforcing virtuous-circle. Education that actually achieves understanding in the topic, also promotes effort towards achieving more of the same. Some aspects of education are part of that valid promotion. But education that inspires interest without actually achieving understanding, nevertheless also achieves the promotion objectives, so it is important to recognise that science education is more than science promotion.
The success of celebrity scientists – and celebrity honorary-science-supporting comics – in TV and Radio does a great deal to blur that distinction. If this played only into the virtuous-circle of promoting science (and technology) it would be OK, but through ever more ubiquitous public and social media debates on the biggest science-related issues of our times, the blurring of debate about and understanding of science issues is far more dangerous to the future of humanity.
The “lads’ science” of Sue Nelson’s piece reflects part of this. The very fact that “boys toys” technology and engineering media like Top Gear can be rolled into the same breath as the more explicitly “science” light-weight media of the likes of O’Briain, Fry, Ince and Cox is part of the conflation of science with its technological products.
Personally (as a bloke) I can take or leave “boys’ toys”, and the fact that these are obsessions of laddish males reflects well on the fairer sex IMHO – vive la differance (*). But science should not taint itself with such crass commercialism. Science – even when promoting itself publicly, commercially – needs to maintain blue-water between its gender-neutral self and the technology / life-style marketing of boys’ toys.
Maintaining boundaries – between science and technology in this case – is not just about agreeing to disagree about the distinction – that’s only ever a temporary cease-fire. In fact it never needs to be about “warring” at all. Boundaries reflect evolving definitions of the domains either side, where fences make good neighbours. The science / technology boundary is problematic enough itself, as described by the Sue Nelson piece, but a mere trifle compared to the wider science vs humanities debacle dangerously rail-roading wisdom out of the world at large.
[More on the science / humanities distinction – and the ongoing Pinker / Wieseltier dialogue – later.]
[(*) More on the positive value of real gender differences – not in science, but where they matter – in this dissertation.]