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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Reith Lectures and the Scientific Citizen

I recommend that if you have a spare 30 minutes today you give this a listen:

The Reith Lectures 2010: Scientific Horizons

Martin Rees gives an excellent lecture here and the debate hits upon my own concern for science communication. As I have described before, I strongly feel that no matter what your background it is healthy practice to develop a scientific way of thinking, to be critical of the information you are bombarded with in the media and question where it comes from. Some of the questions to Rees were touching on the issue of how exactly people might do this. Interestingly, the journalist perspective seemed, in this debate, to be that the public want definite answers, certainties, whereas science “trades in organized doubt”. In reality, you need the doubt in order to get to the certainty, and I think that this way of thinking needs to be admired and embraced if the relationship between science and the public is going to change.

Recently, Physics World have given me the exciting opportunity to write some particle physics stories for them, and I am learning that there is a frustration between the scientific community’s concerns to be factual and clear about measurements, not to mislead anyone, and the (even scientific) public’s apparent need for a clear-cut, well-defined breakthrough in the news. Physics World readers have the advantage that they are able to access the papers behind the stories, but how clear is it, even then, what the pitfalls and potential problems with the measurement are? Only the experts of the field are familiar with them, and if they are ignored or even diminished for the sake of a story, any subsequent criticism from other scientists and measurements that dispute the result make the journalists look foolish, the scientists look untrustworthy and confuse the public even more. The reporter for Physics World, James Dacey, expressed this frustration in his blog recently here.

Hannah Devlin and Mark Henderson’s report (and my appearance) in The Times on Saturday has highlighted the uncertainty scientists like myself are now facing in our career futures. However, I do have a major passion, that is becoming clear now that I have to consider options outside of academia. Whether in employment or not, I want to work to help the public think like scientists. From understanding the significance and credibility of the “study that has shown X” to learning about the conflicts and debates that go on within scientific fields, skepticism is more useful and often more interesting than the punchy unquestioning headline, and I think, if done properly, the public can handle more doubt than they are given credit for.

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One response to “Reith Lectures and the Scientific Citizen”

  1. John Lunn says:

    You are setting yourself a Hurculean challenge here, Zoe. Logical thinking, which is the basis for scientific analysis, is not valued in our society regardless of the lip service it’s given. We thrive on gut reaction in politics, news, television and even internet content over depth of analysis. Why? Because it excites the audience in a short burst long enough to sell them something. We are taught to be consumers first and foremost. It drives our lives and our economies and we learn it from our first Big Mac Happy Meal right on through our extravagant choice of casket.
    The heart of the consumer society is the short attention span. Otherwise, you don’t buy the product, be it a toy, a car, a politician, or a “fact”.

    I wish you good luck. We need to change!