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Science’s ego 01.09.17

This is a personal blog by David Cohen.

Last night the AprilSix Proof team popped over to the Science Museum – a home-from-home – to hear luminaries of the media and scientific worlds debate what the Oxford Dictionary called the Word of 2016 – post-truth. Is it actually a word? Is it not two, with an inappropriate hyphen shoved in-between? For some reason these were not the issues covered; instead we listened to Evan Davis of Newsnight, Matthew D’Ancona of The Guardian and Evening Standard, and James Ball of Buzzfeed wrestle with how to deal with a global landscape that seems to hold little regard for what science has to offer, moderated by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre.

There were many issues grappled with: how much is the media to blame for the situation? Can scientists communicate better? TRUMP. What role does the press officer have in all this? BREXIT. How much attention should we give to those with “disproven” views, such as climate change deniers? £350M. A blog on any one of these issues would take an age to write comprehensively, so I am not going to attempt to cover them – the respective books of the three panelists should help you out there.

Instead, I am going to write about the opening remarks. The Director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, talked about the role that institutions such as his had in trying to bring sense, calm and scientific rigour to public debate. Great, you might think – a very worthy cause. Yet the way he conveyed this message, for me anyway, beggared belief and goes a long way in outlining why post-truth is so prevalent.

He compared ideas like creationism to viruses, describing them as “insidious”, as things that needed to be eradicated. Anti-vaxxers were called “stupid people” with not an air but a one-ton weight of contempt; indeed, he reveled in telling a story in which he rescinded an invitation to a US celebrity because he found out they were an anti-vaxxer.

I may only be but a lowly science public relations professional, but even I can see that if you want to convince someone of your point of view, don’t call them an idiot. Do not call them stupid. Do not compare them to a virus that we need to wipe out. It astounded me that a fantastic institution as the Science Museum could have such an uncompromising voice at its head

Thankfully, the panel was a little bit more controlled. Evan Davis called for modesty from scientists, while Matthew D’Ancona argued that logical thinking is not the be all and end all, and that emotion is crucial to convincing someone of a point of view. But even he referred to himself as “rationally converted”.

Herein lies the problem.

There is a sense that those that use reason and logic are somehow better than those who do not. You can see this in the schadenfreude of subreddits like r/Trumpgret, or the virality of videos posted by concerned Brexit voters in the days after the EU referendum. Indeed, type “brexit voters” into your Google search bar and take a look at the suggestions.

This then follows that many people that work in science, or consume its findings, gain some kind of superiority complex, creating an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. “We’re right, they’re just not understanding us properly.” Unfortunately, that is not how things work. Divisions are rarely healed by a logically calm explanation of why you are right and someone else is not.

Because of this, and because of Ian Blatchford’s remarks, I cannot help but feel that post-truth has some way to run yet. The scientific industry needs to shed its ego and take a different approach. There are many other structural factors that need to change too, such as clickbait culture and political spin, but our industry can help things along by signaling a shift in how we conduct ourselves. Evan Davis had it right – we need to be more modest. Fact is really only theory until something better comes along.

Thankfully, the audience showed that there are many in the scientific world that understand this. Questions were intelligent, considered and thoughtful, in stark contrast to the words from Ian Blatchford. If that is the future of the scientific industry, then I will be able to sleep a little easier at night.

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