Martin Rees addresses the Australian Academy of Science

Guest post by Guy Micklethwait

Recently Lord Martin Rees, a University of Cambridge professor and president of the Royal Society, gave a talk at the Australian Academy of Science. The Shine Dome was filled to capacity, as he spoke about the role of science in facing the upcoming world challenges over the next 50 years. He made some interesting points about science communication:

First: that research was only one part of the role of scientists; the other part was communicating their research to the public, to other scientists and to politicians. He felt this was important because he wanted policy makers to get the best possible advice – based on high quality science.

Second: “The GM [genetically modified] crops debate went wrong in the UK because scientists came in too late.” Ongoing protests to industry had already polarised the argument and British public opinion had become anti-GM before scientists had joined the discussion. He said that in the UK they didn’t want this to happen with nanotechnology, so they were making sure that scientists were involved in that discussion right from the start.

Third: that it is important to engage with the public at a conceptual level without too much detail, so that they can become aware of the issues. He said that everyone had a right to participate in public debates about controversial scientific developments such as nuclear power and designer babies, but that “citizens all need at least a feel for science and a realistic attitude to risk.”

A member of the audience pointed out that as a member of the House of Lords, he was a politician as well as a scientist, and asked him whether he thought more scientists should become involved in politics. He replied that as a rule, he didn’t think scientists would make good politicians, but rather they should concentrate on communicating their science to the existing politicians.

2 thoughts on “Martin Rees addresses the Australian Academy of Science

  1. Martin Rees’ address to the Academy of Science indeed raised some interesting points for sci com, but they were not all positive in my view.

    His requirement that people need to have “a feel for science” and “a realistic attitude to risk” before participating in public debates about scientific and technological developments is a version of the deficit model: in Rees’ view people who lack these things are attitudinally deficient. To state that such folk are not entitled to speak out on matters that affect their lives is anti-democratic. It privileges a rationalist scientistic perspective on things rather than allowing people to raise objections to sci & tech in their own language, and to frame the issues in terms that are meaningful to them. Rees’ hostility towards protestors against GM technologies (above), people who may have objections to nanotechnology (above), and animal rights activists (whom he labelled the “idiots” in the “global village”, alongside other ‘extremists’) reveals his technocratic leanings: he implicitly characterised such folk as ‘antiscience’. This is an unhelpful attitude to have towards the people who have to live with the (sometimes rotten) fruits of science, especially in an era when Rees’ own House of Lords has proclaimed the importance of public consultation on controversial scientific and technological developments.

    Further on that point Rees discussed the problem of the media granting too much attention to dissenting views on climate change. He cautioned that if people are “prudent” they must consider the credentials of experts before taking their views into account. In general, I agree: knowing where a person is speaking from, what their vested interests are, what their experience is and so on is absolutely critical for understanding why they are saying what they are saying. In the climate change debate, for example, I agree that it is dangerous for the planet to listen to experts funded by the fossil fuels sector.

    It is not always possible, however, for people to differentiate between a ‘credible’ expert and a ‘non-credible’ expert when people with the same level of experience and qualifications may end up on opposite sides of a debate. Not all credible scientists are virtuous purveyors of ‘truth’. People will make up their own minds who to believe based on factors that are relevant to them such as personal integrity and similar values. We all do this, even scientists, since the scientific process in a pragmatic sense is based on trust in previous scholars’ appraisals of previous previous scholars’ expertise rather than solely on our own first hand empirical research.

    In addition, those experts with ‘credentials’ are not necessarily those with peerages and/or multiple degrees from Cambridge. An out of work weaver living on a beach in Tuvalu is potentially an excellent expert on climate change as much as is a professor of climatology at ANU. Both have their limitations and biases as well as strengths to contribute to the debate. If people then make the ‘wrong’ decision based on the flood of information and diverse perspectives presented to them, that doesn’t make them stupid. Rather, it means that it is our job as science communicators to do a better job of persuading them otherwise by understanding where they are coming from and working with them, instead of treating them as idiots to be bludgeoned into seeing the world the way we do. Alternatively it may be our job to respect their views and leave them be, acknowledging that sometimes we don’t have all the answers.

    Rees declared that science is the only truly global culture, and that science is the same everywhere. He advocated a position in which ‘our’ “common vision” should transcend all differences of nationality and race. This understanding of science whitewashes the role played by Western science in furthering European imperialism over many hundreds of years. It also trivialises as ‘non-science’ any approaches to science that dissent from a Western orthodox consensus, particularly those strongly embedded in identities built on nationality, race and/or ethnicity, such as (perhaps) Yorta Yorta science, or Inuit science, or Chinese medicine. If Western science is truly global it is only because of its hegemonic displacement of the world’s many other knowledge systems, and that is not something to be proud of and probably not something to be fostered.

    This last point also speaks to a remark made by the British High Commissioner, the Rt Hon Baroness Amos, in her introduction to Rees’ lecture. Amos was concerned about ‘anti-science’ tendencies in society and emphasised the need for science-based policy making. She noted that “the debate” was “moving backwards” in some countries. The language of this remark, specifically the word ‘backwards’, reflects a Eurocentric view of the world, one in which ‘we’ humans are moving along a set trajectory from a time of ‘barbaric’ or ‘primitive’ ‘superstition’ towards an enlightened future built on (Western) science and technology. This developmentalist view of the world is a core part of the West’s mythology about itself, which states that we emerged from the ‘dark ages’ into the light with the decline of institutionalised religion and the advent of Enlightenment science in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is dangerous to generalise this myth to the whole of humanity because doing so equates all alternative worldviews with a childlike state, since to move towards them (and therefore away from Western science) is to go ‘backwards’. Again, such alternative views may include non-Western versions of science, including many of the world’s indigenous knowledge systems, since they may include elements of that which Westerners call ‘science’ and that which Westerners call ‘religion’ or ‘superstition’. I suggest it is the role of science communicators to approach diverse belief systems with a nuanced, respectful attitude rather than rejecting them outright as ‘the enemy’ or disdaining them as ‘backwards’. We must acknowledge the cultural assumptions embedded in the knowledge system we call ‘science’ rather than believing that Western science grants us objective access to truth that all other knowledge systems lack.

  2. Pingback: GM Crops in Australia: A Failure in Science Communication? | diffusion

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