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This pandemic has taught us that science matters. In a sea of misinformation, communication is crucial

Malcolm Love says science communication has never been more important, as conspiracy theories grow.

IN 1997 I was months away from quitting my staff job as a senior producer at the BBC to set up my own business.  My boss sent me to a ‘scientific literacy’ conference at the science museum in London where I hoped to talent spot some potential science documentary presenters.  It was not exciting. 

One seminar about popularising science through TV turned out to be so spectacularly dull that ripping out a tooth might have been a welcome distraction.  I caught the eye of another and we were obliged, like school children, to stifle giggles at the complete absurdity of it.  

It turned out my fellow smirker was a professor of science communication (then known by the horribly patronising term ‘public understanding of science’ and the ugly acronym ‘PUS’).  It also turned out that meeting him was to be my door into a whole new universe. 

Today we talk about the ‘public engagement of science’ which has implications of dialogue, listening and a two-way street.  After 23 years of helping scientists engage and communicate better with the public I can rattle off pages of reasons why doing so is a good idea: 

  • Scientific knowledge belongs to everyone
  • Citizens need good information to participate in the democratic process
  • Breaking the geeky stereotype might inspire more young people to become the scientists of tomorrow
  • It promotes and facilitates technological enterprise and expertise
  • Knowing some science adds another level to the appreciation of everyday life and so on. 

CERN and the conspiracy theories

But these days, we enthusiasts for science communication are also fuelled by deeper concerns.  Periodically I run training for physicists and engineers at CERN, the home of the large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. 

switzerland-meyrin-cern-new-linear-accelerator GENEVA, May 9, 2017 European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland, on May 9, 2017. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

It’s the world’s largest experiment, devoted to finding out more about the fundamental nature of matter by smashing tiny bits of it together at enormous velocities.  Sometimes they have a Friday lunchtime talk and discussion ranging from the highly technical to the philosophical. 

One time they invited me as a guest speaker and we began talking about the curious conspiracy theories that come their way.  It turns out that answering the ‘phone in the communications office can be in turns both hilarious and alarming.

“You need to stop what you’re doing. You’re going to create a black hole that will swallow the earth”. “What are the aliens planning?  You must know, they talk to you”. “Why don’t you come clean?  Stop covering up. Admit the earth is flat”.

Later that same day, in a taxi from Bristol airport, my driver, apropos of nothing in particular, casually explained to me that we humans had never been to the moon.  He’d seen a YouTube video about it. 

Aaaagh!  Now that’s the stuff of paranoia – and as ‘they’ like to say, ‘just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!’  

Freedom vs. science

In a free society, we can believe whatever we like.  You can believe that water remembers molecules that were once dissolved in it.  You can believe that climate change is a myth or that vaccination is a dangerous conspiracy.  But believing these things doesn’t make them true.  And, believing such things has consequences.  Thinking that painting your living room avocado green will be a wise thing to do is clearly of a different order to denying climate change.  The former might mean your friends stop coming round.  But the latter may result in the end of organised human life.

It appears we have fake news, misinformation and ‘alternative facts’ in epidemic proportions about all kinds of things, including epidemics.  There have always been people who believe weird things.  What is now of concern is the sheer increase in the numbers of people who believe in weird things.  Supporters of a ‘flat earth’ model appear to have gone up.  Large numbers of people worldwide oppose vaccination programmes.  Donald Trump exemplifies a cache of current heads of state who do not believe in catastrophic human-made climate change. 

dara Irish comedian, Dara Ó Briain. Source: Victoria Jones, PA Source: Victoria Jones, PA

Exploring the reasons why this has come to be will take more space than we have here.  But part of the antidote has something to do with understanding how science works.  I once watched comedian Dara Ó Briain deliver a set at the Cheltenham Science Festival.  (Dara studied physics and maths at University College Dublin). 

Sometimes people come up to me all reasonable and rational sounding and they say ‘Dara, Science doesn’t know everything’.  Exactly!” He shrieks with comic exasperation, “that’s the whole f…ing point of science!

That entertaining rant is profound.  The starting point of science is ignorance.  The only thing to go on is evidence.  What is the evidence?  What might this evidence mean?  Let’s test our ideas.  So, we get some theories and ideas about how the world works.  And the brutal process of science is to knock ideas down until some come along that can stay standing.  And it works! 

The modern world is only possible because humans employed the scientific method.  Science doesn’t know everything.  The progress of science is usually painfully slow.  The path is crooked.  It even sometimes doubles back on itself.  But little by little, piece by piece, we can establish some certainties.  Science knows something!

Mad science

One of the liberating things about science is that it has nothing to do with personalities.  Now I can hear the guffaws from the scientific community.  OK, I admit science is stuffed full of larger than life egos. That’s not what I mean.  What I mean is that something is not true because of who said it, but regarded as more certain because it has been subjected to the scientific method.  That’s why climate change activist Greta Thunberg urges her audience “Don’t listen to me. Listen to the science”. 

If science is not about personalities, the communicating of science can benefit greatly from some personality.  Maybe conspiracy theories are easier to hold because popular culture has most frequently presented scientists as strange otherworldly eccentrics.  Dr Frankenstein blasphemously crosses into God’s domain. Wild haired crazies like Dr Emmet Brown (Back to the Future) can be persuaded to invent useful stuff.  Maniacs like Dr Strangelove advise presidents and villains about evil schemes. 

One of the great and unexpected pleasures of my life has been an annual involvement (as trainer and coach) with the International FameLab competition.  FameLab was cooked up by the organisers of the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK in or around 2004, as a talent hunt.  Inspired by ‘Fame Academy’, a contemporary TV knockout competition for singers, FameLab was imagined as a way of finding, inspiring and then training, young science communication talent.  It is where scientific research meets show business. 

The challenge of FameLab is to wow a general audience with a talk about science in just three minutes. A panel of judges weighs each presentation from the perspective of content, clarity and the charisma displayed by the contestants.  The participants are not allowed PowerPoint and can only use props they can bring onto the stage themselves.  

Having begun as an item in a UK science festival programme, today, through its partnership with the British Council, FameLab has become a global phenomenon where it has run in some 36 countries on every continent except Antarctica.  Ireland has had an impressive showing.  The year after the Ireland champion (Fergus McAuliffe) went on to win the champion of champions competition in Cheltenham, another Irishman, representing the Netherlands took the crown. 

FameLab Ireland / YouTube

FameLab in Ireland has inspired a torrent of science communication initiatives and its finalists continue to influence via radio, TV and the stage.  Part of the effect of the event is that it reveals scientists are not as a geeky or dangerous as the conspiracy theorists would have you believe.

They are not secretive people, playing god with our genes; useful backroom boffins solving problems for the military or deranged Dr Strangeloves doing who knows what.  They are revealed as people just like the rest of us.  They are simply people delegated to find stuff out about the world in a systematic and rigorous way.  From that perspective, the ‘us and them’ breaks down. It follows that science is no longer perceived as belonging just to scientists.  It’s our science.

At the big FameLab events, audiences enthusiastically whoop, call and laugh, willing each of the contestants to do well.  It is as if speaker after speaker, rather than competing with each other, is stepping up to rouse the faithful at a political rally.  The crowd are fans of a cause.  And the cause is science artfully poured upon the public consciousness.  Beneath the entertaining details of each piece of research and its implications lies a deeper, more vital idea:  That we human beings have found a way to be more certain about the world precisely because we remain wide open to being proved wrong. 

Malcolm Love is a producer and presenter, formerly of the BBC.  He now works as a consultant for CEOs, MPs, local politicians, academics and campaigners. He provides support for numerous organisations including charities, government organisations, the church and international festivals. This FameLab Ireland final will take place virtually on Wednesday, 15 April 6 pm on the British Council Ireland Facebook page.  It will be hosted by TV and radio broadcaster Jonathan McCrea with broadcaster, comedian, musician and former FameLab UK winner Emer Maguire as the interval act.

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