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Post no. 22 (Power to the people – NOT!)

January 3, 2009

I’m still fuming. The steam is condensing on my glasses and I can’t see a thing.

Michael Brooks – a consultant for New Scientist, no less – said that “The public complain that science is just too difficult and boring”. Then he suggests that “We should take a risk and canvass public opinion about where society wants science to go – then act on the results.”

The reason: “More lay people find it hard to accept that their taxes are used for research in which no one but the scientists involved can judge or appreciate progress and merit.”

I think that “Bollocks!” is a suitable interjection. Let me rephrase what I think he means.

Many people think that science is abstruse, yet it is funded from their taxes. It’s not fair. Why don’t we ask them what they want to see so we give them more of it?

Let’s try it with something else, shall we?

Many people think that the law is abstruse, yet its administration is funded from their taxes. Why don’t we ask them what they want to see so we give them more of it?

It is a downside of specialisation that one tends to lose sight of the big picture. The activity we call science has become so vast that progress can only be made if one directs one’s efforts at a single target – or a limited set of targets. The days of the polymath are long gone. Brooks argues that specialisation is perceived as dull, so if we really have to specialise we must specialise in something the public is interested in… can anyone spot the inconsistency here or is it just me? Specialisation necessarily means doing something that not everybody can or wants to do. This means that however interesting (haha) or broadly appealing the subject is, a point will be reached where few people will be interested any more. Electronic gadgetry is something most of us love, but how many of us can really understand the physics and chemistry behind our games consoles or Blu-Ray disc players?

Brooks also quotes Erwin Schrödinger (he of the cat in a box fame):

“Never lose sight of the role your particular subject has within the great performance of the tragic-comedy of human life. If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless.”

Very rich that, coming from someone whose contribution to science cannot be described in words. Schrödinger gave us the wave equation, which describes how the probability of finding an electron at a particular energy level varies in time. Very appealing, don’t you think? But science has made huge steps in unlocking some of nature’s secrets through that concept. Would we have arrived at it if we had to ask the public what they want to see? Resoundingly no.

To be fair on Brooks, he also warned about the possibility of scientists using convoluted logic to justify their research funded out of public funds. There are also hubristic tendencies to contend with along the way… but we must bear in mind that science is, after all, a human activity – riddled with our inherent imperfections.

Brooks’s piece really got my goat because I do not hold public opinion in high regard. Let me rephrase that because it sounds a tad rightist. Certain jobs are best left to experts in the field. A plumbing job is no different to the chosen course scientific research should take. Both will come to grief if left to unskilled hands. Respecting other people’s opinion doesn’t mean having to hold all opinions in equal regard.

I feel that this relates to Post no. 15.

OK. That’s that for today.


From → The Elephant

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