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28/07/2014

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Opinion: March 2012

Take the box away

Ottoline Leyser wants to liberate science.

Science is in the wrong place. It has been separated from normal human endeavor and put in a stainless steel box. The box is full of boffins who are simultaneously superhuman and subhuman. They have superhuman intelligence and are on a Quest for Ultimate Truth, but they work like subhuman automata:  cold, efficient and amoral. The steel box and their white coats protect them from normal people, and normal people from them.

Ottoline Leyser wants to liberate science.

Science is in the wrong place. It has been separated from normal human endeavor and put in a stainless steel box. The box is full of boffins who are simultaneously superhuman and subhuman. They have superhuman intelligence and are on a Quest for Ultimate Truth, but they work like subhuman automata:  cold, efficient and amoral. The steel box and their white coats protect them from normal people, and normal people from them.

It is widely acknowledged that more communication is needed between the box-dwellers and the rest of the world, but fundamentally almost everyone accepts that science belongs in the box. The box-dwellers like the idea that they are superhumans on a Quest for Ultimate Truth, and the rest of the world is more than happy to put all that stuff into the box, shut the lid, and forget about it. This makes the current situation extremely stable - everyone likes it. Unfortunately, it is extremely dangerous. It perpetuates fundamental misunderstanding about what science is and instead builds fear, with very real consequences. Children in the UK are dying of measles, after all.

Process not outcome

The fact is, there is no box. Science is not about the Quest for Ultimate Truth.  Science is a human activity done by normal humans with normal human motives and needs. Science is driven by curiosity and a desire to make things better, with some messy combination of selfish and altruistic motives. Science is about a human desire to reduce uncertainty by building models of the world that have both explanatory and predictive power. If we can understand how the world works, predict what it will do in the future, and find ways to avoid or mitigate its perceived negative impacts, then we can live in a less uncertain and more secure place.

Science can be a powerful force for good, but it would be much more effective if it were fully integrated into society, and recognized for what it is and, as importantly, for what it isn’t. It is not important that anyone knows anything in particular that science has discovered - but it is crucial that everyone knows how things are discovered.

It is encouraging that there is an increasing desire to do something about the marginalization of science. This is evident from the upsurge in interest in science topics among the broadcast media. But this is still science-in-a-box, and focused on outcome rather than process. Virtually all science programmes involve a boffin, albeit a relatively charismatic one, telling you stuff very very slowly, because obviously you are not really capable of understanding it. Shiny things are pulled out of the box, we are told how amazing they are, and then they are put firmly back in again. These programmes have their place, but ultimately they reinforce the segregation of science and the erroneous idea that science is about Ultimate Truth rather than models.

New approaches

We need a wider variety of approaches, involving fewer boffins and more people. We need Ready Steady Science, with teams racing to design experiments to test a given hypothesis; or The Moral Science Maze, with people discussing alternative options for solving topical problems, such as fossil fuel replacement. Or a game show where teams are given a phenomenon for which they must find an explanation. They can ask for the results they would obtain if they did three, and only three, experiments. The team with the best explanation at the end wins.

In comparison, talking boffins are easy. But the box myth must be dispelled. Science is much less useful kept in a box.

Enough variety to inspire

Deborah Cohen replies to Ottoline Leyser

In an ideal world, science wouldn’t need to be in ‘a box’. The public would know how science works – they’d understand that it’s done by people who have ups and downs during their research, that science is a human activity. Researchers have arguments, they have setbacks, they go down blind alleys.

Deborah Cohen replies to Ottoline Leyser

In an ideal world, science wouldn’t need to be in ‘a box’. The public would know how science works – they’d understand that it’s done by people who have ups and downs during their research, that science is a human activity. Researchers have arguments, they have setbacks, they go down blind alleys.

But that’s not yet the world we live in. The public remains suspicious of science and of some of what science has given us, such as nuclear power. People lose confidence when scientists change their minds, for instance about climate change. ‘Well, if scientists can’t decide amongst themselves, then I won’t believe any of them,’ is an argument we often hear. They don’t understand that the findings of science are often provisional.

Entertainment attracts

TV commissioners look for programmes that attract large audiences – and some of those that put a lone scientist in ‘the box’ on the box do just that. Take ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ and ‘… of the Universe’. In these documentaries Brian Cox explains the latest scientific understanding of the planets and the cosmos. What makes this style of programme so popular – with audiences of 4.4 million viewers for one episode – is the combination of jaw-dropping pictures and great storytelling.

Brian’s programmes – and those presented by other working researchers (Jim Al-Khalili, Marcus du Sautoy, Alice Roberts and Iain Stewart, for example) have a crucial role in inspiring the public to think about how science explains the world, and entertain at the same time.

These programmes have been incredibly successful at bringing lay people to physics and astronomy. At least some of them will go on to find out more about science and, perhaps, to study it.

How research is done

It is true that these programmes don’t often show the process of research. That’s sometimes found in an abbreviated form in documentaries, such as ‘Horizon’.

On radio there is much more scope to show what it’s like to be a scientist. As there are no pictures, speech-radio producers depend mainly on conversation.  Radio presenters at their best draw out much more than facts from their interviewees. The best programmes tell stories about how scientific discoveries are made – with all the ups and downs.

In October 2011, Radio 4 began a new series, ‘The Life Scientific’; half-hour conversations between Jim Al-Khalili and one scientist. Here, Colin Blakemore talked about his 13 years of being targeted by animal activists. Jocelyn Bell Burnell discussed how she felt about not being awarded the Nobel Prize for her part in the discovery of pulsars.

Being a scientist

For the second time, Radio 4 is running a talent search to find Britain’s amateur scientist of the year, ‘So You Want to be a Scientist?’ It is part of Material World, the weekly news magazine about science. The aim is to introduce the participants and the audience to what makes an experiment scientific.

In 2010 the winner was Ruth Brooks, a grandmother from Totnes, who had wanted to find out how far she would have to move the snails from her garden to stop them returning. Teamed-up with biologist Dave Hodgson from the University of Exeter, Ruth learnt about analysing results and using Fisher’s Exact Test. Many media outlets covered Ruth’s experience of learning about what it’s like being a scientist, and her comment about the project was that it was: ‘one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life.’

I would maintain that today’s broadcast media provide a rich variety of programmes that show, to different degrees, many aspects of science and that, indeed, encourage the public to think outside ‘the box’.

Professor Ottoline Leyser
Professor Ottoline Leyser is Associate Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge
Deborah Cohen
Deborah Cohen is the Editor of the BBC Radio Science Unit
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