I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard senior scientists lament the lack of appreciation for science in the general populace. ‘If only people valued science we wouldn’t have all these problems with…’ and here you can fill any number of our current scientific bête noirs – climate change scepticism, the belief that homeopathy is any better than placebo, vaccine denial, and so on.
I sympathise with this point of view, which is why it makes my blood boil that some of those same senior scientists treat engagement with science either in the way Lindsay Lohan treats the highway code (as a rather troublesome bore) or pay it lip service, thinking the odd public lecture to the already interested somehow gets them off the hook.
It still amazes me that Carl Sagan was ridiculed by many of his peers who regarded his work in public engagement as something that devalued him - when the exact opposite was, of course, true. Richard Feynman suffered similarly from short-sighted colleagues.
Things have improved, though not enough. If I had a pound for every time in the last year I’ve heard Professor Brian Cox being lightly dusted down (out of his earshot) as ‘not really a proper scientist’ I could probably buy him quite a nice dinner.
I do, therefore I value?
Part of the problem is, I suspect, a widely held belief that you can only really appreciate, value (and therefore truly champion) science if you’ve put in some serious hours actually doing it or, at the very least, reading a lot about it – so the answer to getting the public on science’s side is to have more of us take scientific subjects at school, and reading the weighty tomes of Roger Penrose and the like.
Really? Well I’m not gay, but I believe discrimination based on sexuality is abhorrent. I’ve done no ‘gaying’ in my life (unless you count toying with the idea of seeing Judas Priest in concert). My bookshelf has no volumes by Armistead Maupin, my DVD collection none of the films of Derek Jarman. I hate musical theatre. You don’t have to be gay to care that society enshrines equal rights regardless of sexuality, and you don’t have to do science to be concerned that our society is evidence based.
So, perhaps we should ask ourselves: how did the gay community manage to get most people to care about something that, statistically, they have no personal investment in, while science is still battling to be valued by so many?
Science needs to fight
I’ll tell you why. Because the gay community went out fighting, and science needs to do the same. Which is why, finally, it’s so nice to hear the likes of Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington saying, ‘We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality... We are not – and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this – grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method.’
I’m heartened by the popularity of Ben Goldacre. I applaud Simon Singh’s recent libel battle. Things are getting better, but it’s taken far too long - and there’s still a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Max Plank famously said ‘Science advances one funeral at a time.’ Let’s make sure engagement with science doesn’t carry on advancing at a similar pace. Particularly when we have a planet to save.
Mark Stevenson is a comedy writer, director of learning consultancy flowassociates.com and ‘live science’ communication agency ReAgency.co.uk. He is the author of An Optimist’s View of the Future (Profile Books). You can follow Mark at www.optimistontour.com 
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