By Nick Ross - Broadcaster, Journalist, Chairman, Campaigner 

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Ahead of tomorrow's Huxley Summit entitled “The will of the people: science and innovation in a post-truth world”, Nick Ross (former BBC Watchdog and Crimewatch presenter) gives us his thoughts on how and what society can learn from GM to help future technological advancements.

Get in early, get in first. Scientists must pioneer the ethical  and political debates, not simply offer evidence after a row has broken out. The reason GM became so controversial, as with fracking, is that almost no one had heard of it until there were plans to introduce it. Contrast that with say, gene therapy, where the Clothier Commission was established before any human trials were introduced, and where – since people believed this had been properly thought through - there was no outcry.

Get in early in another sense. We collectively (and not just the specific educationalists among us) can help fashion the UK curriculum, and the way we communicate science betrays the young. Science is not physics, chemistry or biology – and yet that is how it is taught. Science is a set of methodologies for testing evidence. Good geographers, or for that matter diligent historians, are scientists. We finally need to ditch the old-fashioned concept of two cultures which so exasperated C P Snow and recognise there are three: expressive (as in abstract art), faith (as in religion and quackery) and evidential (as in science). I say again: science is not a set of disciplines but a way of establishing, challenging and verifying evidence. It is more important that children should know why personal experience and anecdote are unreliable, and why proportionality is so crucial, than that they should learn whether a fertilised egg is called a zygote or even how elements combine. Arming them with scientific methodology gives them much more grounding for life than filling them with scientific facts.

Thirdly, accept that once minds have been made up it is very hard to change them. We have taught science so badly that we have a lost generation of adults, and we are now in danger of losing many of children who are at school. The MMR scandal showed how some sections of the public, untrained in scientific thinking, will believe what they want to believe however loudly the scientific community seeks to put them right. As with nuclear power it can take decades to change attitudes once ways of thinking are ingrained. And since science is provisional – about the only proof is in mathematics and whisky – the scientific community is at a disadvantage when arguing with zealots.

By the way, it’s not just a post-truth world that spreads falsehoods, of course. We homo sapiens are programmed to make meaningful shapes out of everything we see, and narratives out of everything we experience. Accordingly, we have always believed in tosh. Arguably, the great decline of religion in Europe is a sign of rationality slowly overcoming allegiance to a creed. But we still have multi-billion-dollar industries peddling quackery, the established news media spreading biased and sometimes deeply distorted news, and even scientific journals seizing on dramatic findings and ignoring swathes of meticulous research. In one area of my own expertise, crime, we see everyone including the prime minister believing absolute tosh about trends based on recorded police statistics. The past has shown society is easily misguided – which demonstrates, of course, that it is human.

The Rt Hon. the Lord David Willetts, Chair of the British Science Association, at the Huxley Summit 2017 launch 

The Huxley Summit is being held at the Royal Institution on the 29 November 2017. It will bring together some of the UK’s top leaders in business, science, politics and media to look at the role societal acceptance plays in the success of new technologies. This year’s Summit is supported by EY, Diageo, London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, SCI and the Royal Institution. It is delivered by the British Science Association, in collaboration with a high profile Advisory Board.

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