I’ve just belatedly watched the excellent doco by Sir Paul Nurse, new President of the Royal Society, in which he has a look at why science is often mistrusted by particular groups and perhaps the public at large. Thanks BBC2 and SBS online – watch it here while you can, or on Youtube here.
He mainly focuses on climate change, which of course is the issue du jour. There are also a couple of sections on AIDS denialism, and resistance to genetically modified crops.
However, it is climate change which is the main example – and the story is very simply and clearly told. He juxtaposes the cool, moderate statement of what we know, against the slightly flaky naysayers – for example, James Delingpole, who was the online journalist who coined ‘Climategate’, and who to this day believes science is corrupt. It’s actually hilarious to watch him squirm as Paul Nurse confronts him with a very simple analogy to shoot down his argument that science doesn’t work by consensus. He also admits he personally doesn’t read any primary sources – just what other commentators have written, saying he ‘interprets their interpretations’. And yet he still denies the science. He must be reading Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman.
In contrast to this nonsense, we learn from NASA observations that our planetary output of carbon dioxide is 7 gigatonnes, but that only 1 gigatonne can be accounted for from natural sources, such as volcanoes etc. If we add this simple fact to another simple fact – that carbon dioxide is a green house gas – then it is not possible to dispute that man is causing an increase in the greenhouse effect – hence rising global temperature. Simple. (If you want to revisit the climate discussion, here’s my attempt at simplifying the discussion. And a nice video on the subject here. There’s also this and this for a bit of fun too).
In the end, Paul Nurse tried to draw a thread between his examples, in an effort to understand what they have in common that makes them targets of denialism. He proposes that it is the sheer complexity of the science behind the issues which does the damage. In this age of short soundbites, people seek simple solutions to complex problems, and that’s where the trouble starts. This is strongly exemplified in the HIV-AIDS denialist, who claims to have cured himself of HIV with yoghurt, since it is his belief that AIDS-related illnesses are actually caused by a malfunction in the gut flora, not caused by HIV. Simple. To quote Ben Goldacre “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”.
Nurse ended up with the conclusion that science needs to be more open, and not simply leave it to commentators to make the case. And to underline this conclusion, we see him visiting a vault at the Royal Society which houses its more valuable documents, wherein we see him handling the very first minutes of the Society, handwritten and leather-bound and dated 1660! – thus demonstrating that transparency goes way back to beginnings of modern science. As an aside, he also handles the original ‘Principia’ by Isaac Newton, and a copy of ‘On the Origin of the Species’ annotated by Charlie himself. Wow. Just sayin’.
Despite his compelling conclusion that science needs to be out there competing with the ‘new’ media for headspace, I’m still in two minds. My feeling is that perhaps some things are just not amenable to soundbites, and sometimes things are just hard to understand. When that happens, we should just accept we have a lack of knowledge or understanding, and show some respect to those who do.