The impossible may take a little longer

(2002)

A recent survey found the public expects the impossible of scientists. But are scientists expecting the impossible of the public? Ted Nield asks in Geoscientist (June 2002 issue) and presented here with permission

Believing that what everyone thinks impossible might just be possible is generally held something of a virtue in scientists. After all, the Earth is round. Space is curved. Continents do move. And we know that because someone once had the courage to believe the impossible.

It isn't always like that. Sometimes the impossible really is impossible. For example, ichthyologists are almost unanimous that yoga breathing techniques provide absolutely no protection against shark attack. Behavioural ecologist Erich Ritter, 43, a Swiss researcher based in Miami, has a different view. He has long espoused the method that all his colleagues pooh-poohed as impossible. And he is now recovering in St Mary's Medical Centre in West Palm Beach, Florida after an adult bullshark, unimpressed by the yogic inhaling, took a chunk out of his leg.

Dedication to proving sincerely held theories - to the point of folly and beyond - is one of those thing for which the public admires scientists. Stories of them risking their lives in the pursuit of truth do scientists no public relations harm, even when they are spectacularly wrong - which I offer as some slight consolation to Dr Ritter in his convalescence.

However, concern about the image scientists have with the public - once so much the vogue - has now taken on a more serious cast. Scientists today seem to have given up worrying about how to combat unhelpful media cliche and the like. In the wake of foot and mouth, BSE and all the rest, the big issue of the moment is - public trust.

So serious is this situation thought to be that The Royal Society (the UK government-funded body of top science researchers) dedicated its very first National Science Forum to examining the subject (Do we trust today's scientists? Royal Society, March 6). Several of my media and media relations colleagues spoke at it. There was, apparently, a debate with non-scientists. There was a panel of the great and good, who were going to answer questions from the floor. There were regional versions too. All in all, it was quite an effort.

I regret to say that I did not attend, having been that day contacted by an experimental ophthalmologist (and believer in the impossible) who thinks he can cure astigmatism by acupuncture. Choosing between a debate about public trust in science at the Royal, and an afternoon in Crouch End having red-hot needles stuck in my eyes was difficult.

The trouble with the "public trust" debate is that it rarely honestly conducted. When scientists ask "why does the public mistrust us?", what they really mean is "Why does the public not trust us implicitly?". Thus if anyone dare suggest that the right answer might be "Yes, you should trust scientists, but no more and no less than you would trust anyone else, so use your common sense" their view tends to be regarded as in some way less than satisfactory.

After a while one begins to wonder how much of this alleged problem resides only in scientists' minds. The recent Wellcome Trust/Office of Science & Technology survey Science & the public - a review of science communication and public attitudes to science, showed clearly that the public does trust scientists - up to a point. They trust university scientists more than government scientists, and government scientists more than commercial scientists, because it seems obvious to them that anyone who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Most folk would say this was an eminently sensible attitude. To expect more (as many scientists seem to) would surely be believing the impossible...

Concern over paymasters' influence on science was also borne out in a MORI poll commissioned to coincide with the Royal Society's Forum. Of those questioned, 55% agreed (28% strongly) that science funding was becoming too commercial. This might be encouraging - it suggests we are witnessing not a failure of faith in science itself, but merely the public's suspicion that filthy lucre and the heavy hand of Government are corrupting it. Would the belief that scientists are too pure in heart to yield to the allure of money and the approval of the powerful, constitute "believing the impossible"? I believes it does. Yet that would appear to be what many scientists want to see in the adulation they crave.

My long-suffering Geoscientist readers will know already that the "Public Understanding of Science" lobby has - not for want of telling - finally come round to the idea that what is needed is more scientists who understand the public. So when the Royal Institution's new (and independent) Science Media Centre opened on March 28, the inevitable opinion poll it commissioned concentrated on just that. What are the public's expectations? We've had polls on the image of scientists, and attitudes to science; but we don't know very much about expectations.

Apparently, 71% of the public "look to scientists to give an 'agreed view' about science issues", while 61% expect science "to provide 100% guarantees about the safety of medicines". In other words, the public expects science to do the very thing it cannot do - provide absolute certainty. As Mark Peplow, Science Information Officer at the Science media Centre said in the statement released with the findings: "The public's expectations of what science can deliver are wide of the mark. Disagreement is a fundamental part of scientific enquiry." The poll also revealed that 85% of the public feel scientists need to improve the way they communicate their research findings to the public through the media; good news for the Science Media Centre, because that is what they hope to do.

So - on the one hand the public expects the impossible of science (that it should provide certainty) while on the other, many scientists continue to believe the impossible of the public (that they should trust them absolutely). Each having placed these unreasonable expectations on the other, domestic strife cannot be far away. The public feels let down when it doesn't get certainty. They look for reasons and sensibly assume that money and power lie at the root of it. Scientists, still fondly hoping they can wash out the stains their labcoats have accumulated since the 1960s, begin to despair that nobody trusts them at all - which is an over-reaction and untrue.

There is no moral to this tale, except perhaps that probably things are not as bad as they seem. Young scientists are keen to get trained in public presentation. According to yet another survey (published on March 21 by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)), while 60% of scientists questioned had at one time done some communicating, almost none had received any training. They evidently felt bad about it because 76% said they would take up the Council's new Public Communication Training Funds (PCTFs). These grants of 500 are being made available as an option on all research grants made by Engineering (EPSRC) Research Council from April 2002. The new funds will provide 500 per grant for courses covering the skills required for effective communication via the broadcast or written media, and for presentations, lectures, demonstrations or debates for the general public and school audiences.

Perhaps, when these aspiring communicators take up their Public Communication Training Fund grants, they should be sent a list of things that really are impossible. 1) Rivers flowing uphill 2) Using yoga breathing techniques as shark protection 3) Absolute certainty in science and 4) The total trust of a sensible person.

Dr Ted Nield is a science writer. He works for the Geological Society of London as Science Communications officer, and is editor of www.geolsoc.org.uk and sub editor of the monthly colour magazine Geoscientist.


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