Non-Fiction Reviews

Uncertain Science: Uncertain World

(2003) Henry N. Pollack, Cambridge University Press, 18.99/US$28, hdbk, 243pp, ISBN 0-521-78188-4


Science Fiction takes us to the edge be it the rights of artificial life, the implications of global change, controlled pharmaceutical dependence by a population, taboo food supply, or the potential consequences of the developing information age. The boundary between hard SF and science is frequently blurred and sometimes science fiction discusses things well before the rest of us do. (For example the internet and computer viruses as a subversive tool featured in SF in the mid-1970s well before they arose in the real world in the early 1990s and widely appreciated only in the second half of that decade.) Similarly science on the edge is where the concerns lie. There is an urgency to spinning-off technology and 'goshit' is smaller: the gap between saying 'gosh' and 'oh shit'. As I write in the national headlines (well, on BBC Radio 4 news) we have the aversion of a chemical terrorist threat to London and antibiotic resistance with scientists called to comment or explain on both topics.

Scientists in recent years have been increasingly encouraged to engage in dialogue with the public. Similarly in recent years I have been tasked to represent the views of various scientific groups to policy makers. In short, I am no stranger to being asked direct questions by non-scientists on a range of topics from the best way to deal with Brent Spar to GM crop separation distances. (So I have experience of what I am talking about.) Frequently, there is no one, single, right answer but a range of solutions whose preference is determined by balancing interests such as (perceived) risk, political acceptability, and even - in some instances - constrained choice because the question was after the act of a solution being implemented. For many scientists engaging in public dialogue it means dealing with the press and this can so easily be a frustrating process. Unfortunately, much has been written on how scientists should handle themselves in such circumstances: 'unfortunately' because there is so much advice and some of this is not particularly helpful.

Fortunately there are a few examples of good guidance and Henry Pollack's book, Uncertain Science: Uncertain World is one. Pollack explains journalists' motivations and how scientists' stock answers and/or phrases can frustrate journalists probably nearly as much as scientists frequently are irritated by journalists. Pollack's background is geology, so the examples he takes are related more to geology than the rest of science, but one recurring theme - climate change - is equally applicable to the biosciences. (In fact here he summarises the same conclusion I came to in my own book Climate and Human Change: Disaster or Opportunity? but I will not give any spoilers.) Either way, his explorations and insights are as useful to non-geologists and so do not be put off: this offering is for all scientists.

There are chapters on uncertainty, which comes with science being an exploration of the unknown, the media, unfamiliarity breeding uncertainty, probability, solutions, and examples. It is written at the proverbial New Scientist level, and is engaging and easy to read (many scientists' books are not). I have rarely seen public understanding of science communication issues explained as lucidly since that great SF author (and planetary scientist) Carl Sagan tackled it decades ago, which is where we came in at the beginning of this review.

Anyone running a science PR course or workshop should include this book on their reading list. Any SF reader who finds it irritating that science does not have all the answers at the drop of a hat, or why news reporters continue to make such a balls-up of science coverage, will get much out of this book. In fact, newspaper editors should be locked up in a room with it and not allowed out until they have demonstrably shown they've absorbed Pollack's message. This is a brilliant book: probably the best in its field since The Demon-Haunted World (1996). Cambridge University Press should bring this out in paperback sooner rather than later and Pollack needs a two part TV documentary.

Jonathan Cowie

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