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Reith lectures 2010 - lecture one: The Scientific Citizen

Tuesday 1 June 2010, 09:30

Steve Bowbrick Steve Bowbrick Head of Interactive, Radio 3

This morning, during the first of this year's Reith lectures, we hosted a live chat about the lecture and the topics discussed here on the blog. Lots of listeners joined in, by typing comments directly into the live chat here, by sending email to thereithlectures@bbc.co.uk and by tweeting using the hashtag #reith. You can replay the resulting conversation below (it might make sense to listen to the lecture while you're doing so) and subscribe to the Reith 2010 podcast. If you joined in, please leave a comment below to tell us what you thought of the exercise. Would you join in again? Would you like to see this kind of live conversation around other programmes? How could we improve it?

And don't forget to join in again next week, at 0900 on Tuesday 8 June. The lecture's title is 'Surviving the Century.'

Steve Bowbrick is editor of the Radio 4 blog

Comments

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    Comment number 21.

    I'm afraid I don't take anything "science" has to say as read anymore. It has allowed itself to be come tainted with politics and/or social engineering (i.e. selective funding), and as such has lost it's integrity. The best that can be done these days is to read around a subject, collect as may viewpoints as possible, and then reach my own conclusion. I certainly take no notice of politicians or the media that use phrases like "A new report says...." unless the authors name and qualifications are given, in which journal it has been published (and whether it has been peer-reviewed), their general view of the subject, who funded it and who is publicising it (and their adgenda) - and who stands to gain from the research.

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    Comment number 22.

    6. At 10:14am on 01 Jun 2010, Davidethics wrote:
    We cannot trust the scientists; they talk about objectivity but this is rhetoric. As we have seen in medical research, climatology, and the so called science of economics, scientists follow the money. Scientists are bought and only after a long period of investigation does the truth emerge.


    9. At 10:19am on 01 Jun 2010, James T Kirk wrote:
    Science can be defined as the thought-system favoured by the majority of current scientists. If you think differently you are an “independent thinker”, not a scientist and papers you write will probably (but not certainly) be rejected by scientific journals which have a censorship system euphemistically referred to as “refereeing”.

    -------------------------------------------

    This is so disappointing from two respected HYS contributors who doubtless would consider themselves to be objective. Even in the pharmaceutical industry, scientists do not 'follow the money' but work to provide the treatments that the public crave and claim as their right. University science has had legions of heroes who care only for truth. Just a few examples; research into smoking and its connexion with lung cancer, gastric ulcer (by the Nobelists Warren and Marshall), brain damage and 'leaded' petrol (Professor John Mann), the refusal by Chain and Florey to patent their method for the production of the penicillin nucleus, instead choosing to give it to the World.

    Science is not a 'thought-system favoured by scientists.' It is a method of enquiry and about experiment rather than 'table talk'. Scientific journals require papers containing data and evidence not just speculation. These days the natural sciences are largely not open to any but skilled professionals in well-equipped teams. The inconsequential paper on 'synthetic life' (much praise and wondered at by the uninformed on HYS) has no less than 23 authors.
    All good journals are refereed. I have published many papers in such journals and refereed papers too. These papers, at least for journals such as 'Cell', 'Nature" and 'Science" are submitted to referees without the authors' names to avoid the prejudice you claim. Many papers have overturned former current paradigms, Albert Einstein's in particular, who published on special relativity when just a clerk in the Swiss Patents Office.
    What possible motivation would journals have for not exposing the wonders of the Universe for all who can comprehend them to see?

    You say, 'if you write papers', How many papers have you had rejected and in which journals?

    ALL good scientists are independent thinkers, they have to be. What this world owes to science is incalculable. Its truth is manifest in the power it gives us to control our environment, for good if politicians allow, also power of prediction.

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    Comment number 23.

    I posted a comment earlier on the live blog around 10am that seems to have disappeared...fine speaker, splendid mind...
    ...my observation was prompted by Sue Blackmore's comment: she questioned the necessity of relying upon the authority of other scientists' work in a complex research environment - surely we need to establish a consensually accepted ethical/cognitive context for all scientific activity, one that allows for the conceptual implications of a paradigmatic "ecology of science" that does not just reduce the concept to a particular specialisation - ie the "science of ecology," however "deeply" felt by some - but recognises and affirms that any process related to scientific or experimental praxis is subject to the moral constraints implicit in what Jacob Bronowski famously described, as a civilised "dialogue with nature." Science is not value neutral, nor exempt from cultural/social contexts and political/economic interests. It can indeed be a unifying and non-divisive agency, but only if the planetary environment in which it is conducted - that ultimately determines the parameters and limits of its scope - is fully recognised, accepted, & thus respected and sufficiently revered. Risk assessment is not enough, bio-empathy and visionary "biophilia" can also augment and inform our natural instinct for curiosity, and sensitively moderate the all-too human appetite for knowledge. The poet, the artist and mystic are equally entitled to express their understanding in full measure, as there will always be more to life than applied symbolic logic.

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    Comment number 24.

    Wonderful comment, Biased Beeb, no. 15.
    I totally agree.

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    Comment number 25.

    Trust? The trouble is with all the ways we get bad information about science.

    Scientists themselves have, over many years organised the peer-review system, by which expensive journals publish technical papers that must be approved by a review board that understands the research and the factual rigor appropriate to the article.

    By contrast, the popular press and politicians are constrained by the principles of free speech to include _anything_ that doesn't break laws or incite others to do so. For them truth is a hoped-for side effect!

    If you are interested in an area of research, as maybe to decide its future confirmations or corrections -- very risky always --, you must even more than usual take the popular press -- all of it -- with a grain of salt. Make the press's unreliable pronouncements an incentive to learn enough about the subject and pony up the money to read the journals on the subject.

    Short of plowing through articles in individual journals, the (expensive) magazines Nature and Science collect journal articles on various subjects and do reviews of recent findings and debates.

    It's easy to say this process, like any other human one, is corrupt, but it bears closer examination than those of business, the popular press and politicians.

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    Comment number 26.

    The media don't report science very well, single-issue groups have their own agendas, most people don't understand statistics or probability theory so have little to judge a news story on.
    Religious groups have no role to play in scientific debates.
    Most people who pontificate on science couldn't explain how a picture appears on their TV.
    It's a scandal that a humanities graduate can know nothing about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and be proud if the fact. It's an equal scandal that a science graduate can be culturally illiterate.

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    Comment number 27.

    Scientists are the most trustworthy because they are subject to peer review by suitably qualified rival scientists. Once a scientist tarnishes his/her reputation, they are finished in their field; so the scientists tend to be truithfull and act with good integrity. Politicians are the least trustworthy and have track record of lies and deceit; I don't believe anything any of these wretched creatures say.

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    Comment number 28.

    I trust no one, most scientific revelations are either funded by governments to obtain the result they want or scientists have their own agendas. I certainly do not trust the media reports of science, they usually pick up on tid bits that are released by organisations trying to promote their work or gain more charitable donations.

    There are certain fields of science that if you disagree with the 'common understanding' you are ostracised & any evidence you may have to prove your point is ignored. Climate science is one such field which has been bought by governments for their own devisive ends. I would love to see some objective research in to 'climate change' which isn't dependent on government funding so it can tell us without prejudice, or massaging the figures, what is happening on our planet.

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    Comment number 29.

    I suspect that much of the criticism of science comes from people who don't understand the scientific process and the many checks that are built into the process. All too often you see people demanding "proof" of a scientific theory before they are willing to accept it. By making the demand for "proof" they are merely displaying their own ignorance of science because no scientific theory has ever or ever will be "proved". That is not how science works. Some mathematical theories, though not all, can be proved, but science is not mathematics.

    The scientific process is to collect evidence and from that evidence to construct a theory to explain the observations. The theory is then used to make predictions and the predictions checked to see if they support the theory. The theory and evidence are then published so that other scientists can check it. Other scientists will then carry out their own experiments, collecting their own data from the same or different sources to see if they confirm the original theory or whether there are inconsistencies between the the two. Those results are also published for other scientists to check. Every new experiment testing the theory will be looking for inconsistencies, special cases or will try to improve the accuracy of the original work.

    As more and more papers are published on different aspects of the science, tested in different ways, by different research groups, in different countries confidence in the theory grows.
    The theory of anthropogenic global warming for example was first proposed by scientists well over a hundred years ago. Since then thousands of papers researching many different aspects of the theory have been published by research groups from all over the world. Many alternative causes of global warming have been proposed, researched and found unable to describe what is happening, leaving human induced global warming as the most likely principle cause.

    Science can never be more than our best understanding of a process with the evidence that is available. Scientific theories develop and improve with time as more evidence becomes available. For all its lack of "proof" science has still made it possible to design computers, television sets, mobile phones, airoplanes and nuclear power stations, all based on theories that have never been "proved".

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    Comment number 30.

    Science reporting in the media is poor at best. You only have to look at reporting on the opening of the LHC to see how appalling it can get - apparently doom-mongering passes for science in the media these days.

    And it goes without saying, but you shouldn't trust a politician to tell the truth about anything.

    As others have said, if you want the truth about science, check the textbooks, and take the advise of the experts that wrote them. And the internet is NOT a good source of information, since anyone can type any old gibberish they want.

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    Comment number 31.

    26. At 11:41am on 01 Jun 2010, LeftieAgitator wrote:

    'The media don't report science very well, single-issue groups have their own agendas, most people don't understand statistics or probability theory so have little to judge a news story on.
    Religious groups have no role to play in scientific debates.
    Most people who pontificate on science couldn't explain how a picture appears on their TV.
    It's a scandal that a humanities graduate can know nothing about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and be proud if the fact. It's an equal scandal that a science graduate can be culturally illiterate.'

    ------------------------------------------

    Spot on!
    It is grieving how often scientists are regarded as malevolent, conspiratorial, cruel to animals or in the pockets of those bent on world domination. Many believe that they have control of the fate of their discoveries. Sometimes they are portrayed as filling in idle hours with shallow 'what if?' experiments. To the contrary, all the respected scientists I know are extremely focused and work very hard. In my experience scientists also have far more integrity than the politicians and industrialists who direct the exploitation of their scientific discoveries.

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    Comment number 32.

    Over the past two or three centuries the Western world has gradually extricated itself from the "Age of Religion" and moved into the "Age of Reason".

    This transition involved the replacement of the blind acceptance of religious dogma by a new paradigm based on experimentation and verification.

    This process was necessarily painful, but served mankind exceedingly well, leading to rapid advances in knowledge and adaptability, both key to the continuing survival of the human species.

    Although this transition is not yet complete, as evidenced by the continued existence of religious belief systems which defy logical or evidence based reasoning, it is clear that as a strategy for survival - the evolutionary prerogative - the scientific paradigm has proven to be vastly more competent than any of the previously tested models.

    However, we now seem to be making a dangerous, potentially fatal diversion from the true path to knowledge, and moving to an age where science which is seen to offer "incorrect" answers, is unsupportive of a strongly held political position, or is seen to threaten vested financial interests is disparaged, suppressed, starved of funding, etc in order to make sure it does not see the light of day.

    So often now, before I accept some new theory or postulation from the scientific community, I find it necessary to research not just the science, but the political affinities and allegiances of the scientist or body involved.

    This is not how it should be.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 33.

    I'm more likely to believe someone without an agenda than someone with. For example, a scientist from a petrolium company claiming they have data proving fossil fuel burning does no harm to the environment has less credibility than a scientist on behalf of Greenpeace saying the same thing. Also the reverse of the above statement is true. Im more likely to believe the petrolium scientist saying fossil fuel burning is more damaging than a Greenpeace scientist.

    If anything, let them make their figures both public and transparent, arguetheir cases and let the publicmake their own minds up.

    After the whole MMGW figure massaging that was reported, I'm very reluctant to believe it is true.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 34.

    32. At 12:40pm on 01 Jun 2010, Potty Harry wrote:

    "Although this transition is not yet complete, as evidenced by the continued existence of religious belief systems which defy logical or evidence based reasoning, it is clear that as a strategy for survival - the evolutionary prerogative - the scientific paradigm has proven to be vastly more competent than any of the previously tested models."

    Ths is the fundamental flaw in evidence-based reasoning. Just because you haven't found the evidence, it doesn't mean that it isn't true. Just unproven.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 35.

    34. At 1:04pm on 01 Jun 2010, Sue Denim wrote:

    Ths is the fundamental flaw in evidence-based reasoning. Just because you haven't found the evidence, it doesn't mean that it isn't true. Just unproven.

    -------------------------

    There is limitations for this though. Dara o' Briain said it perfectly during a performance when he said-

    "Science knows it doesnt know everything or it would stop."

    and

    "That does not mean you can fill the gaps with any old fairy story and make believe"

    To make a few assumptions is expected but to state rubbish as fact is irrisponsible. People come together to solve problems under science. Religion divides people and drives wars.

    There is much unproven to be discovered but until proven I will not assume a gremlin did it

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    Comment number 36.

    I find it really odd that when people question the ethics of scientists they always refer to the global warming debate and the drug industry. Yet they forget about the amount of basic science that has gone into the objects they use. For example modern jet airliners use research from every science: Physics, engineering (mechanical and electronic), chemistry and biology. Only one hundred years ago a trip to say the west coast of the US would take weeks now only half a day and the worst problem you have is the standard of the food and jet lag. I am also depressed how teenagers are surgically attached to their mobile phones but don't give a fig how they worked.

    I work in a physics research department and I can assure you we do not follow the money. As far as I know the experiment I am involved with has no "spin off" potential and yet it may answer one of the most important questions in modern particle physics. Do people really think the LHC was built at the behest of some political pressure group? And when papers are published do people think that we all fooled if thee is an error. All papers go through several layers of peer review. First within the experiment, which usually have many collaborators then they go forward for independent scrutiny by unknown reviewers. Finally all important results are publicly presented and the questioning can get very tough. In fact on a few occasions I have seen guys shouting at each other across the lecture theatre.

    The problems arise when the public ask sensible questions and get fobbed off or told they cannot have access to data. When scientists do this then they get the public ridicule they deserve. In my field of study we depend on public funding and we are very grateful. Therefore we are always giving public lectures and welcome any questions from the public and we give as clear an answer as we can.

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    Comment number 37.

    Simple rule - follow the money. The more money at stake the less likely the truth.
    Scientists need grants for their activities. How do you get a grant? Adopt fear tactics as per modern government. The biggest of all at the moment; Global warming. Predict global disaster - get a grant. Bigger the worry, bigger the grant. If you can link it to environmental issues that lets the government tax us more then your quid’s in. Your subsidised education has not been in vain. Well done.

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    Comment number 38.

    I wouldn't trust politicians as a matter of course but scientists are not exactly squeaky clean. What happened to Immanuel Velikovsky and his supporters? What came of Tesla's theories and experiements?

    It's all about getting jobs and to do that you praise the ones at the top. Never fails.

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    Comment number 39.

    37. At 1:31pm on 01 Jun 2010, Hugh Haddow wrote:

    Simple rule - follow the money. The more money at stake the less likely the truth.
    Scientists need grants for their activities. How do you get a grant? Adopt fear tactics as per modern government. The biggest of all at the moment; Global warming. Predict global disaster - get a grant. Bigger the worry, bigger the grant. If you can link it to environmental issues that lets the government tax us more then your quid’s in. Your subsidised education has not been in vain. Well done.

    -------------------------------

    I defend the scientists here who are researching the effect of co2 on the climate. It is the evaluating bodies which need to be non-biased as all scientists need peer review. One which I often mention is the IPCC who claim to have many scientists working for them although they are not themselves the scientists. They have made so many 'mistakes' and omissions that the skeptics were using them to oppose the science. This has gone further as certain countries have rejected the IPCC and are doing the science themselves due to major mistakes.

    This is not the scientists scaremongering but the institutions playing on fear. Unfortunately this reflects badly on the scientists and the science causing doubt and increasing scepticism.

    I have pointed this out in the past, not to argue against the possibility of MMCC but to oppose the 'pro lobby' misinforming people. As a result a couple of commentors (they are here and know who I mean) defended the scaremongering by the IPCC because it defended their MMCC theory. While what they defended was lies, it was ok because if the known MMCC theory is right it 'might' happen, even on a completely different timescale. That is not science.

    The funny part is they then oppose skeptics because 'they dont know what they are talking about', 'the skeptic scientist (whatever qualification) is not approved by the IPCC' or some other non-scientific and religion based viewpoint.

    I am glad the topic of scientific disclosure has been brought up because the facts need presenting to the public, yet we are currently informed by institutions of spin with an agenda.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 40.

    "The only thing to trust" is the results some of the time?

 

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