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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


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    Comment number 41.

    While I would echo the tone and tenor of the post @9 (James T Kirk - nice handle there), I would add that "trust" is a highly emotive word. In fact, I trust neither scientists nor journalists, nor even politicians. Why not? Because they are all people: they are subject to human motiviations and forces. And while even data can be adulterated (and has been), I am more inclined trust evidence and reason, which helps to provide insight. It does not guarantee truth, as of course to insist on one single truth is generally simplistic and distracting.

    To leave the decisions and thinking to authority is folly. The only way to filter is to look oneself. This is not easy, and requires a massive overhaul of our system of education, placing science and the understanding of the world around us closer to the centre. In recent years it seems that science has become a peripheral concern in some educational circles and that needs to change. I should also stress that this should not be at the expense of the arts, which also have a huge aprt yo play in our understanfding of ourselves.

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    Comment number 42.

    Science is brilliant. It helps us to understand so much in life.

    However, it would be very wrong for individuals to blindly put all of their faith and belief into all scientific theory, as theory by it's nature needs to be questioned..... and questioned again. Theory should never be delivered as 'fact' because a theory is the general belief.

    And science by it's very nature is an observer, an observer of life. It can therefore only observe what it has developed to see.

    Science is not the rule, science is the pupil learning about life, with so much still to understand.

    What science cannot see today.. it may see tomorrow. And what science thought it knew today.. may be corrected tomorrow.

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    Comment number 43.

    Years of continuing dilution and dumbing down of science in order to pacify the baying "too thick to understand but want have a say anyway" brigade.

    A B.Sc (Hons) degree in chemistry, a M.Sc in physical chemistry, and 21 years in the industry - and I got out of R&D and into sales because quite frankly being a scientist makes you about one step up from the toilet cleaner in most people's estimations.

    Science is a dead subject in the UK.

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    Comment number 44.

    Science is not the problem, it's the gutter press in bad reporting and sensationalising negative areas.

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    Comment number 45.

    Who can you trust in science? This might be a silly question and anyway it's impossible to respond to without being a smart alec. However - isn't it the point of science that you believe no-one? That you believe the evidence? And isn't that exhilarating? That you don't have to believe god or John Humphrys or the writer of the Daily Mail editorial? Or better still, that you don't even have to listen to them?

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    Comment number 46.

    It was good to hear mention of the `secret` Nixon `war on cancer`which crippled the US economy,but that should have been expected,as Nixon was not only a genocidal war criminal but impeached for a burglary conspiracy.

    Also not mentioned was that the medical system Nixon used to destroy the economy was devised by Harvey,also a fellow war criminal at:


    We forget at our peril that the point about Harveyism pushing MMR is not that it MIGHT have caused autism,but would do if it could.Science,on the other hand,is quite a different subject.

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    Comment number 47.

    When in school (left 10 years ago) I did no work in science and for physics got an A. Since leaving school I have discovered I like Science and Maths and wish that at some point a teacher any teacher had done there job.

    By this I mean IF someone had noticed I was way above the curve in physics I might of stuck with it. I started 6th form (A levels) but had a few personal issues that got in the way, at no point did any teacher make any effort to help me study but I did have quite a few telling me what a failure I was.

    Currently I'm reviewing String theory but find all the gaps in my education to be a real problem. IF I had been thought properly and had some encouragement to try I would likely be either working on a PHD or be a content physicist somewhere.

    I fear this will continue and many more potential scientists will be lost, I take some blame myself for not taking school seriously enough but then again I was a child. albeit one that read A brief history of time at 14 because it was interesting.

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    Comment number 48.

    Agree with post #10 in recommending 'New Scientist' and 'Nature' magazines?

    Wouldn't it be great, if nursery, primary, right through to high schools, had these great publications available to children - and teachers/educators too?

    'New Scientist' is amazing - stumbled on it while my daughter was dating a vulcanologist? This magazine is not stuffy, nor is it dreary. It's one of the most under-estimated publications you can enjoy whatever your age or education?

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    Comment number 49.

    Almost no one except scientists understand what science is.
    I cannot recall the last TV programme or radio programme that gave a scientific account of anything:
    science programmes are usually biographies (witness the Channel 4 recent output).
    Newspapers fill their pages with Arts, no space is give to science in the same way.
    The national curriculum has no science in it - not even the so called science courses.

    The effect of all this is to make almost all answers to the question ill informed and unreliable.
    Science is NOT about opinion or money or industry.
    Comments about courting the grace of funding councils are just plain wrong.
    Science is about truth, and most scientists want to be true and honest.

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    Comment number 50.

    Mass State Education is Mr Gove MP.Education Minister's, brief?

    Part of Mr Gove's brief is to introduce so-called 'free' schools - an experiment that failed in Sweden - and those same companies will get a contract with Conservatives education mass education policies?

    Private schools in UK appear to do very well. Why doesn't Mr Gove and the whole Conservative Education Departments enact and introduce Private Schools policies?

    It's about time that Mr Clegg got involved with this issue and pushed State schooling to follow Private school models of education - or does Mr Clegg not believe children will respond or, perhaps, deserve the model he benefited from?

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Personally I don't have a problem with trusting scientists generally, despite the occasional occurrence of a desperate fame/funding seeker (usually a has-been|.

    The appalling science coverage in the media is a lot worse (icluding the BBC) with sloppy reporting, incorrect para-phrasing, dumbing down and obvious misunderstanding of the topic. It's only matched by the (seemingly increasing) number of people that fail to spot the errors.

    With respect to the many posts on here regarding manmade climate change, it always amazes me the number of people who dismiss what scientists say, quoting "The earth has gone through lots of climate changes in the past" etc. Erm... don't they only know this because of scientists?

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    Comment number 52.

    I watch or listen to most science programmes on TV and radio and I thought the Reith lecture this morning was very uninspiring. It was a bit like Tate Modern where anything will do.

    Take the fact that scientists believe that evidence suggests that the universe started with a big bang and it is still expanding. According to mathematical calculations, there is not enough matter distributed throughout the universe to explain that, so they invent dark matter to explain that and now say it exists. On TV yesterday, Professor Jim Al-Khalili talked of a temperature (I think he said) of billions of degrees to be necessary for the fusion of hydrogen into helium. Has anyone ever produced that kind of temperature?

    On a more mundane level, take, for example, that people who sleep for seven hours or more a day are 29% less likely to have high cholesterol. In fact I made that up but it is typical of what you often read. Had it been found true of a sample of say 1000, then you are as likely as not for this to be stated as a fact, when it is only a statistical accident. Cause and effect are nothing to do with it.

    I think there is so much nonsense and the pity is it reduces science to theoretical gymnastics and the failure to differentiate between that and real science. A bit like Tate Modern, where anything goes. They will be exhibiting pickled professors of science next.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I come from a generation which trusted exactly what we were told at school and by the Media. Which has since been proven in far too many instances to be entirely false, but who can say that the contradictions are not themselves false.
    It is for these reasons that no science should be regarded as absolute fact, it is right that contra opinions should be offered via the media to an increasingly dumbed down public.
    I do not believe there are really any ''genuine facts'' just current guesswork and arrogance.
    We live in a world in which anything is possible, believe any different and your'e probably a scientist, or economist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Who can you trust in science?
    Science is not about trust or truth - it's about perspectives. We can never know the truth. The only thing we can ever know is that we know nothing. All science provides is theories, or perspectives. It is by combining these perspectives that we gain information about the world. As biological organisms, such information assists us in the world in the form of equipment and enables us to survive and reproduce and impart such information to our offspring. It could be considered as knowledge, but it is certainly not truth. Therefore, science, although useful, is of limited importance with respect to truth.
    Does this mean we should trust it? In as much as we can trust any tool.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Nowadays if possible I check the background and CV of the Scientist concerned, if he does'nt appear too bright, (ie Dawkins), I move on.

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    Comment number 56.

    I only trust Science, and even then, I only absolutely believe it when the results are quantifyable and not correlative, when the results are repeatable and corroborative.

    There is no bias is scientific fact.

    Politics, Religion, Witchcraft, Astrology, whatever. However these explain it, there is always an agenda to be served.

    There is no fact in political, or religious bias.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I am more than a little relieved at the high level of doubt from the commentators here. I spent my whole career in Information Technology and was totally disillusioned at what passed for acceptable in business systems, including those in blue chip companies. I worked for a few.

    The problem is that IT should have been called Misinformation Technology and the Internet called the Web of Lies. There is so much rubbish out there that you need a PhD in Scepticism to be able to differentiate between what is real and unreal.

    Of course, reality is a philosophical notion and I studied that at Uni as well as pure mathematics. I hated the latter because it was ultra abstract. I discovered later it was all about set theory, moving around and manipulating data as computers do.

    So "Brave New World" it most certainly is. Oh well, only another 4 billion years of this at most for mankind to endure until the sun reaches the end of its life. I, luckily, have a little less.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    I look to the tried and tested spiritual philosophies for a perspective on truth. They have been around for a long time. I also rate first hand experience and introspection coupled with some time spent on google trying to personally research topics and ideas.

    When it comes to science, as far as I can tell, physics is evolving into a new subject that departs from "truths" asserted by previous generations. It may turn out that as much as 100 to 150 years of "truth" is going to have to be revisited and re-worked out, and that is going to affect many many things. Until that time comes, and is announced in the media, we will have to make do with what is pushed at us through our educational and media organisations. Not many people are actually working at the cutting edge. Most people are just repeating what they have been told. Generation after generation of repetition hardening our worldview into a dogma. Media scientists pushing their dogma through the TV pulpit. Take a look at this link, its is a good start at describing this situation :

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    When new science emerges it will include an understanding of holism, consciousness and connectedness. This will give us our sense of meaning back, don't believe anyone who tries to tell you that you are a chance evolutionary phenomenon in a random meaningless universe. Thats a very destructive thought pattern that attempts to stop personal growth. Evolution is fine, but it is a very beautiful and ordered process. :)

    Trust your own intuition. We are moving towards the birth of a new worldview, scientific and personal worldviews that complement each other. Its difficult because what has been built up is trying to defend itself, this is why we see more and more scientism on the TV, telling us how great scientific materialism is and how silly everything else is. In the end, new science will also have to fight through this dogma but will succeed because it is based on evidence and data, real science.

    Big players in this existing worldview will also have to change, for example, the world "health" or pharmaceutical industry will need to revise how it goes about things, as this will be greatly affected by new science. Intention and positive thinking are free. Holistic practice and meditation are free ... not good business models for the pharma-chems who resist the slightest notion of alternative healthcare and lobby governments to legislate against them, or make life hard work for these movements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    25. At 11:40am on 01 Jun 2010, rireed3 wrote:

    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.


    Yes, it is a hard course because much science is deep and accumulated after many years of work, but looking over the original papers and reviews is the only way. The press ALWAYS misrepresent or dumb down every topic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Who can you trust in science?

    What does The Royal Society's motto say on the subject? ’Nullius in verba’ ≈ 'Take nobody's word for it.'


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