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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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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    There should be a counter-argument from a scientist of equal status, regardless of whether he, or she, agrees with a lecture of this status. This is because it is all too easy to accept all the "evidence" or evidence without a governing perspective.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    For the last 15years university science departments have closed year on year, GCSE and A Level physics has been dumbed down to the point that in helping my son revise this weekend I used my 25year old O-level text books to explain how I solved several of his A level sample questions. Over half his A level topics in physics are at a level on par with my O level!

    You can no longer (or schools no longer offer) GCSE and A levels in electronics, computer design and programming.

    We need to bring science back to state schools and universities.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    Who can you trust in science?

    Big question these days - the short answer is nothing you read online or anybody you meet on the internet.

    If you want an understanding of a particular subject you need to do your own research, preferably from textbooks.

    If you try to research eg. global warming online you will fall into a quagmire of people with their own axes to grind, often offering mutually exclusive theories and psu8do-science based on their own beliefs rather than any scientific research.

    For the record I believe in man made global warming purely because I don't believe in the Global Conspiracy it would require to perpetrate a hoax - pretty much every government in the world would have to be in on it.

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    Comment number 4.

    20 years ago an eminent professor once told me "no-one ever got research funding by claiming everything is fine".

    I don't think things have changed for the better.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    I think Abacus's argument is a risky one: The idea of giving a counter argument in every scientific debate is important - but this often leads to giving undue weight to extremist opinions. This technique is often used to manufacture doubt by groups - all the public hear are two complex arguments, which by definition will be too involved for a layman - that's what we pay the scientists for!

    Science should be about the evidence, not about who can get the biggest 'expert' into the media.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    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. In universities scientists compete for grants and research contracts in order to survive and do so by pandering to the politicians and financiers. Journalists who have short deadlines, simply report what is given to them, usually uncritically repeating the press hand outs. In the end, by trial and error, ordinary people - many of whom are well educaterd and critical - sift through the propaganda and something close to the truth emerges. As for the BBC, their programmes dealing with science rely on hand picked media scientists who will say whatever the programme makers desire. As a guideline, from one who is involved with veterinary science, whenever a scientist uses a sentence containing the term 'objective' you can predict that the next sentence will be nonsense.
    There is a need to introduce critical science, instill a questioning attitude in graduates, instead of conducting a discipline where survival and career prospects depend on the ability to raise funds for a university.

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    Comment number 7.

    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?

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    Comment number 8.

    Things are discovered all the time, even the most hardened theories are proved wrong or are corrected, for the average person first of don't believe a politician, that goes without saying since they are paid by lobbyists to do their bidding, fact,

    all you can do is get as much info from as many sources as you can, then come to your own conclusion , be a scientist not just a ignorant politician talking but not understanding, make sure you know what your being told is right or have in your mind might not be right, but its the only answer so far, so don't go building your life around it, when people just accept things they are told or don't bother looking up what they've learnt then anyone could tell you anything and youl blindly believe it, which as we all know leads to mad mad mad things.

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    Comment number 9.

    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”. As in football, the referees are not necessarily good players but they do know the rules. And as in football, if you want to play you have to know and abide by the rules and there’s no point complaining that the rules are wrong or biased: they have resulted in phenomenal progress in our understanding of the universe and our lifestyle. If any scientific orthodoxy is wrong then finding evidence and a better explanation invariably results in a shift in thinking.

    In the history of science, most independent thinkers are wrong, often quite nutty. But some are right and provide the framework for the orthodoxy of the next generation of scientists as Wegener did for Geology. Equally it is possible to find distinguished scientists who have made breakthroughs whose views later hold science back: Kelvin made a huge impact in Thermodynamics but couldn’t accept that the world was of an age that geology and biology implied: only when nuclear physics evolved could this be resolved. Similarly Einstein could not accept the direction Quantum Mechanics was going in and Galileo could not accept Kepler’s model of elliptical orbits. However, the fact they may be wrong on some aspects of their work does not diminish those areas they were right on.

    With respect to scientific method - scientists never guarantee that they are absolutely correct, that is why they develop scientific THEORIES, not facts. It is simply a provisional model that most accurately fits the data that they have at the time, for example Newton's theories of classical physics were the best model that anyone could put together until far more advanced instrumentation allowed the development of relativistic and quantum physics. That doesn't mean Newton was an idiot, lied or "spun" anything. Scientists are not omniscient so don't expect them to be correct all the time. What we "know" constantly changes - Hawking changed his mind about black holes recently for instance, and Einstein didn't believe in quantum physics. Our knowledge of biology is actually very limited, so it is absolutely right that some scientists are prepared to question orthodoxy. We have to learn to live in an imperfect world as far as these choices go, and not to blame scientists or governments who generally are trying to do the right thing in public health. Similarly in climate science, there are big uncertainties in the predictions but not in the evidence that our activities are changing the climate. Unfortunately the press, or self serving organisations misrepresent the uncertainties to undermine the whole discipline. This happened last week when the press misreported the Royal Society’s planned document on climate science which is intended to better represent the uncertainties in the models and predictions, not to state that the whole scientific basis of climate science might be wrong, which is how the right wing media portrayed it.

    Science works by evaluating facts derived from empirical evidence, postulating hypotheses to explain the evidence, testing the hypotheses and the predictions they make against new evidence and the hypothesis that scientists accept as the best explanation of the facts becomes a "theory". A theory can never be proven absolutely but can be disproved. Thus far for example, Neo-Darwinianism is the best explanation for the observed fact of Evolution and the Greenhouse gas theory is the best explanation of the observed evidence of climate change.

    The public is very happy to take the word of scientists when it has provided the standard of living we now enjoy. Breakthroughs in quantum mechanics, biochemistry, physics, chemistry etc have made the modern world, yet "the public" wouldn't have the foggiest idea about the quantum mechanics that enables their computer and the internet to function. Yet when they find scientists say something inconvenient, time to ignore them! The oft cited examples of Galileo and Einstein to show scientists being opposed by “the mainstream” are historically and scientifically inaccurate: in both cases they were opposed by political and religious forces, not scientific ones. Indeed, their correctness was demonstrated by use of the scientific method, not by rejecting it. Moreover both (and Newton, Maxwell, Darwin etc) took science off in a non-intuitive, non-common sense direction and this is true of most science. The scientific method was established because the senses and human prejudices are inadequate to investigate the way the world works. Consequently, to cite Galileo and Einstein as heros of the scientific sceptics is high irony!

    Saying scientists are biased to get funding ignores how funding works. Nobody is going to win a Nobel Prize by simply confirming the existing scientific orthodoxy but by doing something new. But if you want to be a physics professor, you won't get a position if you don't understand and accept relativity and quantum mechanics; if you want to be a biology professor, you accept evolution. Same with climatology: you have to accept well understood thermodynamics and statistical mechanics and many other basics of physics and chemistry. None of these fields is intuitive to the public. Why should the BBC (or the media generally) be "balanced" in presenting both sides of the argument with equal weight? Should a 1 hour Horizon programme on (say) "The Big Bang" spend half the programme giving Creationists their side? Of course not and I would expect only Creationists to disagree with that point of view! The Big Bang is also "just a theory", relies on computer models and "unproven" science and huge amounts of money is spent each year researching it further. Yet the Big Bang theory is the best scientific explanation we have for the beginning and evolution of the Universe and few cosmologists debate the core principles, even if they do on the details. I don't hear anyone accusing cosmologists, particle physicists etc being biased and desperate for funding because they accept the basic tenets of their discipline.

    Certainly, if the science does turn out to be wrong, it will be the scientific method that shows it, not rhetoric and polemics!

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    Comment number 10.

    The great thing about science is that is allows itself to be openly debated, criticised, tested, proved, disproved.

    However, you won't find this enlightenment in the general media and certainly not in the papers, TV and radio which love to sensationalise issues, leaving out detail in order to fuel controversy.

    Instead, try New Scientist, Nature, Royal Society for all sides of the story.

    Of course, our woeful standard of science education in this country doesn't help.


    And someone keep John ("I won't understand this, so please explain in layman terms") Humphrys (Today, R4) away from science stories.



  • rate this
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    Comment number 11.

    Scientific exploration and development is always evolving so we should welcome new ideas and theories but always keep our feet on the ground and question anything which doesn't seem to fit in with the BIG JIGSAW. If we knew all the answers we would be like God.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 12.

    Who can you trust? No one!

    Too many people are publishing work for their own agenda these days, be that additional funding or for political motives.

    Just look at the whole 'Global Warming' issue, how many thousands of people have gained funding through scaremongering? And of course once it is pointed out that this has happened many times before, it is suddenly called 'Climate Change' to heep the money rolling in even though this has happened before too.

    Of course a hysterical press and BBC who will print any bilge doesnt help.....

    And all the time money that could be spent on real science is poured down the drain!

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    Comment number 13.

    Who to trust with science is an easy question. Back in school there was a game called chinese whispers. The starting person whispers a short line to the person next to them. That person whispers it to the next person and so on.

    If the information was presented as early as possible (filtered through as few people as possible) we would be better off. The best example is climate change where the media are often wrong, the gov adverts are worse and everyone has a different story depending what you read. This has led to a lot of skepticism over the science and reflects badly on the scientists.

    I believe there would be much less of a divide and a lot more information about the facts for both believers and skeptics to debate without sifting out the rubbish.

    Just as funny are the drug studdies which are also ignored if they dont say what the politician wants. Often the politician focuses on the parts of a scientific study and ignores the rest. This leads to skeptics accusing the scientists of being wrong, not because the scientist is wrong but because the scientists work is butchered by politicians.

    Topics become polarised easily when politicians (not just gov but the media and other vested interests) selectively choose parts of a study as the results. By providing half facts (and sometimes total fiction) we can see how iraq happened with concent from the leaders, and how MMCC can be obfuscated.

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    Comment number 14.

    Most "scientific research" these days seems to prove whatever the body funding it wanted proved in the first place. Science used to be widely accepted as unbiased fact, now its heavily influenced by the "spin" culture. As funding will never be totally unbiased, then neither will the research it produces.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 15.

    I will believe all scientists without a vested interest. The rest I distrust completely.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 16.

    Certainly not the media- medicine has been seriously undermined by fad diets, quack remedies and so-called Eastern philosophies, the main source for which is the media. All real scientists expect their results to be disputed and either upheld or demolished. But now we have counter-scientists. People like Prince Charles who espouse all sorts of nonsense because you can't 'prove' the science. Therefore homoeopathy must work because of the anecdotal evidence though, in fact, there is more evidence that a diet of burger and chips will bring you to a healthy old age! The idea of blind testing is just trickery to the anecdotalists. Meanwhile, on the other side of the universe, most politicians who studied classics, law or economics will drivel about nuclear weapons and the 'balance of power.' Anyone with any scientific knowledge will tell you that a rogue state with one bomb carefully placed can do as much harm as a massive state with many weapons. It was Russian scientists with their projections of what would happen after even a small exchange of nuclear weapons that persuaded the Soviet Union to work for détente, not Thatcher and Reagan! But the media prefer a political story. Scientists are treated as vaguely barmy while people who recommend boiling scent as a cure for all ills are accorded airtime and newsprint! The professional tree-huggers make a mint selling stone age (average life expectancy 32years) 'medicines'. The cosmetics industry will try to sell you bottled baboon's breath to treat your wrinkles and something from the hedgerow that Glaxo Smith Kline with all their resources have failed to discover, to prevent cancer. The media have gloried in seeding doubt about science. Look at how hungrily they gobbled up Dr Wakefield's 'research'. Having had a sister deafened by measles and an acquaintance blinded by the same, this makes me especially angry. Every time the drugs companies make a mistake due to unforeseen side-effects the media and the bottled hedgerow industries exult. Every time some 'Mrs Bloggs from Goole' recovers from hives after a mere 20 years of taking extract of sesame seed (£25.00 a months supply) the professional snake-oil salesmen rub their hands and cash in. In the public mind, the drug companies (money making businesses) and the scientists who work for them are muddled up. In media world all scientists are 'arrogant' and 'don't listen.' (By the latter, presumably, they mean they don't accept the superior knowledge of the Fortean Times). Doctors, notoriously, go in to medicine either to make a fortune or to kill sick people. The mortality bills of yesteryear mean nothing to these fanatics. It is due to science that people no longer die in their millions from common complaints and that we are not overrun by plagues. With modern mobility, if science had not found treatments for cholera and bubonic plague, tens of millions would die each year just through using buses and aeroplanes. The scientists haven't got the answer to everything but the professional doomsayers substitute 'anything' into that statement because it makes their ignorance feel more comfortable. I would rather have people looking for solutions in research than in history or romance. We no longer strap pigeons to the feet of plague sufferers to cure them. One of the great victories achieved by counter science was 1665, the great plague. The anecdotal scientists of the day decided it was being carried by dogs and cats so they shot or drowned all of their best ratters. Your modern anecdotalist probably believe they were still right- they just missed a few!

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    Comment number 17.

    I have little faith in much of what scientists say when they are still awaiting proof simply because they cannot accept anything until it has been proved to be the case - so damage can be done while they happily await those results, when commonsense would say to do otherwise. When GM crops were being introduced there was some idea that bees and other insects would restrict themselves to flights of around a mile, I think, from the crops - if it is then found they travel further - it's too late. High intellectual powers do not always seem to go hand-in-hand with commonsense.

    Politicians have too much self-interest to be trusted, and they mustn't panic the people, must they.

    At least the media asks questions. What may be made of the answers they come up with is another matter.

    On anything that I have any knowledge at all - having listened to the scientists, the politicians and the media and tried to balance things up - I then add commonsense and the safest route.

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    Comment number 18.

    I believe in raw data not massaged computer model outcomes.

    I'm also sick to death of conflicting 'expert' findings that tell us one day (eg.) meat is bad for us then the next day its good for us. Continual conflicting good/bad findings I ignore now.

    In my youth Science & Technology went hand in hand, but not with the biased BBC, its science & environment cleverly propogandered together.

    Those that want to live as in medieval times and be taxed to the hilt, feel free to your names forward first. I'm sure the scientists receiving doom and gloom funding will welcome your contributions.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 19.

    15. At 10:53am on 01 Jun 2010, Phil Davies wrote:

    I will believe all scientists without a vested interest. The rest I distrust completely.

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

    All scientists have a vested interest. They want to be right and prove something because it often means more money for their research. Thats a good thing.

    The people who review it should be skeptic and unbiased. The findings and methodology should be questioned and challenged. It should be compared to accepted knowledge and only after such scrutany be accepted.

    This is why I find it funny that one scientist is accepted over another. It should be an independant group challenging the result and putting it into question. This means full disclosure of data and methods so the findings can be reproduced and proved

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    Comment number 20.

    I think most scientist (including myself) are trustworthy. However getting the scientific message across correctly is another thing. The media filter out the important subtleties or the public does not take it into account. For example researchers find out that drinking one glass of wine is good for the heart. The headline in newspaper will be: alcohol is good for you whereas other research group finds out that alcohol is bad for the liver. The headline in the newspaper will be: alcohol is bad for you. Both studies are right but media and the common man say the scientists are contradicting and heads off to the pub anyway and I'll join them there.

    By the way my doomsday device are perfectly safe.

 

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