Last week, I found myself pulled into a load of email exchanges on the topic of John Beddington (UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser). I thought I might as well turn this correspondence into a blogpost.
Why all this talk? If you missed it, Research Fortnight ran a story repeating remarks Beddington had made to a meeting of civil servants earlier in the month:
We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality… We are not – and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this – grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method.
Context: this was in a (semi) private meeting. I don’t think we should hold Beddington too tightly to these words word as they were not necessarily designed to be public, and it’s noticable that he’s been careful not to repeat them since. Still, a fair bit of cheer-leading in response was public (from people I respect, I might add) and this worried me more than Beddington’s remarks themselves, even if others such as Andy Stirling, Frank Swain and a Research Fortnight editorial noted caution.
Personally, I was quite shocked by the quote above. I didn’t feel comfortable with a comparison with racism and homophobia, and didn’t think it was appropriate for people to say ‘hear hear to all that’ in response. I wonder what victims of racist or homophobic attacks feel about this. I know scientists do suffer forms of attacks by, for example, animal rights protesters, and that many have felt quite severally bullied by climate change deniers. I have a huge amount of sympathy with them, but I’m not sure it’s comparable.
Moreover, simply expressing intolerance of something – even building rules to formalise this intolerance – won’t make it go away. Racist attacks are illegal, and yet they still happen.
Most of all, I worried that Beddington’s remarks lost a feel for what draws people to believe in ‘pseudo-science’, and I worry that a rhetoric of intolerance risks alienating the very people who’s attention he wants to capture. Beddington may well have meant to direct intolerance at those who peddle ‘pseudo-science’ rather than those who follow them, but these aren’t easy lines to draw. This isn’t to deny the problems which inspired Beddington’s outburst (or the frustrations which led people to say ‘OMG, yes!’ and pass it on); just that this isn’t the best way to deal with them.
Scientists have incredibly important things to say, and there are some really dangerous people out there, which is precisely why these messages have to be crafted well. If you want a slightly more constructively voiced stridency on the part of scientists, maybe try recent calls from Jocelyn Bell Burnell, or Paul Nurse (or Beddington himself, with a slightly different tone).
I’m all for scientists standing up for themselves, their evidence and their ideas. However, I don’t think preaching intolerance is the way to do this. Rather than simply demanding respect, I suspect the scientific community would be better served calling for greater funding for education and public engagement activities. Build trust and mobalise grass roots activism, don’t retreat to top-down declarations of authority.