Last month, I did a bit of science policy standup. Part of the ‘Standup Tragedy’ series (one of the Guardian’s ‘ten great storytelling nights‘), the programme was a mix of spoken word, music, comedy and more.
The podcast is now online – my piece starts at 45 mins in. I should warn that this was recorded after 11pm in a bar in Brixton. The language may offend. Within 2mins of my set I say “Isaac Newton was such a f*cking c*ck” and that pretty much sets the tone for the whole thing.
I was inspired by this month’s topic of martyrs because it gave me a chance to talk about science’s persecution complex. Like much self-pitying posturing, I think science in martyr mode should probably check its privilege. I discussed the cases of David Nutt and the Galileo Movement, as well as the latest public polling data on attitudes to science and the ways in which politicians say they love some bits of science whilst speedily cutting others.
I also discussed the Royal Society of Chemistry’s outrage over a mad scientist costume, suggesting that if chemists are worried that science is seen as violent, they might want to consider how many scientists are involved in industries of war. Rather than just screeching that people should pay more and more attention to science, sometimes science could do with looking at itself. As the public attitude polls show, bits of science regularly (and scientifically) audit their privilege. The data is there, it’s not hard.
I also talked about how screwed up this idea that pain gives truth is, and that such macho posturing is not only a bit limited, but also plays a part in science’s diversity problem. Some truths are found in cuddles. Arguably having the freedom to have a life outside your job makes you a better scientist. If we stick to this weird idea that you have to suffer for science, we are only going to have a very limited view of the world.
As a more honest manifesto for science in society, I ended with alternative version of the Galileo story; Bertolt Brecht’s powerful line “welcome to the gutter, brother of science.” I’d much rather sit with scientists in the gutter, looking up at the stars together, than see them pinned to a cross.