Category Archives: scepticism

Boo to Woo

I really, really, dislike the word “woo”.

I don’t mean it as in “to woo a fair maiden”, though that’s a bit weird too. No, I mean the term used by some communities of sceptics (the science-y ones) to refer to ideas which seem to be based on very flimsy evidence or are rooted in a belief in supernatural forces of some sort. It is short for “woo-woo”, as in the noise you might make when jokingly referring to ghosts.

Woooooooo, spoooookeeeeey. If you want a fuller description, there is an entry on the skeptic’s dictionary.

The fact that I feel I need to start by explaining the word is a big part of the problem. It’s slang. It’s jargon. It’s code between a group of friends. Above all, it’s a word that’s used in a loose, ill-defined way to talk about people other than those using it. It’s exclusionary, used about an amorphous “them” and just a bit too vague for my liking. What has the woooooo of a cartoonish ghost got to do with, for example, GM policy?

If it’s not obvious already, it’s also a derogatory term, one that I think unfairly trivialises critique of science. It’s used to shut people up. Now, there are many (many, many, many…) people I personally wish would simply stfu on the subject of science and technology, but I also think critique of science and technology is often useful and/ or entirely understandable and know that my view is just my view, others have theirs. Maintaining a culture where people feel scared to talk about how they feel or what they think about science (or, perhaps worse, are alienated from interacting with the scientific community so they talk amongst themselves) really isn’t going to do anyone any favours. Moreover, when I do want people to shut up about science and technology, I like to think I have an argument more focused and intellecually rigourous than making wooooo noises.

While I’m on the subject of terms I don’t like, I’ll repeat my dislike of calls for scientific literacy, echo Jack Stilgoe’s argument against anti-science and point out to anyone who wants to blithely use the word Luddite that it’s a lot more complicated than simply being anti-technology (this is great on the Luddites, but sadly behind the Nature paywall, there’s a pretty good Comment is Free piece though). These are terms used to articulate and reinforce a boundary around who is allowed to speak about science and technology, and who is not. They are also simplistic and, all too often, simply inaccurate.

If you’re frustrated by what seems to be someone’s lack of scientific understanding or unjustified belief in an alternative view, contribute knowledge, listen to try to find out where they are coming from and explain why you disagree. If it’s mendacious, show people how and why precisely. Share your cleverness with the world, don’t try to intimidate people with it.

Debating climate science

I’m currently working on the pilot for an exciting new undergrad course at Imperial which uses science policy issues to challenge students to think about a range of areas of scientific research (not just their degree stream) and put this in some social, political, ethical, epistemological and cultural context. The topic we’ve picked for the pilot is climate change, so we kicked things off this week with a keynote lecture from Brian Hoskins (EDIT 31/1: listen to a podcast of the lecture) Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, and one of the most striking things he said was that he tries to avoid agreeing to take part in debates.

I don’t think he was necessarily against either scientific discussion or democratic engagement. It was more than he didn’t feel climate science could be communicated well via a structure which pits one extreme view up against another. He happened to use the example of the Today Programme putting Nigel Lawson up against a climate scientist and coincidentally, Lawson popped up on Today the following morning. This was a debate on shale gas and he was debating Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, not a Professor of Meteorology, but in many respects it’s a good example of the problem Sir Brian was flagging up. You can have a listen to the interview yourself on the BBC’s website. The interviewer didn’t challenge Lawson’s views as much as many would have wanted, but perhaps you agree that this is appropriate (the Daily Express seem to). Perhaps more straightforwardly, Today could have challenged Lawson on the motivations of his Global Warming Policy Foundation (see this report of a recent campaign on this, and an older post by Bob Ward). Which they did not. My personal position is that providing that sort of context, if not an outright challenge to Lawson, would be basic active journalism. I also think it makes him a slightly suspect choice, though I’m sure some people might say the same about Juniper.

The issue of “false balance” – where a marginal view is put up against scientific consensus as if they were equivalent – is something the BBC has been accused of before (recent BMJ editorial on this). Although it is also worth stressing that empirical research undertaken at Imperial College last year found that, if anything, the problem was lack of context, number and diversity of voices in science reports. Too often there simply weren’t enough people interviewed for balance to be an issue (old post from me when the report was published outlining this). With this in mind, I thought it was odd that although Today did also produce a longer package which gave more context and several other voices, this was broadcast over an hour before. Why not put this with the Lawson/ Juniper interview?

This isn’t just a UK issue (although it might be an English Language one). Earlier this week the Knight Science Journalism Tracker summed up US and Australian coverage of a similar story which they dubbed “the fracking duel“, noting the appeal of an apparent fight for the news business.

On the topic of how and if we can debate climate science, it’s probably worth reading Naomi Oreskes’ recent oped for the LA Times – “The verdict is in on climate change” – where she argues for leadership not debate when it comes to climate change, suggesting it’s unfair to expect the public to make up their own minds. You might also be interested in a recent interview with climate scientist Micheal Mann where he warns that “Scientists have to recognise that they are in a street fight”. I don’t think what Mann suggests is the same as the issue of being set up in a polarised debate, but his view is something to think about along side the others.

A version of this is cross-posted to the Imperial Horizon’s blog. Something I left off there, but worth flagging up is that I noticed Brian Hoskins’ name in the list of attendees at the ‘Chemistry Club’ exclusive networking events for corporate lobbyists (see Guardian datablog). At least when the Today Programme invite Nigel Lawson to debate a Fellow of the Royal Society, we can all listen in.

Saying no to intolerance

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 cheerleading 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.