So, Robin Ince and Brian Cox wrote an article in the New Statesman about politicians not elevating mere opinion above science. I’ve read it and thought it was fine. Didn’t analyse it in great detail but the general idea that politicians should at least be aware of what science is telling us and should be using it to inform their decisions is perfectly sensible as far as I can tell. I don’t think it trumps everything else, but it should inform policy. I also think more scientists in parliament would be good, but I don’t think that this means more published researchers. I just take it to mean more people (doctors, engineers, chemists, physicists, ..) who have an understanding of science and of numbers .
Their article does, however, seem to have riled a few others. Jack Stilgoe in the Guardian suggest that “science and politics needs counselling not separation”. He refers to the views of Cox and Ince as being “bad politics” and criticises Paul Nurse (president of the Royal Society) for saying “keep science as far as is possible from political, ideological and religious influence”. I think, however, that Jack Stilgoe is somewhat missing the point (or at least my understanding of the point). I don’t believe that anyone is suggesting that there shouldn’t be a link between science and politics (if anything it’s the reverse), but the scientific method is well founded and so shouldn’t unduly be influenced by politics.
It’s true that different scientists may disagree about the best way to analyse a complicated data set or about the best way to set up a complicated computer simulation, but over time methods get tested and improved and the results of experiments and observations determine which theories are the closest representation to what is actually happening in the world around us (to reality, I guess). Politics can determine which areas of science are important and deserve funding, but it can’t (or shouldn’t) influence the results of science. The goal of science should not be to justify an ideology, it should be to understand what is actually happening in nature. It is very difficult for scientists to not have some kind of pet theory, but good scientists change their minds if experiments or observations show that their theory is wrong. I don’t think scientists should be playing politics in order to get politicians to consider the results of scientific enquiry.
A post by someone called Haralambos Dayantis is even more strongly critical of Cox and Ince and suggests that the geek movement is bad for science. I must admit that I don’t know much about the Geek movement, but I did find this article quite unpleasant. It suggested that Cox and Ince were amongst those who had a sense of superiority and that the Geek movement fosters a “thoroughly masturbatory environment” and referred to those involved as “circle-jerks”. I can, however, thank Haralambos Dayantis for giving me the opportunity to use the term masturbatory in a post though. A lot of the people he is referring to are clearly celebrities and, as such, I don’t really expect them to engage with me (although I can thank Brian Cox for getting me my highest number of readers on a single day). They will naturally come across – at times – as having a sense of superiority. Personally, I’ve been quite impressed by the various celebrities (mainly comedians) who engage with science and who do it fairly well.
The two main critics of Cox and Ince both seem to be science communicators/science policy experts. They both actually seemed to agree with quite a lot of what Cox and Ince had written and it seemed a little (to me at least) that they were really just being pedantic about the details, rather than actually constructively engaging with the message that Cox and Ince were trying to get across. What I think I agreed with the most was the response (by Martin Robbins) to the abovementioned post by Haralambos Dayantis. Firstly, he seems to suggest that the Geek movement isn’t particularly well-defined so aiming specific criticisms at it doesn’t really make sense. He then also criticises the tone of the article (as I have) and suggests that it comes across a bit like a formal science communicator being slightly bitter that some celebrities (some of whom – such as Brian Cox – are actually scientists) are better communicators than they are. If they really wanted to help, they should constructively engage and give reasoned advice (if they are indeed experts at science policy/communications) rather than being overly critical of those who happen to be good at communicating science to the public.
It is possible that I’ve misunderstood (or misrepresented) some of what has been written about this topic. I haven’t analysed all the articles in extensive detail. As usual, I’m happy to take corrections or comments through the comments box (that’s assuming anyone actually reads this).