(Originally posted 25/1/11 on my WordPress blog, where you can read comments)

In many ways, last night’s BBC Horizon (Science Under Attack) could have been a piece of comedy programming – in the style of The Office, say, or Pineapple Dance Studios. White-haired white male Sir Paul Nurse lovingly strokes a copy of Newton’s Principia in the basement archive of the Royal Society (“I have to touch it!”) while puzzled that some people just don’t connect with scientists.

Nurse goes on to skewer Telegraph climate change denier James Delingpole with a question about whether he would deny medical consensus if diagnosed with cancer, then visits an American man who is living, apparently healthily, with HIV – without taking the medical consensus treatment of antiretroviral drugs. The irony is lost on Nurse.

Luckily, there are other white-haired white male scientists to share the pain of not being understood. Phil Jones, for instance, the man who refused to deal with a co-ordinated set of Freedom of Information requests from climate deniers (designed as a bureaucratic Denial of Service attack) and set the whole climategate scandal in motion. “I wish people would read the peer-reviewed literature,” Jones sighs. No, really, he said that. Out of touch with the general public? Us?

While Nurse’s hand-wringing voiceover repeatedly asks why not everyone believes the pronouncements of scientists, we get to see Nurse in his lab, surrounded by busy young post-docs of varying race and gender (no doubt working at close to minimum wage, but let’s not go there). We are slightly fed up with the self-pity by this stage, and shouting at the TV: “Look at them. They look normal, they look like the rest of us. Ask them! Ask them about how science should connect with the modern world !” But no, we go to Norwich instead, to talk to a white-haired white male scientist who is growing blighted potatoes in a rainy field.

This one doesn’t understand why people won’t accept genetically modified crops. In a Cameron-esque moment, Nurse explains that he met a member of the public once, and they said they “didn’t want genes in their food”. From this he concludes that if people were just better informed about genetics (that is, if they just bloody listened to we scientists), the whole problem would go away.

Perhaps the most heinous moment is when Nurse has tea with another white-haired white male scientist. Professor Fred Singer doesn’t believe global warming is caused by human activity and does his level best to get this point of view heard everywhere he can. Nurse listens politely over some Earl Grey, then goes to a (white-haired white male) NASA scientist who says Singer’s point of view has been examined and found wanting.

What is so heinous is that Singer’s is presented as a valid, independent scientific viewpoint that just doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. There is no mention of Singer’s previous convictions for anti-scientific lobbying. Could this be the same Fred Singer who, in the 1980s, when he sat on the White House’s Acid rain review panel, told us that acid rain wasn’t worth worrying about? Who, as the US Department of Transportation’s Chief Scientist repeatedly denied that CFCs were responsible for ozone depletion? The one who was on the advisory board of Alexis de Tocqueville, an organisation that defended the tobacco companies in their attempt to avoid higher taxes and responsibility for causing cancer?

Nurse is likeable in an avuncular kind of way, and I can’t help feeling his new role as President of the Royal Society is going to be a tough gig. I have always thought the Royal Society to be less like an uncle and more like my grandfather: pre-feminist – slightly misogynistic, actually – and wary of foreigners, especially those with dark skin. Oh, and toothless.

These days we need scientists, and those who preside over them, to bare their teeth. When it comes to public confusion over the truth about climate change, Nurse seems to want to blame the media, mischievious or credulous journalists, or a lazy public who don’t read the primary literature. The reality is, scientists such as Singer – who got off scot-free in this programme –are to blame for the fact that the public doesn’t know who to believe and that, consequently, governments feel no compulsion to take action on climate change. Scientists willing to compromise their integrity for money and positions of power are a much greater threat to climate science than the likes of James Delingpole, who is nothing more than a mouthpiece.

The issue this programme tried to address is of enormous importance – I think it’s the most important issue in science today. Which is why my next post about this programme (hopefully to come later today) won’t be nearly so snide.

 


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