When from time to time I’m fortunate enough to be asked to give a talk at a scientific meeting in a country that requires a visa, I always anticipate a bit of wary quizzing.
“So which institution are you from, Dr Ball?”
“Well, I’m not.”
“So you’re writing about this meeting?”
“Well, I might, but I’m going to give a talk…”
[US version: Sardonic glance, which says “Who is this joker?”]
[Chinese version: “Whatever. We’re giving you a short-term journalist visa, pal.”]
It’s pretty much the only time I have to think about my professional status within the scientific community. I’m generally content to call myself a writer, often a “science writer”, but I don’t trouble too much about whether this merges into a kind of quasi-scientist role. Well, I suppose the other time is when I write a paper for the academic literature, and feel oddly exposed when the only thing I can write for my address is “25 Brenchley Grove SE23” [not really], without the shield of an institution. Otherwise I have no real reason to think about this stuff, not least because, with extremely rare exceptions (a spectacularly insecure Nobel laureate being one), scientists themselves seem supremely unconcerned about whether you are a “scientist”, “writer”, “journalist” or whatever – in my experience they are true to the egalitarian spirit of science in being glad to talk to you or listen to you without the need for any kind of label, so long as they are interested in what you have to say.
All this springs to mind not just because I’ve recently returned from speaking at a conference in China but because of the latest round in the spat between Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson. I have felt very little sympathy previously for the rather intemperate way that Dawkins has launched into Wilson for his support of group selection – an argument that Wilson makes in collaboration with Martin Nowak on the back of some serious mathematics. But Wilson now does himself no credit at all by dismissing Dawkins’ challenges on the ground that Richard is a “journalist” – “and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found.” For one thing, this is just a part of what science journalists do; they also provide context for and sometimes critique of what the scientists have found. They are not just PR monkeys. But it is patently absurd to call Richard a journalist, even though sometimes he does write journalistic pieces. We all know that he has not really conducted original research for many years now. We know that this is pretty much true too of various other scientists in academic positions whose main job now is the communication of science. And so what? To suggest that that activity disqualifies them as real scientists is not just silly but speaks of the kind of snobbish disdain for popularization that Carl Sagan long suffered from. I can’t believe for a moment that Wilson feels that disdain, since he is such a splendid popularizer himself, and so I can only suppose that this humane man had a moment of irritation that got the better of him. If he thinks Dawkins is wrong, he needs to say why, not to discount the arguments on the grounds that Richard doesn’t do research. (By the same token, of course, if other evolutionary biologists think Wilson is wrong , they shouldn’t be saying so by going round drumming up signatures for mass letters to Nature saying how he’s let the side down. Arguments from authority or weight of numbers are precisely what scientists are meant to eschew.)
I suppose one could argue, however, that Richard is only getting a taste of his own medicine. When he compiled the Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, he didn’t even acknowledge the existence of scientifically trained people who write about science for a living. Rather, his choices were apparently made between “professional scientists” and “excursions into science by professional writers” (he excludes the latter). This implies that, if you’re not a “professional scientist” then you are a dilettante – a suggestion that I don’t take personally but which strikes me as spectacularly insulting to the truly great science writers such as James Gleick, Carl Zimmer, Deborah Blum, and, oh sorry guys, loads of others I should mention. The mighty Thomas Levenson saw this attitude off more comprehensively and persuasively than I ever could. Maybe it would do Richard no harm to join us for a bit. There’s no shame in it. After all, his writing has precisely the kind of writerly virtues that Robin McKie says in this Guardian science podcast (on the Royal Society Winton Book Prize) that he finds much more often in the works of professional writers than in those of scientists writing books about their pet topic.
Oh, and by the way: visa officials aren’t the only ones who insist that you’re only to be taken seriously if you have “Department of…” after your name. I know for a fact that this is the criterion for inclusion on Radio 4’s In Our Time too. But I suppose the folks making those choices are arts graduates – and while I love the humanities, I know how strongly the argument from authority still holds sway there.