Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Understanding the understanding of science

That the computer scientist Charles Simonyi has endowed a professorial chair at Oxford for the Public Understanding of Science seems a rather splendid thing, acknowledging as it does the cultural importance of science communication (which was for a long time disdained by some academics, as Carl Sagan knew only too well). Richard Dawkins was the natural choice for the first occupant of the position, and indeed it seems to have been created partly with him in mind.

When his incumbency ended and applications were invited for his successor, a few well-meaning folks told me “you should have a go!” I quickly assured them that I am simply not in that league. Little did I know, however, that should I have been overcome with mad delusions of grandeur, I’d not only have stood less than a cat’s chance in hell but would have been specifically excluded from consideration in the first place. The full text of Simonyi’s manifesto in creating the position is reproduced in the second volume of Dawkins’ autobiography, Brief Candle in the Dark. It doesn’t simply say, as it might quite reasonably have done, that the post is for academics and not professional science communicators. No, it goes out of its way to insult the latter. Get this, fellow science hacks:

The university chair is intended for accomplished scholars who have made original contributions to their field, and who are able to grasp the subject, when necessary, at the highest levels of abstraction. A populariser, on the other hand, focuses mainly on the size of the audience and frequently gets separated from the world of scholarship. Popularisers often write on immediate concerns or even fads. In some cases they seduced less educated audiences by offering a patronizingly oversimplified or exaggerated view of the state of the art or the scientific process itself. This is best seen in hindsight, as we remember the ‘giant brains’ computer books of yesteryear but I suspect many current science books will in time be recognized as having fallen into this category. While the role of populariser may [may, note] still be valuable, nevertheless it is not one supported by this chair.

OK, I won’t even get started in on this. Richard doesn’t reproduce this without comment, however. He says he wants to “call attention especially” to “the distinction between popularizers of science and scientists (with original scientific contributions to their credit) who also popularize.” It’s not clear why he does this, especially as the distinction is spurious for many reasons.

I might add that Simonyi also stipulates that “preference should be given to specialities which express or achieve their results mainly by symbolic manipulation, such as Particle physics, Molecular biology, Cosmology, Genetics, Computer Science, Linguistics, Brain research, and of course, Mathematics.” So stuff you, chemists and earth scientists. Actually, stuff you too, cell biologists, immunologists and many others.

It doesn’t much matter to the world that I find this citation offensive. I think it does matter that it displays such ignorance of what science communication is about. I would be much more troubled, however, if the chair were not currently occupied by such a profoundly apt, capable and broad-minded individual as Marcus du Sautoy. If it continues to attract incumbents of such quality, I guess we needn’t trouble ourselves too much about the attitudes of its founder and patron.


JimmyGiro said...

What they want is an exemplar, and not an illustrator. A leader and not a cheerleader:

And it must be important to trust them; which means to know who pays their wages.

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