Censoring Science: Have Scientists Become the New Inquisitors?

- notes
These are my sketchy personal notes of debates at the Battle of Ideas 2011 which I attended in a personal capacity. I thought they might be of interest to folks who weren't able to attend. They're not comprehensive – I'm a fast typer but some of the speakers were faster talkers - and any quotes I give are from memory and may not be 100% accurate. I tried to capture the main points I thought each speaker was making, but if you're one of those speakers and you feel I've misrepresented you, please let me know. I've flagged up the names of questioners from the audience where I know them.

From http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/index.php/2011/session_detail/5684/ In January this year, Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, used BBC’s Horizon programme to declare war on bad science. He compared climate sceptic James Delingpole to an AIDS denier. According to Nurse, deniers corrode the public’s trust in science and need to be exposed. As the government’s chief scientific adviser John Beddington put it a few weeks later, we should become ‘grossly intolerant of pseudoscience’. But is it right to blame controversy around scientific issues for eroding public trust in science and scientific bodies? Is not likely that attempts to silence debate about science will do more damage to our belief in scientific objectivity? From Galileo’s run in with the Catholic Church to the recent attacks on animal research and GM crop trials, scientists have always run up against vested interests and been under pressure to convince both those in authority and the public of the value of their work. Big scientific questions have always been played out in the public arena, not hidden away in the laboratory or ruled over by committee. The case for evolution was won in heated public debates like that between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, which took place in the Oxford University Museum in 1860. Some may think the argument on climate change is now settled, but others insist that just ridiculing those who hold different opinions is counter-productive. That is why the Royal Society caused such a stir in 2008 when it sacked its education director Michael Reiss for advising against simply insisting children are ‘wrong’ to believe in anything other than evolution. Don’t scientists need to win their case with the public rather dismissing those who dissent as ill-informed bystanders? Nobody wants to defend ‘bad science’, but the frequent accusation that those responsible for it must be part of a conspiracy of some kind allows little room for anyone to challenge anything established as ‘good science’. Isn’t this a call to close down debate and demand subservience to ‘facts’ that ought to be regarded as provisional rather than the final word? Is the scientific establishment in danger of setting itself up as a new - scientific - inquisition?

Professor Conrad Lichtenstein, chief scientific officer, Population Genetics Technologies Mark Maslin, prof of palaeoclimatology, UCL; author, Global Warming: a very short introduction David Perks, head of physics, Graveney School; lead author, What is Science Education for? Lead Proposer of East London Science School, proposed new academy in Tower Hamlets. Professor Brian Wynne, research director, Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, University of Lancaster Chair: Tony Gilland, science and society director, Institute of Ideas

Intro (Tony Gilland)
Horizon: Science Under Attack, earlier this year. Paul Nurse concerned about 'deniers' in relation to Climate Change and AIDS. John Beddington, Feb: "we need to be intolerant of pseudo science and cherry picking of data" Tony G concerned that science now saying it has the answer to everything. Always at the forefront of any push to do something. 'The science says... therefore we should do."

David Perks
How do you defend science in the public sphere? You must first know where science is at. Trust in science has been eroded over the last couple of decades, usually where it has been too closely related to government policy eg CJD. But there's still enormous respect for the power of science to shape the world, eg CERN / Large Hadron Collider. Left scientists in a peculiar position. Swine Flu, Bird Flu, etc. Problematic because you now can't get a clear answer out of a scientist about what is right or wrong. Will never say if something is safe or not. DP thinks this is a distortion. Leaves public to make their own mind up, eg Icelandic volcanic ash clouds. Scientists said 'if you listen to us, you won't risk a disaster'. The good lie, justifies policies which paralyse our ability to act. GM crops: Royal Society didn't know how to get the message across, so brought the public's view into the mix. Created staged dialogue with the public which didn't work, didn't convince them of the right answer. More recently, backtracked and decided you can't convince the public, just got to tell them. Paul Nurse was saying 'the science says the answer, and that's it. Anyone who disagrees has to be shut up or stopped'. You end up blaming the public for not understanding you, which is very dangerous. Scientists are arguing that the public are too dim to understand and are therefore open to arguments from liars, etc. A disaster for science. Makes you reliant on political masters to back you up. When they stop, leaves you exposed. (Happening at the moment with Tories and environment). Scientists now feeling very defensive. Homeopathy (= drinking water) - do you ignore it, or do you say it must be stamped out? But it's not irrational for someone to take homeopathic medicine in certain circumstances, eg when medical world has failed you. If you attack them, you're attacking the people you claim to be protecting. What we need is a debate about the role of science in the future.

Mark Maslin
Wants to give insight into how science works. Erosion of trust in science is a myth (says MORI poll), whilst trust in politicians and bankers has declined. Varies though in different areas of science. Science is not a belief system. Not a sweet shop where you can pick and choose which side you want to be on. It's a rational logical system of interrogation based on observation, experiment and theory. Doesn't work by consensus – it's deeply ego-driven. Everyone trying to prove each other wrong. Always competing with itself. How do we know what's correct? Build up body of evidence. Self-correcting. Fraud is always found out. Reproducability is essential. It was an indian glaciologist who spotted error in IPCC Himalaya projections.

Climategate – first week, journalists did nothing; just saw it as scientists bitching, business as usual. A week in editors said 'have you gone native?' and they had to start covering it. But it wouldn't have mattered even if UEA had made it all up; because NASA had similar results. Paul Nurse and co not blaming public for not understanding. Do complain about lying and dirty tricks campaigns. Can't cope with irrationality. BUT science only goes so far. Science is not there to tell us what to do... that's for elected officials and the public.

Brian Wynne
Paul Nurse and Beddington are confusing science with politics. Eg talking about problems/benefits of GM crops as a fact rather than a potential. Main problem with GM is political – concentration of IP and power in hands of a few global corporations. Thomas Kuhn: Dogma has a functional role in Science, brings it coherence. Huge distinction between research science and science policy. Mark is right: no universal public mistrust in science. But there is in some areas. What should the priorities of research be? Democratic question. We can talk about 'the Scientific Establishment' as a singlular, even if not precisely defined.

Conrad Lichtenstein
Heard a talk, by someone cloaking themselves as a scientist, in which they made ridiculous claim about GM crops: this person was a street fighter not a professional boxer. Brutal battle in the pursuit of truth. But in general works pretty well. Have to assume everyone is a quack. Eg He wouldn't pronounce on climate change. But we have feudal view of knowledge, bow to experts. In GM debates, felt he'd won the argument, but lost the debate. Jonathan Swift: 'It is useless to reason a man out of a thing that they have not been reasoned into'. Knowledge has never been more accessible than it is today. Need a new peasant's revolt, recognise that there is no star panel of experts.

TG: So, is science just a sweeet shop? And haven't the Royal Society played a big advocacy role in climate change? DP: Mark is saying if you don't like an area of science, tough. But we can ignore it if we like, legitimately. If we choose to ignore the evidence, that's our problem. Science isn't the only way of looking at problems. MM: Scientists are not there to remove individual choice. But they are upset about people making false scientific claims. TT: Who adjudicates about what is correct? BW: There's misleading statements about certainty which can be attached to statements. Bob May, Chief Scientific Adviser during GM / BSE controversys. Government forced them to level of certainty they would never use. But why don't they put their hand up in public and say 'that's not what it says'?

CL: Public find it hard to understand probability. People are eclectic in what they accept in terms of risk. In Britain we assume juries can't handle scientific evidence (unlike elsewhere)

Audience discussion
Jo (Sceptics in the Pub): Media is filter between science and public. Fewer reporters, more content. MMR – levels of reporting on fraud much lower than original story. Use of words in homeopathy to make things sound 'scientish'. Debates between homeopaths and sceptics not balanced. Audience member: Is there a basic failure in public scientific knowledge? Evan Harris: Agree with Paul Nurse and Beddington, should be a war on psuedo science. But it's not about stopping people from speaking. Audience member: Sceptics have been peer reviewed, by opening to public. Scientists say you should ignore them if they haven't been through academic process. Harley Richardson: Curious about intolerance - what does it mean in practice? Everyone says that it doesn't mean censoring people or denying them a platform – but it's hard to see what else it can mean, as the opportunity to debate your opponents is already there. CL: Intolerance of pseudo science – just seems to mean accepting thing unconditioningly. Should manifest itself as reasoned debate. Have to learn to trust certain science journalists – but not unconditionally. Media isn't going away. MM: Climate porn is a problem. BBC Report says can't have balanced debate when there is a high level of certainty. Debating the opposition – but there are death threats, insults. Not a clean cut boxing match – there are vested interests, billions and billions of pounds at stake for deniers. (Audience member): ...and the other side. DP: Education is not the answer to all of this: always ends up by lecturing children about what they should think. Why not teach them about science instead and have faith that they will work it out? BW: Assumption is often that media views = public opinion. Big mistake. Ministers being advised by political advisers who are actually media people, looking at headlines, 'scientising' the issue.

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