HYPOTHESES

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The Independent Culture
COPUS shmopus! Why should there be a Committee on the Public Understanding of Science? There are no committees called Copul or Copuc dealing with law or children. Copus is an alliance of the Royal Society, the British Association and the Royal Institution; it hardly requires justification since science is beautiful, amazing, the best way of trying to understand the world, has profound effects on our lives, and is difficult. Those who are ignorant of science are somewhat deprived.

The increase in understanding of the physical and biological world this century has been breathtaking. Much of it is quite technical and, alas, not always accessible. My own claim is that if an idea fits with common sense, then it is almost certainly scientifically false. It is clear as day that the Sun goes round the Earth; the world is just not built on a common-sense basis. Unfortunately there is no simple or clear-cut description of scientific method, and there are many styles of doing science. Scientists themselves can be remarkably ignorant of work outside their own field.

But it is possible to make science accessible and for a wide public to enjoy the pleasures of understanding. There are many excellent popularisers, though Stephen Hawking may not be among them since few, so it is said, actually read the book. Even Newton's laws are thrilling since they can so economically and elegantly describe the movement of an infinite variety of bodies, from tennis balls to the planets. Newton has his limitations, as Einstein showed, but his achievement was as awesome as Shakespeare's. Once one understands evolution and natural selection, one's view of the world could be transformed, I believe, for the better. So it is very encouraging that Richard Dawkins has not only been made the first Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, but that his new book River out of Eden has been on the best-seller list.

Misconceptions about science abound. There is still the image of the scientist as a bearded, stooping, obsessional, dull, prematurely aged male, in a slightly dirty ill-fitting white coat, in spite of the large number of young women scientists. Scientists are seen as self-interested, ethics-free and highly competitive. Their work is seen as unimaginative fact-finding. Moreover, their knowledge is regarded as suspect since chaos theory and quantum mechanics have removed the certainties of prediction and causality. All these ideas are false, and will require much effort to dispel.

It is all too convenient to blame the media - and I shall - but scientists must take much of the blame, for they have remained aloof from the public and made little attempt to make their work more accessible or to engage directly with the public on controversial issues. While scientists have something to be arrogant about, this is not an endearing quality. They should more often admit to what they do not know, and that there are areas like ethics to which science can make no contribution.

For almost all MPs and the senior civil servants - in fact, for most of the great and good who run our lives - science is an alien culture. This may be a reflection of the more than uneasy relation between the humanities and science; AS Byatt, Melvyn Bragg and John Carey are distinguished exceptions with their intense interest in it. Perhaps the simmering hostility to science lies in the class system. As the molecular biologist Max Perutz has said: "People in the humanities have been regarded as carriers of civilisation and the scientists have been regarded as plumbers." It has something to do with the contempt for mechanical devices, for working with machines. Look at the dismal social status of engineers. Could any reader name a contemporary British engineer as a role model? The Japanese, by contrast, like machines; each robot in a factory is given a pet name. A society that is scientifically and technologically illiterate will fail.

Things are getting better, though. It was with a great deal of both incredulity and pleasure that I listened to a Tory Minister - William Waldegrave - praise science, and forcibly argue that it is at the core of our culture. Even hardened left-wingers purred. The new Minister Ian Taylor is equally positive, and the Prime Minister held an excellent reception to celebrate Science Week. There is even evidence that science is becoming chic - look at The New York Review of Books, Esquire and The New Yorker.

Pleasure apart, what then would one like the public to share? If the good fairy offered to fulfil one wish, what would I ask for? To make everyone DNA-literate? To make everyone numerate? My first choice would be for everyone to know how to get the best advice on the scientific issues that affect their lives, like genetic engineering. It is essential that these issues are open to informed public debate. My second choice would be for scientists to be more integrated into our cultural life. This may even mean them appearing on chat shows or revealing that they are not character- free, an idea that appalled a very senior BBC friend, who regarded it as demeaning science, equivalent to entering the circus ring, hanging on an elephant's tail and wearing a red nose. But science must be de-ghettoised.

Are the media to blame? I've long wanted a prize for the worst scientific reporting. So I offer a suitable prize - a signed copy of Dawkins' book, or my own - for examples of the most negative comments on science, or those that best promote its public misunderstanding. I hope there will be no entries, but I'm sure I can rely on Brian Appleyard, AN Wilson, Peter Ackroyd, Mary Kenny, Fay Weldon or even Germaine Greer to oblige with their normal hostility. Meanwhile I am looking for the elephant's tail.

! Lewis Wolpert, of University College London, is chairman of Copus. His book, `The Unnatural Nature of Science', is published by Faber.

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