Lewis Wolpert: 'Science can be beautiful, amazing, the best way to try to understand the world'
Wednesday 09 February 2005
Science needs your help. We need to find a way to bring the general public and scientists closer together so that they can understand each other better, helping to lead to sensible decisions about both science and those applications of it that affect our lives.
Science needs your help. We need to find a way to bring the general public and scientists closer together so that they can understand each other better, helping to lead to sensible decisions about both science and those applications of it that affect our lives. There have been attempts to do this, but I'm not persuaded that any have been successful, and there has been little research to find out if they actually had useful results.
The issue of mutual trust is central. Science can be beautiful, amazing, the best way of trying to understand the world. But it is difficult. My own claim is that if an idea fits with common sense, then it is almost certainly scientifically false. It is as clear as day, for example, that the Sun goes round the Earth. The world is just not built on a common-sense basis.
Unfortunately, there is no one simple description of the scientific method, other than that of finding reliable evidence to explain events. There is only one correct explanation for any set of observations - and there are many styles of doing science. Scientists themselves can be remarkably ignorant of work outside their special fields, so non-scientists can easily be alienated by science. For most Members of Parliament and senior civil servants, science is an alien culture.
Max Perutz, a molecular biologist, said: "The people in the humanities have been regarded as carriers of civilisation, and the scientists have been regarded as plumbers." I am, myself, a plumber.
If the good fairy offered to fulfil three wishes, what would I ask for? First, to make clear that reliable science is universal, with neither political nor cultural bias; it is also value-free, and ethical issues only arise when it is applied and affects our lives, from medicine to industry. My second wish would be that everyone should know how to get the best information on the scientific issues that affect their lives, such as genetic engineering. It is essential that these issues are open to informed public debate. It would be disastrous if they were left to doctors, scientists or engineers, or politicians.
My third wish would be for scientists to be more integrated into our cultural life. This may mean them appearing on chat shows, revealing that they are not culture- and character-free. This idea appalled a very senior BBC friend, who regarded it as demeaning to science, equivalent to entering the circus ring hanging on an elephant's tail and wearing a red nose.
The Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, is aware of these problems and is developing a Science and Society agenda. A key aim is to consider regulatory issues that science and its applications, such as GM foods and stem cells, raise before they are put into practice. People's concerns about these new technologies must be acknowledged.
So that is why I would appreciate your help. Let me hear your views. Do you want, for example, to have more information about areas in biology relating to cloning, stem cells, BSE, GM foods or antidepressants? How do you regard areas in physics, such as nuclear energy or nanotechnology? Are there other areas of concern? How best could the information be obtained? What should be the process by which regulations are made, and how should the public and scientists be involved? Do you think that scientists are responsible for the application of their discoveries? Could you give examples of science being explained well to you? And is direct personal contact with scientists the best way forward? Please e-mail your views to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London
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