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Home » Dr Shibley Rahman viewpoint » The BBC RTS Huw Wheldon lecture 2010 by Professor Brian Cox

The BBC RTS Huw Wheldon lecture 2010 by Professor Brian Cox

80% of people in the general public rely on television to get their information on science. The 2010 Royal Television Society lecture considered the anomalies between science and television, analyzing thereby the principles of good science TV practice.

The opening of this lecture

Defining science is notoriously difficult. The Panel on Public Affairs of the American Physical Society, for example, proposed a definition that some describe as pure science:

“Science is the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories.” They went on to explain that “. . . the success and credibility of science is anchored in the willingness of scientists to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by other scientists . . . (and) abandon or modify accepted conclusions when confronted with more complete or reliable experimental evidence.” Many dictionaries (e.g., New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993) amplify this definition by highlighting the use of the scientific method as the way of identifying any activity as part of science. The report “Science for all Americans” identifies the fact that science is carried out in, and consequently influenced by, its social context.”

The House of Lords’ “Science and Society” report defined the public understanding of science in general terms as the:

“. . . understanding of scientific matters by non-experts. This cannot of course mean a comprehensive knowledge of all branches of science. It may however include under- standing of the nature of scientific methods . . . awareness of current scientific advances and their implications. Public understanding of science has become a shorthand term for all forms of outreach (in the UK) by the scientific community, or by others on their behalf (e.g., science writers, museums, event organisers), to the public at large, aimed at improving that understanding.”

The issue that I’ve always grappled with it is that scientific communicators don’t necessarily have to be good scientists themselves, but it helps enormously if they understand the terminology. For example, recently I picked upon the fact that a Director of a UK cancer charity presented a screening test for a male cancer as a pretty fair diagnostic test, not talking about how that test could produce elevated levels in related conditions (a problem with selectivity). This is a problem as the media will find her a ‘golden find’ to discuss such matters, from being a Director, but actually what she presented was actually very reckless indeed. The media therefore have to ensure that they do not abuse their authority, and possibly this is one of the most admirable aspects of the peer-review process that Brian Cox discussed: the meritocracy of peer review.

However, I am disturbed about how people in the media, particularly the BBC, often do not attempt to present conflicting hypotheses about how disease is caused, for example dementia. The problem there is that the media can either avoid controversy altogether, or really grab attention-seeking sensationalist headlines, such as ‘the length of the index finger could be a useful screening test for prostate cancer”. The general public want to be able to trust scientists, and therefore find non-facts difficult to address. This is similar to a patient asking a Doctor for a diagnosis; the patient doesn’t want the list of possible diagnoses as long as your arm. Or indeed, a business client approaching a lawyer. The client wishes to have legal advice based on the most up-to-date case or statute law, and not an academic diatribe which simply leaves him or her extremely confused.

I believe that scientists should be entertaining, and one of the first things I learnt in public understanding of science is that you can’t engage an audience unless the audience finds your material interesting or challenging; and it is vital that you explain it in a clear way avoiding any complicated words. I personally should like to recommend a brilliant show presented by Dr Chris Smith from the University of Cambridge called “The Naked Scientists”. Ways of getting to the show are found on this page (link here). The show is presented live every Sunday at 6 pm, and is not only very challenging, but also is very entertaining.

And certainly people in the public tend to have dingy memories of sitting in a laboratory, learning chemistry, physics or biology, or “Double Science”. Maybe the science curriculum over decades has failed to inspire, in being out-of-touch with the latest discoveries, or seems detached from the issues which the public want to know about and are intrinsically interested: how fossils are made, what happens in a cancer, which materials are ‘strongest’.

Science communicators need to be like another type of leader in entrepreneurship. They need to demonstrate confidence not arrogance, a clear message, some degree of risk-taking, good personal skills, good listening skills, and personal features which make them attractive to follow. I believe that they also need to be authentic, and to have a real understanding of what they’re talking about. For this, they do not have to be an expert, but should clearly demonstrate the limits of our current knowledge.

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