Field of Science

Locked in the Ivory Tower

So...something I heard while on holiday. On the radio. On Classic FM to be precise, during the news. After they'd passed all the stuff about Gaza strip and shirtless politicians, they then went onto this enlightening article (paraphrased here, because I can't remember all the words):

"Scientists have discovered that horses are able to recognise each other by their whinny! A group of scientists from [can't remember where] lead horses past each other while playing the sound of other horses whinnies and found the all the horses were very confused..."

etc, etc. Other experiments were done as well, but you get the general gist. And all the while, I was sort of sitting there with this stunned sort of look on my face, which can eloquently be summed up in three letters: wtf.


Classic FM very rarely gives news, even rarer do they give science news, but someone somewhere had decided to give what must have been their five precious minutes of Science News Time to this? What about cancer research, going on in thousands of labs, millions of person hours? Research into biofuels, developmental studies, bacteria, phages (heh), neuroscience, so many many useful, wonderful, interesting and relevant things that are being done by scientists the world over.

But no. Instead we get a quick message about horses from the Department of the Bloody Obvious.

That made me think of something erv wrote a while back. When all the people from the 'framing science' gang were talking about how scientists were staying all aloof in their ivory towers and needed to get out and communicate with people and do other things in a dynamic fashion (and incidentally buy their book).

It was in the context of evolution. And as erv pointed out, she was perfectly happy and perfectly willing and perfectly ready to go into the church, or the town hall or whatever and give a talk on evolution. But they wouldn't let her. So wasn't so much sitting in an ivory tower as locked in it.

Which does sum up science pretty well. Lots of science happens, there are plenty of labs and plenty of people. And every now and again the newspapers or the government get interested and then it's Eat Five Fruits A Day or Scientists Clone Stem Cells or something. But not very much of the actual science gets out there. Lots of people know, for example, that Smoking Causes Heart Disease, but how many people know how, or why, or why some people get it when others don't?

Which is where we hit the ivory tower problem. Scientific papers are written by scientists, for scientists. Scientific conferences are attended by scientists. Scientific societies are joined by scientists. Most researchers have 'posters' for their projects which detail on a piece of A1 paper what their doing and what their results so far are. How many people outside of the scientific community have seen a scientific poster?

Look at all those scientists living in their ivory towers!

The thing is though, is Scientists don't so much live in ivory towers as kind of get locked in them. There is simply, at present, no way for cutting edge research to get out into the public. Sure there are science museums and popular books (Bill Bryson springs to mind) but the real edge of research isn't there, those are olds not news. In some cases, even the basic information isn't there, listening to the cafeteria staff talking sometimes is painful when they hit science (I will make a brief disclaimer here that this means no offense to cafeteria staff. I know bugger all about running a cafeteria, no doubt if I tried they would find it similarly difficult to watch).

How does it get out? When I leave uni and start researching, is there any way I can inform The General Public about what's happening in the exciting world of bacteria and bacteriophage? More importantly, will I have the time or the inclination to try and find out how I'm meant to do that? And if I do, will anyone want to know?

One argument that I've heard against letting cutting-edge science news out is that science changes. Accepted paradigms bend and sway in the wind of scientific opinion (rotfl! I need sleep), new discoveries lurch everything sideways, new stuff happens, and ideas change. There is a worry that, if shown this, people will loose faith in scientists in a sort of "Well those scientists don't know what they're talking about, they keep changing their minds" kind of way.

Will they? Opinions about other news changes all the time, no one seems to mind that too much. Horoscopes are wrong almost all the time, and that doesn't put people off believing them. Besides, I think it's much safer for people to be aware that science is a beautiful changing process; rather than just taking everything at face value as if 'this is the true'.

And of course there's the "Would people be interested?" issue. Take me and economics. I don't understand economics. I don't really want to. Economics, in my mind, happens to economists, whom I would happily lock away in an ivory tower and let them get on with it.

What if people think like that about science?

Really, scientists are in a kind of ivory tower. But why we're there, and whose fault it is, and how on earth we get out I am still not sure about. Science is very complex but it can be made understandable, you just need ways to be able to tell people and for people to want to understand.

"We have barred the gates, but cannot hold them for long ... we cannot get out ... we cannot get out ... "


Anonymous said...

"...what their doing..."
That's "they're". Otherwise OK.


Lab Rat said...

thank you! I'll go and fix it...

John Farrell said...

Hi LR,
Great post. One of things I'd like to do, as a science writer, is write more about exactly what you refer to: the day to day work 'in the ivory tower' so that it's not so foreign to the general reader.

Speaking of which, is this the easiest way to contact you?

Feel free to send me an email to this address, if you're open to being pestered by a science writer.


johnwfarrell -- at -- gmail--dot com

www-- farrellmedia -- dot com