Science Communication

I have frequently observed the holes in our fabric of society caused by bad communication. In this article I focus on Science and Technology.

This is a difficult argument to make, because it is so heated. Furthermore, the intention of the argument is in striking the right balance. This argument cannot be won one way or another. I try my best to navigate the dead-pools in which such debates sink – but I am not convinced I have succeeded, which is a pity since this article is about communication. So I ask you, dear reader, to be patient, give my intentions the befit of the doubt, and comment.

Let me start with a representative anecdote: I was sitting with some technology guys at a well known science research institute, talking and waiting for the chair. As usual, the conversation freewheeled in and out of technical minutiae, joshing and baiting each other. Quite educational and enjoyable. (I have noticed that such informal meetings are quite different when women are present – either they are disregarded, or alternatively the conversation is muted.)

It was clear that the techies did not have a clue as to where the meeting was going on a business level. They hate the word ‘business’ anyway. They like to call themselves introverts. So here we were, well schooled guys, PhD’s and all, shooting the breeze.

At some point the political commissar arrived, late. However, she knew where she was going and how she was going to get there. I did not like her, but I could work with her, because she had a plan.

(I am a trained scientist. A qualified engineer. But I work in business. This was a choice I made. For my many sins I have many hats – wearing them simultaneously is really hard.)

In the meantime, the tech guys shut up. They looked dejected and crushed. They did not say a word or even look up.

Finally, I left, the deal done. (The commissar later reneged on her undertakings, but that is another story.)

We see this frequently in science: that a research institute has a communications department, and scientists are not allowed to talk freely.

Some claim ‘academic independence’ is compromised in the name of integrity and fidelity of the mission.

On the other hand, when techies speak freely, all sorts of hell is let loose. Recently in Google an engineer published an opinion piece that was so flawed it was embarrassing. He was fired, which was a pity. I have no doubt that his screed was sorely lacking and that Google did not agree with him. Yet he was muzzled by the corporate thought police.

Let me be very clear. He had some ideas with which I profoundly disagreed. But he had hurt no-one. (I accept the fact that he was offensive and that he poisoned the atmosphere for women, etc, etc.) But in the general realm of Bad Things, he had not yet reached Sticks and Stones proportions.

Yet, being pointless is also pointless. Being only able and prepared to talk about things-in-the-small is just sad. Techies must be able and willing to look at the bigger picture. Pejoratively labelling these bigger issues “business issue” does not mean that techies can abrogate responsibility to get involved in the broader debate.

Techies may be wrong. (We are frequently wrong.) But that does not merit the public beating. Being wrong is good; being right is better. But it is dishonest and counter productive not to exercise various views.

Some times it is indeed true that these views are simply bile and must be smothered. Furthermore, not all ideas are equally good, and we must be prepared to concede.

Recently I upset various people  when I noted that Zimbabwe would be a counter example in the importance in the role of Science.

It was noted that my comment was unfair against the hardworking and dedicated scientists there, who do locally relevant science, despite no funding or support. (This was a Twitter debate, so arguments were somewhat terse.)

I get Science.

What I see in this image is two countries who are on the same level, one of whom is failing. Clearly having an institution does not lead to economic (or other) success. (I have high regards for Zimbabwean software people. However I know no S&T people.)

To expand my point: what I see is token science: countries make big institutes, filled with scientists, pursuing mirages or cottage industries. You can always go through the motions of doing science.

In my defence, is the money going to institutions the same as the money going to dedicated scientists? I agree with the practice of science (with caveats).

I am reminded of the Iraqi Institute of science sponsoring research into djini power (this was before they became ‘capable’ of WMD) or Soviet science. While there were exceptions, such as Bonner and Sakharov,  science in the Soviet Union was according to political diktat.

I am not a bottom line kind of guy. But I do look towards actionable outcomes. When I look at the above map, I see the pretence of science.

Back to the point: scientific arguments are often quite subtle. (This essay may be a case in point.) Science journalists take the arguments and hack and change them into a story. People like stories.

Furthermore scientist are the biggest suckers there are when it comes to swallowing facts. For example, they allow themselves to participate in climate ‘debate’s, where both sides are ‘fairly’ represented. Well they are not – 97% of scientists think humans are responsible for global warming. Scientists are being hoisted on their own petard or that of PR.

It is so easy to make a mistake and say something that causes offence or is naive. But that should not stop us weighing-in.



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