The Perils of Popular Science

by Hon Steve Maharey.

Science is important. But it has, sadly, always had a bad reputation. That reputation comes, I suppose, from people’s impression that science is difficult to understand and that only seriously bright people become scientists. Its reputation isn’t helped by the belief that after those seriously bright people become scientists, they live in laboratories where the rest of us never go.

And then there is the Dr Strangelove problem where science is seen to be going in some very unsatisfactory directions. The last century is littered with everything from nuclear bombs to bad drugs to terminator seeds to apocalyptic visions of the future courtesy of film makers who see science as the ruin of us all.

The results are that not very many people have wanted to become scientists and even fewer want to understand them. The marginalisation of science was not such a bad thing for most of the last century when science was just that – marginal. Governments and large companies were happy to foot the bills and science went on doing whatever it needed to do.

But as the 20th century wore on, the importance of science grew. Enter the knowledge society and an understanding that prosperity relied on the generation and application of ideas. More understanding by the wider population was needed. How else could the rising amount of money being pumped into science be justified?

Science began to appear more frequently in the media. Science organisations took on communications staff to get their message across. And a whole new genre of books began to appear that were designed to make science accessible and fun to the non-science audience.

There is no doubt this effort to become popular is working. While doubts still remain in the public mind about scientists and science, a quick look at the large number of popular science book titles that are selling in huge numbers is enough to convince anyone that the public is interested.

No wonder. Authors like Bill Bryson, Timothy Ferris, Richard Fortey and Tim Flannery sure know how to turn science into a page-turner.

Like many other people (millions in fact), I lap up all of these new books. Everything from books that tell me why I like or dislike people, to how to comprehend E=MC2, where black holes come from or why men are different from women populate my bookshelves.

As someone who advocates the need for science to be widely accepted so that it can be better funded, I am delighted with the growing popular interest in science. But I do have one worry which I will illustrate by exploring quickly the example of what popular science tells us about men versus women.

Books on the apparently scientific basis for concluding that men are from Mars while women are from Venus are numerous and they have enormous impact. There would be few people who are not scientists (natural or social) who are not by now convinced that there is a large body of evidence supporting the claims of the popular authors now living very well on the back of this contention. Parents of teenagers, for example, find solace, if not answers, in books that tell them girls are simply different to boys.

The argument that boys have to be treated differently to girls because they simply cannot think the way girls do leads to debates about the school curriculum, the merits of single sex schools and the virtues of men teaching boys while women teach girls.

I was, therefore, intrigued to have my concerns about this so-called evidence confirmed by Dr Cordelia Fine, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University College of London, who has coined the phrase ‘neurosexism’. Dr Fine makes the point that when she began checking the scientific basis of the books that claim there is a body of scientific evidence to support their advice to men and women, she found little or none. Time after time, she says, she found the evidence had been misinterpreted or was so slim as to be laughable.

And yet we, the readers, are being told that men can’t listen because their brains are wired up the wrong way and women can’t read maps for the same reason.

Dr Fine is not convinced. She concludes that we are simply watching the same old sexist arguments being replayed with the help of a very selective approach to so-called scientific proof.

This set me thinking. Dr Fine may or may not be right but her central point about the fact that most people do not have the opportunity to check the claims about evidence advanced by the authors of popular science books is true. We don’t. We rely on what we hear and I imagine we agree with arguments that are closest to the ideological frameworks we use in everyday life.

This makes sense to me. I can’t check the facts about black holes, but as a one-time sociologist, I get concerned when I hear that men and women can’t be changed because of the way their brains are constructed. I know that much of human behaviour is socially constructed and therefore open to change. This well-supported view is what allows us to be at least a little optimistic about the future of the human species.

So here then is the warning. Science and scientists do need to be understood. What they do is important and we need to support them. But we should not compromise on robust and rigorous debate. While most people who are popularising science do a great job, some do not. Too often poorly trained or laypeople looking to prove their prejudice latch onto a simple idea (in social science these seem to come from first year university classes) which is then forced to carry the burden of a thesis about all human behaviour, the Universe, or the existence of God.

This is, obviously, nonsense. And the peddling of nonsense will always end in tears. We do not want this to happen. Science, as I began, is important.

A social scientist by training, Hon Steve Maharey served (among other portfolios) as the Minister of Education, Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, and Crown Research Institutes. In late 2007, he announced his intention to retire from politics when he was offered the role of Vice Chancellor of Massey University. He expects to assume his new position later this year.

A post-script from Hon Maharey: For a recent example of such silliness, see Nassim Taleb (2008), The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Penguin. The book is said to be ‘mind blowing masterpiece’ and is about the way that some events are impossible to predict. Luckily, it is half-price at Borders.