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Heat of the moment?

On preventing scientific gaffes

Philip Strange 10 August 2008

Inscrutable: a good grasp of science eludes press, politics and public

Even those highly educated in the arts and humanities have little understanding of science

One morning recently, I was doing my usual act of making the tea and emptying the dishwasher while half listening to the Today programme on Radio 4. I was propelled into consciousness by an interview on new treatments for prostate cancer that seemed to be making a real difference. Unfortunately, Nick Robinson, a new voice on the Today programme, conducted the entire interview referring to prostrate cancer. Although you hear this error quite often, I was surprised to encounter it at this level. A witty listener asked Robinson if he had been lying down too much but he said he had just got up much too early.

This incident put me in mind of another glandular gaffe that I encountered when I was working in Nottingham. A prospective PhD student arriving for interview informed me that getting to Nottingham had been fine as he'd had no trouble finding St Pancreas station. To this day I am not sure if he was trying it on with me or whether he really believed the station to be named after the patron saint of insulin secretion. I had difficulty keeping a straight face after this.

For me, these kinds of error undermine the credibility of the person making them, and I am beginning to wonder how much else you can trust. Perhaps I am being a little harsh, so let’s think about why these errors might occur.

One explanation is that the errors occur in the heat of the moment. I am sure we have all have experienced this effect: you are under a bit of pressure and you say something incorrect or unwise. I remember once losing my temper during an undergraduate lecture following repeated bad behaviour from the students. As a result, I completely lost my place in the lecture and looked rather foolish. This was very much a heat-of-the-moment affair and I learnt a lot from the experience.

I wonder, however, if the sort of error that Nick Robinson made is a symptom of a wider issue. Scientists are trained to be precise and to draw conclusions based on evidence, but the level of knowledge of science and scientific methods in the general population in the UK is low. Even those highly educated in the arts and humanities have little understanding of science. Coverage in the press is poor: the quality press have little science coverage and there are often errors. Moreover, science is rarely an acceptable topic of conversation at many social events. Overall, people basically know little about science and many misunderstandings result.

So what can be done about this? There is no quick fix but one possibility would be to include more science education in the school curriculum. Sir Martin Evans, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for his work on knock-out mice, was interviewed last year by the Guardian and spoke about this issue. In his view, a comprehensive science education should be given to everyone in the UK. He also suggested that those in government had a lack of understanding of science and that this was very bad for the way policies were decided and the way the country was run.

I believe it is very important for everyone in society to be able to understand current issues and controversies around science. This is the only way that these issues will be debated properly. Recent examples of such controversies include the MMR triple vaccine, genetically modified crops and homeopathy. If there had been a little more knowledge generally about science then these issues might have been discussed clearly and dispassionately. In the future, constructive and informed debates will be of greater importance as global climate change increasingly influences our lives and necessitates important policy decisions.

Although everyone in society should be educated, it is especially important for journalists and politicians. The general population needs to understand more about science, but much of the information we get depends on journalists and politicians.Journalists want neatly packaged information, and often write incorrectly about science. They also want certainties whereas many scientific issues are not so cut and dry. In addition, journalists frequently cast scientific issues in terms of risk. A good example of this is the portrayal by some British newspapers of GM food as “Frankenfood”. To use such terms is very alarmist and obscures any real debate about the issues surrounding GM foods. Journalists should be educating us rather than spreading fear. Politicians also want easy answers and are scared of true debate. The lack of understanding of science by many politicians leads to problems in framing policies.

So, Nick Robinson's slip-up was probably one of those heat-of-the-moment mistakes, but equally, he was also probably out of his comfort zone. With a little more knowledge of science he might have avoided this pitfall.