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Essay

Scientists: get off your pedestal and get round the table

'Science and Truth' meets Talkaoke

David Weinkove 12 October 2008

www.lablit.com/article/425

Democratic: Mikey mans the table (with his brother David, right, looking on)

Good teachers explain the uncertainty of the scientific process to their students, but often the students are expecting their professors to provide all the answers

Scientists face a problem. On the one hand they want to persuade society that the scientific approach is the best way to understand the world, to provide rational solutions to the world’s problems and to use technology to make our lives better. But on the other hand, practicing scientists realise that science is full of uncertainty, that there is much more about the natural world that we don’t understand than we do, and that there is a limit to the predictive power of science.

To some extent society forces scientists into this difficult position. To win funding, to publish papers in high profile journals and to get prestigious jobs, scientists have to convince others of the certainty of their research and its utility to society. They have to sell their science as the best.

Academia perpetuates a hierarchical system. There is a common belief that if you need to know the answer to something you have to talk to the most distinguished professor in the most prestigious university in the land. Lecturers like their students to believe that they and the textbooks are the authority. Of course good teachers explain the uncertainty of the scientific process to their students, but often the students are expecting their erudite professors to provide all the answers.

Despite the increasing importance of technology in the world, there is growing support for movements that reject science such as religious fundamentalism and mysticism. Scientists, government and universities have responded by promoting public engagement in science: getting scientists to talk to public. However these events are often informal replicas of the academic lecture or the conference talk. The learned professor is invited to share his or her research and opinions with the obedient audience in awe of its invited guest. Often the public attending these events expect answers from their expert. The scientist feels the pressure to oblige, especially if they are representing the institution they work for. Discussions end up being tutorials. Just like in class, many people are afraid to ask questions in case they look stupid.

Like a good scientist, I’m now going to present the solution – or at least an alternative to the public engagement event. Let’s get scientists and non-scientists together on an equal footing, where everyone is there just because they want to, not to represent a particular organization or being labeled with any authority. And anyone can ask anyone anything.

This is the plan for an event at the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London on 11 November called 'Science and Truth'.

Over a decade ago my brother, then a recent art school graduate, invented Talkaoke, a portable chat show in which he sits in the middle of a circular table passing around a microphone to people sitting around the edge. The image of the person holding the mic is projected on a big screen – a transient chat show guest. The conversation has no bounds and is allowed to go wherever it wants. Soon total strangers are sharing their inner thoughts in ways they never expected. Over the years this show has appeared in large variety of settings. Most recently Talkaoke was at the Dana Centre where it played a small part in a more structured event. Now we are removing the structure, inviting loads of scientists, non-scientists and all those in between to come round the table and see what happens.

Please join us.

Related information

Visit the Dana Centre website for more information and tickets, or check out the official Facebook page.

Read all about Talkaoke here.