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Thomas Hardy, Richard Proctor and the dialogue of the deaf

How scientists evolved to be resistant to public accountability

Nicholas Russell 18 February 2006

Lessons from Hardy: the professionalization of science took its toll on dialogue

The scientific community and its communicators still bridle at any suggestion of direct public influence over science

A modern scientist might well ask ‘what did Thomas Hardy ever do for us?’ and would likely be baffled by the identity of Richard Proctor. But these two men of history may cast some light on potential problems with the current fashion among science communicators for engaging in dialogue, opening up avenues of two-way communication between scientists and the public. These conversations may well prove pointless because of a long-established mismatch between what scientists themselves want to do, and what the public would ideally like them to do.

This dissonance dates back at least to when science first became a modern profession in the late 19th century. In the novel Two on a Tower published in 1882, Thomas Hardy gave us one of the earliest literary descriptions of science in its modern professional form, while at the same time the science writer Richard Proctor fought a rearguard action in favour of the older, more open, ‘amateur’, and publicly responsive model of science in the weekly magazine, Knowledge, which he edited.

Few people now talk about PUS (Public Understanding of Science) or the ‘deficit’ model of science communication. From the ashes of PUS has arisen the phoenix PEST; Public Engagement with Science, where the emphasis is on public dialogue. But while the communication method may be changing, its purpose is not. A deficit agenda still rules, persuading the public that what scientists do is beneficial and that public respect is due for the goals set for science by scientists (even if these goals are influenced by the scientists’ paymasters in government and industry). While the logic of dialogue is for participants to listen to each other, this does not seem to be what twenty-first century PEST controllers want. The scientific community and its communicators still bridle at any suggestion of direct public influence over science.

To be fair, there are a number of strong objections to such democratic accountability. Any professional group resents having its actions critiqued by outsiders, while there is legitimate concern over whether non-experts understand enough to influence what experts do. Furthermore, one of the strengths of science seems to be its independence, and direct public or political influences might well cause research goals to swing (perhaps wildly) with changes in fashion, the influence of different pressure groups, and movements in public opinion. But the most significant problem may be that the interests of scientists are just not compatible with lay expectations for science. The origins of this fault-line lie in the late 19th century, and Hardy and Proctor can help us to understand how it appeared.

On the surface Two on a Tower is one of Hardy’s usual sensational romances, with a great deal of sexual unbuttoning and the dignity of the church undermined by a heroine who conceals her illegitimate pregnancy by an abrupt marriage to a bishop. But Hardy told the naturalist Edmund Gosse that he wanted to make science itself the vehicle for the novel, and to an extent that is true. The hero is a young and enthusiastic astronomer, Swithin St Cleve, from a mixed working class and gentry background. The gentry side provided the funds for his school education and he has rigged up a primitive telescopic observatory on a tower, built as a folly in the grounds of the Constantine family estate. Constantine himself has gone off lion hunting in Africa leaving his young wife, Lady Viviette, behind.

Swithin dreams of finding employment as an astronomer, setting his sights on becoming Astronomer Royal. That ambition was unlikely to be fulfilled in an age dominated by class prejudice in which science remained a gentleman’s intellectual hobby. When Hardy was writing Two on a Tower professionalization in the sense of being paid to do research had scarcely begun, but professionalization, in the sense that only properly qualified people using approved processes could undertake science, was well advanced. Science was closing off from lay public concerns, because the research frontline demanded competitive commitment, an increasing degree of specialisation, and funds for instruments, laboratories, and travel. Swithin is fully professional in these latter senses, facing depression at losing a priority dispute, having to exhibit expertise and discipline in the use of instruments in taking and analysing readings, writing according to the rigid codes of scientific article, and needing generous resources to buy instruments and travel. For these funds he still relies on the gentlemanly hobbyist approach: the romantically entangled Viviette buys his instruments for him, while distant relations on his gentry family side leave him legacies for travel.

This professional cadre to which the fictional Swithin belonged rallied round the idea that the most important goal for science was developing abstract theory to explain how the world worked at the most fundamental level. This emphasis inevitably led to a rift from the less intense, more domestic, participatory form that science had previously taken, epitomised by the large popular readership of 19th century magazines like the English Mechanic, and the public interest in such essentially domestic matters as health, childcare, spiritualism, hypnosis or gardening to which science could make useful contributions. The public also showed a clear preference for technology and for the concrete products of applied science over getting to grips with abstract theory. Many scientists were scathing in their contempt for public admiration for engineering inventors and felt they had to firmly counter such populist tendencies.

These oppositions and tensions were reflected in the popular science magazines of the time. Nature (first published in 1869) can be read as the voice of those pushing for the professionalization of science. This required the magazine to articulate two separate objectives, both to publish primary professional science and to popularise it. Since the primary science was now out of reach of the general public, a separate popularising strand became necessary because public support for science was still needed. But the public’s role was redefined from being potentially active participants to being admirers and supporters of science.

Richard Proctor’s magazine Knowledge was altogether a different kind of beast. It was designed for the free interchange of views between the scientific profession and the public, an attempt to keep scientific practice and direction firmly rooted in public concerns. But this was bucking what turned out to be the successful professionalizing trend; Knowledge folded while Nature survived to reach its current exalted position.

The jealously professional scientific community wanted the public to appreciate science passively, to acknowledge that abstract theory was superior to the concrete and the practical, and not to be subject to what they saw as trivial, local, or practical demands. The public seemed to agree that it couldn’t keep up, while the professionals detached themselves ever more completely from direct public interests. This pattern has more or less ossified for well over a century now. Scientists feel separated and special, while the public feels awed. The true purpose of dialogue in the 21st century should be to try to overcome this alienation by reducing scientific isolation and replacing public awe with a degree of participation. But the default position in the scientific community seems to resist any such genuine public participation in working out what kinds of science might be appropriate for the 21st century.

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