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Henrik Ibsen and public science policy

Taking STEPS to enhance PEST

Nicholas Russell 9 April 2006

An old Norwegian play about public baths serves as a modern science communication parable

Formulating a scientifically logical (but politically impractical) solution is not enough

Useful material on the vexed issue of science’s relationship with wider culture can be found in some surprising places. One might not think to look for insight into 21st century public science policy in the works of the long departed Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), but his drama A Public Enemy teaches some interesting lessons, even if they are not necessarily the ones that Ibsen intended.

A Public Enemy demonstrates that science needs careful handling when it is applied in wider political and social contexts. Scientists working at interfaces with the wider world need skills over and above those usually developed through their scientific training. On the grand scale such situations are things like global warming or the role of GM crops in agriculture. In the case of global warming, science suggests that human action is responsible, implying in turn that humans must change their behaviour to solve the problem. In such cases scientists are often asked to do more than simply analyse a problem and suggest scientific (but often necessarily abstract) solutions, and it is here that a range of social and political skills are necessary. The significance of such skills is easier to recognise on a small scale and here Ibsen’s play is illuminating. It shows that we need more than PUS (Public Understanding of Science) or PEST (Public Engagement with Science and Technology), but must also learn better how to get Scientists and Technologists to Engage with various PublicS (what we might designate STEPS). One key to such engagement is for scientists to be able to see things from external points of view as well as from the scientific perspective.

Ibsen wrote A Public Enemy in 1882 soon after completing Ghosts. The latter play was judged obscene and Ibsen felt personally rejected. He saw himself as an artist martyred by public ignorance although he was convinced the public would eventually ‘come round’ to see the virtues of his play.

In A Public Enemy, Ibsen tells a similar story of creative insight scorned by public ignorance. Ibsen’s hero in this drama is a misunderstood lone wolf like himself: Dr. Stockmann, the Medical Officer for the Municipal Baths at a small coastal resort. Stockmann uses science to uncover an uncomfortable truth, that the Baths are being contaminated by pollution from tanneries and other industries because the water intake system has been too cheaply built. He has taken a series of water samples which, when analysed, show heavy bacterial contamination, and he warns the citizens that they are poisoning the Baths and could destroy their tourist trade. The application of science has revealed a serious public health problem.

Stockman believes his simple message will inevitably lead to improvements to the water system and to a reform of the civic corruption that led to the problem in the first place. But the townspeople think otherwise. They are unwilling to foot the bill for the improvements, or to put up with the delay in re-opening the Baths that major reconstruction would cause. They want a fudge but Stockmann is unwilling to compromise.

The usual reading of the play, supported by the context of its composition, is that the scientific idealist Stockmann is a ‘hero’ working against the petty self-interest of corrupt municipal officials and self-serving trade associations. But the text is more subtle than that. While Stockmann certainly has courage and idealism, he is also naïve and foolish. His brother the Mayor, the newspapermen and the local association leaders are selfish, manipulative and hypocritical, but the justice of their case is real – how can the town survive the loss of reputation of its baths, the costs of re-structuring the water supply, and the two-year closure?

But Stockmann will not negotiate on these issues. One interpretation of his stand is that it shows proper resistance to ignorant prejudice from one who understands the truth, but an alternative reading is that such confrontation is not the best option. To achieve a solution Stockmann needs to help devise an economically and politically sensitive way of achieving the changes that are needed. Formulating a scientifically logical (but politically impractical) solution is not enough.

The upshot in the play is for Stockmann to be branded a public enemy and dismissed from his job by popular demand. Real politick turns nearly every hand against him, but he vows to stay and practise medicine among the poor while continuing to try to persuade the townspeople where their best interests lie. In taking this line Stockmann reveals not only heroic determination, but also strong anti-democratic tendencies, making himself into something of a scientific despot. He takes the view that people are too stupid and corrupt to see the benefits of his insight. But they are probably not; it is simply his naïve solution to which they object.

Stockmann has written a public relations piece about the Baths for the local newspaper but now wants the paper to run his contamination story instead. But the newspaper won’t run either story. It is constrained by the interests of the community it serves. So he needs a better understanding of journalism to be effective in using the media for his purposes. The same applies to his resistance to compromise with the political and business communities. To help produce a solution he needs to work with, rather than against, the vested interests. These interests may be ignorant and short-sighted (after all, a real disease outbreak will be even more devastating than Stockmann’s unpleasant solutions to the problem) but he needs to develop more subtle techniques to exploit the threat and to get the townspeople to compromise with him.

Ibsen’s implied parallel between the misunderstood artist and the misunderstood scientist is perhaps too simple. Society did change sufficiently in the relatively short-term for Ghosts to resonate with various publics, rather than simply offend them. Ibsen could afford to wait for social change to accommodate him (apart from losing earnings and respect). But the fictitious Stockmann cannot afford to wait for social change or a disease outbreak. His clear moral duty is not just to expose the problem, but to work realistically and co-operatively to try and solve it.