Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Informing the public of the pursuit of knowledge

IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO LUDDITES: If the post below is too long or hard for you to read, then simply visit this website instead:

Now, on with the post:

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is switched on (officially; technically it's been in test mode for a while), and the news coverage is ... varied. To put it politely.

Most TV reporting has skipped all but the (very) basic, and reduced that to such generalisation that the whole point of the LHC is missed. After a few seconds of science, possibly in fear that people will find this dull and change channel, the reporting flips to the exciting and world-ending dangers that the LHC may generate.

Are the public really that stupid? ITN news (Motto: "All technology is bad and the Internet will kill you. Have a nice cup of tea and watch Emmerdale Farm at 7pm; it's safer.") patronised to its substantial audience of, by now terrified, 50 year old and upwards UK citizens about the dangers of the collider. Without explaining in any detail what it was or how it worked. A nation of middle-brow newspaper readers retreat to their caves and cover themselves in woad, in preparation for the end of the world.

As ever, the "black hats, white hats" style of reporting prevails. It's impossible to find a totally positive story about anything, without some "balance" being injected with some negative points. Everything has to have an opposing view. Everything good is actually crap. No negative points? Invent some then, and so news reports tiresomely focus on the "possibility" of the machine creating a black hole that will swallow the Earth.

So the news focuses at great length on this:


Of which the probability is approximately zero. But don't let the facts get in the way of a good news story. Especially as, oh, we're still here so it didn't happen (Shouldn't we now see a "We apologise for a lack of the end of the world, as predicted in breakfast TV this morning" on certain news channels?).

This kind of "Must be balanced, must be black to go with the white" reporting benefits only the fringe of crank and failed "scientists" who suddenly get their five minutes of fame, as they are interviewed as to why experiment X or discovery Y is a "bad thing". Tell you what, media; if you want true balance of scientific opinion, then do it based on peer-review journal citations. If you interview one person in favour of X or Y, then the opposing person must match his citation count, or some other citation analysis measure.

(Suddenly remembered certain washing powder adverts from not that long ago. Cue man in white coat with clipboard, introduced as "John Smith, BSc", to reassure the consumer that the washing powder he has conducted experiments on washes all clothes in the known universe whiter than white.) 

In addition, sticking misleading (and unscientific) labels on something science-based is another way some elements of the media try and make science reporting more palatable. Suddenly, at CERN, the scientists are apparently looking for the "God particle".  Eh? What?

The relentless anti-science reporting, and nasty undercurrent of anti-education, anti-science feeling that runs through some strands of society bears fruit. Some of the comments on the BBC news website "Have Your Say" are profoundly depressing, with a cohort of wannabee cave dwellers trotting out the "Waste of money, spend it on something else" line.

It's not just there; every news forum has a significant number of neo-luddites spewing out the same backward guff. "There are so many poor people; the money is better spent on them" - but the poor are, indeed, always with us. Always have been, always will be. And without the benefits of scientific research, you wouldn't know about the poor anyway as either:

  • There'd be no mass communication, so your world view is restricted to 20 or so miles; and/or...

  • There'd be no medical advances or technology, so you'd be dead much younger anyway.

And there'd be no BBC news website, or "Have Your Say" forum. What if Watson's reply to Alexander Graham Bell had been "This telephone thing is a waste of time and money"? Or if John Logie Baird had been persuaded that his invention was "rubbish; the picture is blurred and it's not even in colour"?

The biggest irony of all is that CERN was also the place where TBL invented the world wide web, giving luddites, extremists, fanatics and the generally stupid the opportunity to rail against any kind of scientific progress. I wonder if, when they need surgery, or a scan, or any other kind of medical treatment, they'd refuse it on the same grounds? "Surgeon, I'm afraid to say that anaesthetic was developed through 19th century scientific advances, so give me a stick to bite on when you cut me open before I pass out because of the pain."

One comment on the Sky news forum puts it eloquently:

"Words cannot begin to fully express my fury and contempt for the petty, small-mindedness, the lack of imagination and desire for answers expressed by a depressingly large proportion of the people who've posted their ill-considered and pathetic (in the truest sense) views on here. The notion that we'd all be better off if we stopped striving to make new discoveries and push the boundaries of our understanding of existing ideas is frankly just jaw-droppingly frightening. Mankind would still be shivering in its own filth in some cave somewhere in the Middle East if it was down to you mental-pygmies. "Fire? Oooh, sounds risky, we'll stick with the raw meat and bits of twig I think." And the irony of posting on the internet to decry advances in science is too achingly acute for words."


  1. A different attitude in Romania (where we live for the moment): in the absence of any shocking news, this subject of the breaking news for a couple of days. Emphasis, of course, on the "end of the world" aspect, but the procedure was exaplined in detail on all TV stations (too many of them, all too mediocre). The reaction of the Romanians: "Yeah, right, anyway, I have to buy a fridge tomorrow". One of the main news this morning: "An Indian woman killed herself by ingesting pesticides because she found out about the end of the world".There you are - which attitude is best? :-))

  2. Just heard the most depressing "Thought for the Day" on Radio Scotland this morning (why do these people get airtime?).The chap's (think he was a Catholic priest, but that's irrelevant) argument boiled down to the same old boring arguments trotted out time and time again by his ilk. "Science doesn't have all the answers", "Some things are just a mystery and should remain so", "Why look for answers to questions like this when the answers are all here in this book ..."What a boring, unimaginative, tired and incredibly depressing outlook to have on life. "Don't ask questions, don't look for answers, take my word for it. It's all a mystery, OK?"Pathetic.

  3. Excellent and all too accurate post. I particularly like the ITN motto! Alexander Fleming would have been worth a mention. After all the majority of us, luddites included, would be dead if it wasn't for his medicinal research and accidental discovery of the world's first antibiotic.Cheers,Alex