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Comprehension tests

Joe Kaplinsky reports on the RSA/Economist summer fringe debate on Science and the Public: who needs to understand whom?

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Politics

In the third in its series of summer fringe debates, on 19 July 2001, the UK Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) together with The Economist magazine debated the question: ‘Science and the Public: who needs to understand whom?’

The panel boasted Anthony Gottlieb, executive editor of The Economist and author of The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, in conversation with Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London, and author of Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression and The Unnatural Nature of Science

‘I’m an exhibitionist’, declared Lewis Wolpert, and put on an entertaining show, explaining the distinction between science and technology, giving his recommendations for science education, and recommending which experts the public should trust. Anthony Gottlieb deployed a philosopher’s scepticism, in gently probing Wolpert’s forthright defence of his views.

Wolpert’s defence of science seems less evangelical than detached. It is not the job of scientists, he says, to combat astrology or religion. He was concerned to absolve scientists from responsibility for the misuse of technology. Fair enough – it was not science or scientists, after all, who decided to use nuclear weapons against Japan.

But while this defence of science is valid, it is also one-sided. Scientific advance is not a sufficient condition for social progress, but it is a necessary one. Wolpert emphasises the former point: the world’s problems cannot be laid at the door of science. A more all-rounded appreciation of science would also stress that science, by making possible new technologies, opens up tremendous new possibilities. It is not just that GM crops do not kill people (Wolpert’s point), but rather that they could be used to help pull people out of dependence on farming, and to create new drugs and new food sources.

Access to science, says Wolpert, is important if people want it. Science should be available to all, but not stuffed down anybody’s throat. And while there is room for improvement, he thinks that this is pretty much the situation we have right now: a relaxed attitude, which does not get overly concerned about the need for the public to know more science, and is not obsessed with making scientists talk to the public.

Not having taught in schools, Wolpert was reluctant to give too much advice to teachers – but he described as ‘bizarre’ the fashionable proposal that ethics should be introduced into the science curriculum. Not only are ethics irrelevant to the learning of science (and therefore a distraction) – Wolpert argued that science throws up far fewer new ethical dilemmas than is often assumed. He challenged anybody to come up with a genuinely new ethical dilemma posed by the use of stem cells, beyond those posed by IVF; and lamented that ‘not one politician had the knowledge or the guts to stand up and say there is no ethical distinction between stem cells and IVF’.

The question Wolpert found hardest to answer was how the public could make sense of the scientific disputes that are now so common in political debate – for example, the disputes about genetic modification. He insisted that the public was not competent to judge the evidence for themselves – when compared to expert opinion, the opinion of the public counts for nothing. He gave the example of climate change as an ‘extremely difficult question’, where as a non-expert in the field, ‘I don’t know what I believe’.

The problem, then, is which experts to trust? For Wolpert the answer is the Great and the Good in the relevant scientific discipline, personified by the chief government scientist. For him, this does not need to mean believing every government press release or media headline, which often promote a precautionary response even to very measured scientific statements. And as he suggests, what is the alternative? To spend your whole life worrying, because some crank has claimed that the food you eat and the air you breathe might be poisoned?

A general scientific education is desirable for many reasons – but helping people negotiate controversies over risk is not one of them. While Wolpert is right to emphasis the importance of expert opinion over public prejudice, for those people who really do want to spend their time thinking about environmental risks I can think of no better recommendation than studying some science. To understand that the science of global warming is not settled, or that the risk from GM crops is somewhere between very low and zero, you don’t have to be a scientific expert at the cutting edge of research.

Today’s environmental protesters clearly have tremendous determination, passion and energy. Yet they often seem peculiarly ignorant about science. If a fraction of their energy were applied to learning something of the discipline, who knows what might happen?

The RSA/Economist fringe debates continue on Thursday 27 September 2001, looking at education in the twenty-first century, in the RSA Durham Street Auditorium, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2. To reserve a seat in advance, email [email protected], or telephone 020 7451 6868. For press information contact RSA press office on +44 (020) 7451 6842 or email [email protected]


Read on:


Better safe than sorry?, by Joe Kaplinsky


What is expertise?, by Joe Kaplinsky


Science by committee, by Bill Durodie

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Topics Politics

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