More Festival than Science

What are science festivals for? To inspire, educate, communicate complex ideas in an accessible way?

Various Authors

Topics Science & Tech

What are science festivals for? To inspire, educate, communicate complex ideas in an accessible way?

According to the Edinburgh International Science Festival, they are for all these things. ‘Excite your senses. Feed your brain. Stimulate your mind. Satisfy your curiosity’, says the festival brochure.

But read on and you get a different impression. ‘Many of us feel overwhelmed by science and powerless to influence decisions on what research should or shouldn’t go ahead. The Science Festival exists to change this.’ So science festivals have a therapeutic role, helping people feel less ‘overwhelmed’ by science?

What follows is an admittedly unscientific sample of what was on offer during the first week of the Edinburgh Science Festival (1).

  • 6 April: Edinburgh Medal: concern, sincerity and the power to act, Royal College of Physicians

This award is presented by the festival ‘not only for…professional achievements, but also for their wider contribution to society’.

Previously it has gone to Sir David Attenborough, Professor Stephen J Gould and Professor Jane Goodall – scientists and science communicators. This year it is won by Ms Lise Kingo of Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk – ‘for her relentless and pioneering work in developing an approach to business that is socially and environmentally responsible’.

Instead of congratulating business simply for being concerned, shouldn’t we be questioning their concerns? The environmental message is getting through to business in a big way – or rather, big business has noticed that the way to stay popular in a world where everybody seems to believe that ‘the planet’s natural systems are in decline and the rate of decline is accelerating’ (2) is to go green.

‘If you want credibility in this business, you have to deal with the issues that the public want to hear about – whether you like it or not’, says Kingo (3). So companies are turning environmental, not because of any solid evidence that the environment is facing disaster, but because they have little choice.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that business is looking to environmentalism for clues to connect with an environmentally aware public. I mean, what do they want? A medal?


  • 8 April: Creating Biodiversity, Royal Botanic Garden

What’s this? A tropical biologist saying something positive about the state of the Amazon rainforest? Now, there’s a turn-up for the trousers.

Dr Toby Pennington, a taxonomist at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, specialises in a genus of trees belonging to the bean family. There are some 300 species of Inga in tropical America, and Pennington has found that although they are morphologically diverse, they are remarkably similar genetically, suggesting that they diverged from their common ancestor only recently. Indeed, Pennington estimates that a third of all Inga species arose within the past two million years – that’s a week last Tuesday in evolutionary timescales (4).

One likely cause of this rapid evolution is a series of ice ages over the past 10million years, each of which caused the forest to take refuge in isolated patches. Single species were divided up into discrete populations, each taking its own evolutionary path. When an ice age lifted, certain populations had become sufficiently different so as to be incapable of interbreeding when the forest joined up again – new species had been formed. So forest fragmentation can create biodiversity as well as cause extinction.

Pennington surprised his audience by claiming that 75 percent of the Amazon rainforest remains intact. That’s a lot of rainforest, whether you think in terms of football pitches or countries the size of Wales. He went on to describe flying for hours on end over unbroken swathes of forest canopy.

If it became common knowledge that little of the Amazon has actually been destroyed, some environmentalist groups would no doubt respond with press releases of the football-pitch or countries-the-size-of-Wales variety. But then again, in the light of Pennington’s research, maybe they’d change tack completely and argue that Amazonia should be carved up into small pieces for the sake of future generations of species that haven’t yet been given the chance to evolve….


  • 9 April: Cooling the Greenhouse: halving carbon emissions by 2050, Reid Concert Hall

Today, one of the world’s most influential scientists provided evidence – albeit unwittingly – for the hypothesis that environmentalism is the new, groovy religion that replaces all those stuffy, old-fashioned ones.

Sir John Houghton, scientific co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was speaking about the science behind the Kyoto Treaty. Well, he skipped over the scientific bits pretty quickly – but he did dwell on how computer models are predicting future rises in sea level that will apparently displace millions of people in Bangladesh.

Yet even if the predicted rises in sea level are correct, Kyoto won’t help Bangladeshis. As Bjorn Lomborg has pointed out on spiked, ‘[T]he effect of Kyoto on the climate will be minuscule – in the order of 0.15 degrees C in 2100, or the equivalent of putting off the feared temperature increase for just six years’ (5).

Houghton ended his talk with a slide showing why he is optimistic that the Kyoto treaty will work:

  1. The commitment of scientists.
  2. The availability of the necessary technology.
  3. God’s commitment to His creation.

So, not because it’s the best way forward in the present circumstances then?

Houghton shared the platform with Kevin Dunion, director of Friends of the Earth in Scotland, whose presentation consisted of a defensive polemic about why nuclear power should not be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This event was billed as a debate, but the only real disagreement between the speakers was whether or not God exists. Dunion kicked off his presentation with a cartoon depicting policymakers sitting round a table at a climate-change summit, up to their waists in water, while a power station on the horizon belches out black smoke. ‘Since we can’t agree to do anything’, says one attendee, ‘let’s agree to do nothing’.

Dunion’s belief is that we should agree to do anything. Hence Kyoto.


  • 10 April: Wild Health, Edinburgh University

Dr Cindy Engel of the Open University discusses her book Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn From Them.

She explains that many animals, from parrots to caterpillars, have the ability to seek out and eat things that prevent or cure illness. Elephants in the Congo dig for clay that binds harmful alkaloids in the plants they eat. Cats eat grass because it helps flush parasites out of their systems. The audience of elderly ladies and zoology students loves every minute of it.

Engel stresses that all this is just basic natural selection, not proof of mystical animal wisdom. Evolutionarily speaking, protecting yourself from illness is going to be a winner. Yet a quick internet search later reveals that many on the alternative medicine scene see Engel’s book as proof that Mother Nature knows best, and that modern medicine has got it all wrong. ‘We can learn a lot from this philosophy, which is shared to some extent by traditional herbalists and naturopaths – being proactive about preventative health rather than passively purchasing drugs and effectively trying to “buy” health’, says one website (6).

It turns out that Engel isn’t too uncomfortable with this. As a scientist, she wants to get her facts right – but as a shiatsu practitioner, she’s pushing hard for the acceptance of something that she thinks is unfairly ignored for sounding trendy and new age. But lack of scientific acceptance is often down to lack of sufficient evidence – and an open mind will only get you so far, as Richard Dawkins might say, before your brain falls out.


  • 11 April: Time to Rethink Everything, Edinburgh University

Tonight, a real Science Festival treat: New Scientist’s attempt to solve the problems of the world using every trick in the book – except science.

The programme blurb got my alarm bells ringing: ‘The twenty-first century has got off to a rocky start. Science and technology let us phone anywhere, anytime and we thought it would bring us all together. But instead we have global terrorism.’ So New Scientist would be searching for ‘radical new ways to bring solutions from science and technology to the world’s biggest problems’.

A more accurate description would have been that it would engage in a simplistic rehash of recent world events, and then sit back and watch a panel of experts rehash the rehash into oblivion.

It goes without saying that 11 September is our first port-of-call, with a cinema screen shot of the exploding Twin Towers reducing the audience to gasps of horror. But it was hard to tell if the gasps were at the pictures or at speaker Michael Bond’s accompanying comment that globalisation had led to ‘…a huge boom in world trade’.

There are more slides: the Monsanto logo raises a knowing sigh; Osama bin Laden’s mugshot prompts a collective intake of breath; Posh‘n’Becks, representing the West’s attack on fundamentalist values in the Middle East, raise a titter.

‘How do Britney Spears or the Spice Girls appear to the third world?’ asks Bond. This man truly has his finger on the very pulse of humanity. ‘Surely these things are interconnected?’ he concludes – and this really is the hard-hitting final point, repeated at the end of his speech. Cause and association seem to be concepts we need not even mention , but then, it’s not like this is a science festival or anything.

Following a brief slideshow explaining how the Cubans have discovered organic farming and a five-minute explanation of the Arab-Israeli conflict – during which we are asked to ‘just imagine’ being a child on either side – our panel of experts draws the evening to a conclusion by sketching a neat line between America not realising ‘how much they are hated by the rest of the world’ and the account of global disintegration we have just sat through.

Overall, ‘optimism is dangerous’, argues Kevin Dunion of Friends of the Earth. I am beginning to know how he feels. If these are ‘the best ideas from the world’s finest brains’, as promised, we’re in serious trouble.


  • 12 April: Eat to Live and Live to Eat, University of Edinburgh

During her talk on the psychology of eating, Professor Marion Hetherington asks the audience who they think rates themselves as having lower self-esteem – Scottish or Serbian girls?

The unanimous response startled me – ‘Scottish!’ And it was right. But why is this such an obvious answer? Serbians have, after all, recently been through a war and bombing by NATO forces. And we had already been primed with statistics showing that the former Yugoslavia has the highest obesity rates in Europe.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the audience’s reaction. The British public – audience members and Scottish girls alike – are often told by the powers-that-be that their self-esteem needs boosting. Implicit in such psychotherapeutic advice is the message that self-confidence must be too low to start with. So, the audience’s correct answer probably had more to do with empathy for their fellow nationals than scientific insight. Indeed, Hetherington herself was at a loss to explain the data.

The emphasis of Hetherington’s lecture was on the psychology of eating disorders. Obesity, anorexia nervosa and bulimia are all on the increase, she claimed, and presented convincing evidence that they are all linked: an increase in obesity leads to more weight-loss dieting, which in turn can lead to anorexia and bulimia.

Hetherington is critical of a media-led fashion for thinness, as captured by the use of skinny models on magazine covers. But while health professionals make much of such media manipulation, they are guilty of pushing the ‘thin is in’ message themselves. Hetherington’s own description of the increase in obesity as an ‘epidemic’ is a case in point.


Stuart Blackman and Richard Northover are freelance science journalists.

Read on:

Science talk, by Stuart Blackman and Richard Northover

(1) The Edinburgh International Science Festival runs from 5 to 16 April 2002

(2) What we see, ecos corporation website

(3) Take me to your leader, ecos corporation website

(4) ‘Rapid diversifcation of a species-rich genus of neotropical rain forest trees’, James E Richardson, R Toby Pennington, Terence D Pennington, Peter M Hollingsworth, Science 2001 vol293 pp2242-2245

(5) Should we implement the Kyoto protocol?, spiked-science/NERC environment debates

(6) See the Positive Health website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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