SCIENCE AND THE RÔLE OF THE IMAGINATION

Dr. Martin Griffith, University of Glamorgan on 6 February 2004

The speaker described the relationship between science, scientists, politicians and the public. Simply, science has a bad public image.

Globalisation has raised fears of corporate entities ‘taking over the world’ and allowing science to ride rough shod over peoples’ needs where it should be serving them. In particular, the public fears genetic modification of food crops as likely to produce ‘Frankenstein food’ and it feels that it is unethical to tamper with life. Even worse, there is a nightmare view of cloning – largely as a result of misunderstanding and sensational news reporting. Few people realise that identical twins are natural clones.

The public distrusts nuclear power production. Originally we were told that by 1980, electricity would be free. Instead of the benefits of electricity without atmospheric pollution, the public fears, at least, the storage of radioactive waste products and at most a meltdown and the recurrence of a Chernobyl scenario.

Science has always challenged the established religious views but now there has developed an active opposition to science from the rising fundamentalist minority yet both the religious and scientists are seeking the truth from different perspectives.

The worries of the scientist are different from those of the public. They are concerned because so few politicians seem to understand science. The public is also frustrated by its limited democratic clout. This results in vicious circle in which scientists, politicians and the public distrust each other.

The public is concerned about the environment but there is no co-ordinated opposition to pollution - why? Although science has the means to solve the problem of pollution, the public is either confused by this complex issue or considers scientific prediction as scare stories so it does not provide the government of the day with the political will to invest in clean energy.

Fewer and fewer young people are taking up a scientific career. Why? Science is seen as ‘more difficult’ than the humanities. Science appeals to and requires those who enjoy puzzles yet there is little evidence that such people are a minority – quite the contrary.

Most people were amazed and glad to have been alive to see Man at last on the Moon and applauded the ‘outward urge’ into space; yet today 11 million people believe it didn’t happen. There has been a steady withdrawal from space research and most are cynical about President Bush’s drive to put men and women on Mars in the next ten years.

How can scientists recover the faith of the public? Naturally, much depends of education. Children have fantastic imaginations which must not be jaded by lack of stimulation. There should be planetaria, robotics laboratories, science clubs to encourage enquiry in every school. Today, scientists don’t work alone but solve problems and develop techniques in teams. Children should be similarly organised to imitate the real world of science. Television should play a bigger part in encouraging scientific team-work by showing more programs putting school science teams in competition such as the ‘Great Egg Race’. School literature should include novels and essays which present the positive nature of science such as The Last Question by Asimov, New Atlantis by Bacon and Looking Backward by Bellamy. Naturally these should be balanced by novels which present bad science and raise questions of ethics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.The image of the scientist as an antisocial, uncool, eccentric, otherworldly nerd could be countered by encouraging public celebrities such as sports stars to learn about an aspect of science which appeals to them. They should then appear on programs explaining that aspect of science, so becoming ‘ambassadors of science’. It is true that we have applied science to dig ourselves into a hole. We can ignore the hole we are in by burying our heads in the humanities but only science can get us out of it!

Richard Phillips