Passion? Commitment? High drama? I’m a scientist; give me a break

April 15, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Love_ScienceEnthusiasm and its close friend excitement are the topic for this post.

<sigh>

There’s a lot of both about these days. The news is full of people being praised for their passion and commitment, from volunteers to athletes to science communicators. The media seethes with thrilling stories of ‘high drama’, from Ukraine to South Africa. Public discourse, it seems, is all about excitement; yet however much we have, we’re constantly being told we ought to have more. And that’s a problem, because excitement is not an unqualified Good Thing.

I knew this already, but if I hadn’t, writing a book on cruelty would have made it clear. Passion, after all, originally had to do with suffering. As for commitment, suicide bombers, war criminals, religious maniacs and other fanatics have tons of it. (Some cruelty is about thoughtlessness and lack of empathy, but not all.) Commitment to their beliefs can drive people to commit horrific atrocities. In the worst crimes, excitement — rather than sadism — is often an additional motive. Being cruel can really get the adrenaline going, and adrenaline’s a powerful drug.

Away from the terrible darkness of cruelty, however, there are more mundane reasons for wishing we could just all calm down a bit when it comes to this societal thirst for continual excitement. One is that, here in the West, we have ageing populations, and older people tend to prefer life to be less of an emotional roller-coaster. (Which adult, honestly, would go back to the agonies of childhood and adolescence, when everything mattered so intensely?) Another is that life’s too full of stuff already; we deal with far more, daily, than our grandparents had to think about.

Both those reasons, of course, may actually be driving the emphasis on excitement, as people long to stay young, or the competition for their attention gets fiercer. It’s also possible that the demand for thrills is a response to our increasingly safe and managed world, and perhaps to the feeling, well expressed by Paul Bernal, that much of that management rather dehumanises the managed.

Whatever the cause, there seems to be a prevalent expectation that excitement is, if not a human right, at least an ideal to which we should all aspire. Information by itself is not enough; it must be garlanded with gimmicks to catch the wandering consumer’s eye.

In my home territory of science, and in the news I sample every day, this is a potentially catastrophic problem. At its heart is a conflict between two domains: factual knowledge, and the media. It’s made worse by private ownership and the profit-motive, but even public sector organisations like the BBC are vulnerable to financial pressures for accountability, value-for-money and ratings. As indeed, increasingly, are public sector scientists.

The problem is simple. Media reporting is about what sells, or what boosts ratings. That constrains what is reported towards short, simple, highly salient (attention-grabbing) material. Since only unusual things are salient, the media is silent about most of everyday experience, and greatly distorts much of the rest. Yet the same media outlets are also presumed to reflect, in some way, how society is, and many people take their views about many things not from direct experience but from what they see on the telly, or read in the papers or online. The result: false beliefs all over the place.

This may seem old-fashioned, but news — including science news — shouldn’t be kow-towing to the impact agenda. It marches, or it should march, under a different flag, because what matters is not impact, but accuracy. Scientific findings aren’t true in the absolute sense in which ‘truth’ is often used; they’re not religious revelations or political convictions. But in the more ordinary sense of carefully trying to reflect reality, they’re far more true than a lot of media output.

For example, it’s irksome to see people talking, enthusiastically, about how exciting science is. Sure, once in a while. The rest of the time they could be hauled up before the Advertising Standards Authority for misdescription. I love science because it’s interesting, but interesting is not the same as constantly exciting (and my tastes are somewhat specialised). Not all science even manages to be interesting even to the scientists doing it, let alone the general public. Why should it? It’s not there to entertain, it’s there to figure out how the world works and help us work better in it.

Passion and commitment, so praised elsewhere, are an active danger for scientists. If your beloved theory is too beloved, you may not be able to see its flaws, and if it’s disproved, your commitment to it needs to stop. As for excitement, it’s often the most exciting papers that get the most publicity — and are then retracted. (Scientific misconduct is a problem that rarely makes the mainstream news.) Meanwhile, the boring stuff goes on quietly making progress.

As for the ability to communicate science, to bring out its interest for people who don’t know much about it, IMHO it has less to do with being exciting, and more with the ability to see the world from their point of view and make the topic relevant to them.

Excitement is over-rated. When it comes to science, and to news in general, it may be actively damaging. At the very least, we shouldn’t be letting it take priority over accuracy. Leave entertainment to the entertainers, drama to the dramatists, and commitment to anyone harmless. Science isn’t a cult. It doesn’t need more passion and excitement; if anything it’s got too much already. Passionate believers can lead a field astray and waste vast amounts of funding; thrilling tales can become distorting myths; high drama can distract from accurate research. (The same goes for news.) Better to treat our sciences the way we should be treating other areas of knowledge: with care, doubt, and in-depth investigation. And if that doesn’t sound totally thrilling … well, so what?

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