A ruckus on twitter.
Brian Cox and Robin Ince published an editorial in the New Statesman, and a corner of twitter erupted. Small satellite skirmishes popped up around the blogosphere (oh looks, here’s one now…).
It is now being called the “Cox/Ince debate”. Hmm.
Discalimer: I’m pro Cox/Ince in that whole debate thing, so if anything ends up sounding biased in that direction then, well, it probably is. I’m cool with that. But I am also trying to be reasonable. Anyway, the debate isn’t really what this post is about.
I looked on in amusement at first, then increasing frustration. Some people began to talk about scientists thinking science has a ‘privileged/entitled place in society’. But they shouldn’t. But they should. etc.
Mud was flung. Labels were liberally applied, in 140 characters or less:
Some (most?) of those accused of being “sci-commers” didn’t really seem to self-identify as such. The term, I think, was really being used as a catch-all term for what I will call ‘meta-sciences’: anyone who in some way has studied and has something to say on how science/scientists work, stuff that science/scientists do, have done, or it’s impacts. The various sociologist of science groups (policy, communication…), historians of and/or philosophy of science academics.
The ‘conversations’ continued:
“There are many scientific methods, not just one!”
“Some people need to get their history/politics/sociology facts right!”
“I agree with most of it, except…”
“I don’t think we really disagree on that much, but…”
I’m paraphrasing, for the most part.
Some vocal members of this – I doubt they speak for everyone in whatever field it may be – seemed somewhat put off by the fact that others didn’t seem to know much about what they do, what they know and what they have found out. But felt quite strongly that they should.
When asked what’s up, many a reply was “read these papers/books”. Great. Thanks for the insight. I’ll get right on that.
But people did seem to be taking a real chance to needle one another if they could. On both sides. One notably even trying to ‘blamestorm’ the CoxInce article, wondering who wrote what part*. Yeah. Useful.
So, I’m going to come right out and say it to the ‘meta-sciences’: your PR sucks.
A quick poll of a few friends and family couldn’t really tell me what the sociology or philosophy of science might actually be. This may not be representative of the wider public, and I honestly want to stress that I am not saying they are valueless or useless, just that I know next to bugger all about them. This is my fault. But I never chose to study them, I chose biochemistry.
So, here’s an appeal, one I might regret saying in public, but, sod it:
Tell us what you think the people talking about science – in their myriad ways – should know, what’s important and why. Shatter our ignorance. Yes, some of the responsibility lies on us, but, and I don’t like this term, you are the gatekeepers of this knowledge.
Take the jargon out, but don’t patronise. Engage with those you think should be made aware of what you know in a constructive, accessible way to non-specialists. Much like a science writer has to remove the jargon from a piece of research to make it understandable to a wider audience, but keep the essential meaning.**
After all, most of those subjects are publicly funded, right? Surely they too have some responsibility to engage with the wider public? To make the work they do relevant and penetrable by the wider public to some extent? That’s what the many people out there “communicating science” – whatever that means – are trying to do to, but with their own specialist field.