Science vs. Manipulation



When Michael Faraday ran the Royal Institution, one of the oldest scientific organisations in the world, the 19th-century chemist took time to enter public discourse.
He ranted about dangerous pollution in the Thames.
He debunked the fad of table-turning, and blamed the educational system for allowing such nonsense to thrive.

Nearly 200 years later, scientists are still tackling bad thinking and big problems.
For Sarah Harper, an Oxford gerontologist who takes the helm proper at the Royal Institution on Tuesday, the rise of denialism, fake news and alternative facts, combined with rapid advances in research that raise deep questions for society, mean that a grasp of science, and all its uncertainties, has never seemed more vital.

“Science affects people’s lives on a daily basis now.
People increasingly need bodies that can provide trusted and open information, and when an issue isn’t black and white, to explain why there’s a debate and guide them through the evidence,” Harper said. “There is a real role for the RI to be a gold standard for scientific evidence.”

That means more than simply stating scientific results. Harper’s vision, in part at least, is for the RI to enhance its provision of information, and have more non-scientists join its debates on the fruits of scientific research. Crucially, she wants to lay bare the scientific process: the complexities of data analysis, and the often ambiguous, even opaque nature of scientific findings.

Harper is the first social scientist to become the RI’s director. She studied at Cambridge and Oxford, and worked as a BBC reporter and a producer on Newsnight before returning to academia. Since 2014 she has served on the prime minister’s Council for Science and Technology.
Her appointment to the RI from outside the ranks of the chemists and physicists who have often held the post reflects a desire from the institution’s trustees for a different approach. Harper wants the RI to be more inclusive, for science to work with the humanities and arts, the private sector and policy makers, so that the information it provides, and the debates it holds, are delivered in the most rounded context.

“Science is addressing huge global challenges that affect people’s lives.
You’ve got to consider the whole social, ethical, moral and political framing of debates,” she said.
“It’s important that the scientist is no longer someone who just sits in a lab. All young scientists should think about public engagement. How will their research affect the public? Questions that are important to the public should influence the questions they themselves are asking.”

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As the May Day events come to a close, this post is most important. Science must embrace and welcome the world in order to show people the validity of what it discovers. What used to be accepted because a scientist said it now must show credentials alongside the discovery process. I hope people listen and read with their brains, not reacting to provocative slogans.

    • Alas, dear Sharon & Lynn, look what has come to pass. It seems to me that those with selfish underhanded purposes have been shockingly effective at nudging the undereducated & confused into feeling triumphant at rejecting science, employing that stupid word ‘elite’, and making use of low prejudices about people on the coasts & in the cities. So many threads have contributed to willed ignorance—at the very moment when so much knowledge is available, which is why I’m always touched by the arduous efforts made over the centuries by those with so few tools at hand, and often so little accrued information to consult–to understand the world around them.
      I hope that’s something people–the few who check in—take away from Secret Gardener.
      Thank you for being aware, engaged, and even encouraging when I feel as though this endeavor is pretty pointless.

      • I have been rereading HUMAN ENDEAVOR: Essence & Mission, A Call For Global Awakening by J.J. BHatt, Ph.D. The esteemed Dr. Blatt was one of my Mother’s professors whose course Global Ocean she was taking at the ripe young age of 93. Brilliant and effervescent with ideas to the point he seemed electric. My Mother was rightfully ignited and likewise so was I after attending a few of his lectures at USF Tampa.

        Once the seed is planted in children it continues to grow and has a chance to multiply exponentially if we give education a chance.

      • Wow, Mr. Sitter had some kind of enduring dedication.

      • Honestly, I think any teacher in the U.S. today has to have incredible persistence– also the ability to turn away wrath, rudeness, ignorance, stupidity, and overwhelming indifference. Even a huge proportion of students who elect to go to college, and aren’t forced to show up every day by law, probably want only to get what they came for–some earning power–and not be assaulted by ideas.
        The only reason I risk sounding like every old generation complaining about the new, is that I experienced my father’s intense quest–not mine–and also spent my life reading about generation upon generation who were honestly curious about what was out there in the world, and were just proud to know things.

  2. A most excellent caution. Thankfully in my youth, education about the environment was as important as my formal schooling. To have become acquainted with all beings and elements sharing the planet has been a blessing and a daily awareness.

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