Last week I travelled down to sunny Cambridge for the Science Media Next Generation
conference at Jesus College. I’m not going to write up all that was said, since that has been done well elsewhere
. But I’ll briefly list the main lessons that I took away.
(This is a rather selfish list in that it’s about how the issues relate to me. There was lots interesting discussion and speculation about the future of science & media & science media, as well as some fascinating stuff from Simon Singh on his experience of libel law, and from Adam Wishart on ethics. But on all these topics I don’t have much to add to what others have already said.)
Lesson 1: I am not a science journalist. I suppose that subconsciously I have always secretly suspected this, but it is useful to have it confirmed. My interest in science is in science, much less in the attendant politics. I want to help demystify it, report on exciting developments to people who would otherwise not hear about them, and generally spread the word about how wonderful it is. Meanwhile, a journalist’s job is to “hold scientists to account” and generally “cause mischief”. I don’t wish to sound cynical: plenty of good arguments were made for the importance of these activities, but they had the side-effect of convincing me that that’s not where my future lies.
So what am I? A “science communicator” perhaps. I’d even accept “science curator, guide, navigator or sense-maker”, as John Naughton put it. Actually I’ve often thought of myself as more of a “translator” of technical ideas into everyday language.
Lesson 2: The Science versus Religion debate has gone downhill since the days of Bertrand Russell. Like most of the crowd, I was slightly taken aback that the session on “Impact of Science Journalism on Culture and Society” was entirely devoted to booting around the old, deflated football of the compatibility of science and God.
I do think there are interesting things which can still be said about this, at the sociological and historical levels. But in terms of the metaphyical implications of any particular piece of science (whether that be the human genome or the latest multiverse speculation), I view the whole subject as a black hole best avoided. You can bat such questions back and forth for ever, after which everyone grumpily reverts to their starting positions. Namely, all reasonable people peg their preferred philosophical outlook to whatever the science currently says, while the maniacs deny it outright.
Lesson 3: People, things, and ideas. The most controversial moment of the day was when Andrew Brown declared that “People are more interested in stories about people than they are in stories about things”.
I work in mathematics, which isn’t even about things. It’s about ideas. This puts me at least two steps removed from anything anyone cares about. Like many people present, I think, my immediate reaction was one of defensiveness. On the face of it, the statement is false: as David Adam from Nature pointed out, things such as cosmic background radiation can generate a surprising amount of interest. Andrew replied that this is ultimately a story about people, as it concerns the origins of humanity. This struck me as a bit of a cop-out, since all of science is – by definition – the study of the situation in which we find ourselves, and hence ultimately about us, if you like.
Still, there is food for thought in Andrew’s remark. Some things (or ideas) are of interest for the way they relate to aspects of people’s direct experience. The never-ending stories of scientists finding a gene for obesity or campanology testify to this. Other ideas are interesting for their mind-expansion value: plenty of people derive pleasure from wild and wacky ideas. Dark matter & Higgs boson detection constantly attract headlines, even though they fall completely outside anyone’s daily life. This is – mostly, I think – where mathematics fits in, Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture being a good recent example.
That example does qualify an interesting story about a person in a much more direct sense, though, since Perelman is such an unusual character.
The most interesting stories of all should, therefore, concern wild theories which also relate to our daily experience. Can mathematics hope to qualify? Yes! It could be argued that the P=?NP question, for example, lives exactly here. (For the hat-trick, all that remains is for it to be resolved by an extraordinarily strange individual.)
Lesson 4: The view from the other side. It was valuable to hear about the science book business from publisher turned writer Christopher Potter and literary agent Peter Tallack (disclaimer: he’s my agent). It’s clear that in all areas, the trend is away from paper towards electronic media. My impression though, is that this is happening faster in the world of journalism than in books. Relatedly, I sense that while journalists are – rightly or wrongly – feeling threatened by bloggers, book-writers have a slightly more secure position. While people might write blogposts for free as a hobby, they’re likely to continue to want money to write books. The upshot was that Peter’s “five reasons to be cheerful” pretty well had their desired effect, and it was certainly nice to end the day on an optimistic note.
Lesson 5: It really is time I got a twitter account. Well on that, at any rate, I can report progress. The only thing now is to work out what to do with it.
Overall, a thought-provoking day, and lovely to meet people including Andy Extance and Stuart Clark. So, many thanks to the organisers & sponsors including Bluesci magazine and the Public Library of Science.