Can Public Understanding of Science Work?

In my view there is a lot of science, particularly mathematical science, that cannot be made properly understandable by members of the general public. It takes scientists many years of study to understand it themselves, and I'm not sure that they succeed even then. For example I've never yet seen an adequate presentation of the expanding relativistic bounded universe of space-time, despite 100 years since Einstein's work, and many desperate analogies with balloons. And Richard Feynman said something to the effect that no-one, not even he, could understand quantum mechanics.

On the other hand there are many particular circumscribed aspects of science that could be adequately explained in much more straightforward terms without use of technical jargon. There are many good science writers engaged in this type of work already.

There are also public concerns that need to be communicated to scientists. Obvious examples are the fears of people about the possible dangers inherent in genetic engineering applied to food, and the possibility of terrorists getting hold of fissionable materials for atom bombs as a result of nuclear reprocessing, and also the danger of environmental pollution, such as plutonium in the sea, from the same source.

An aspect of science and technology that particularly concerns me is the motivation of scientists. Ideally science is the disinterested pursuit of truth. How then is it that different scientists, representing different organisations (say, Monsanto and Friends of the Earth), can express opposite views? Can scientists be independent of the organisations paying their salaries?

Related to this is how research establishments evaluate the work that scientists do. One may sometimes wonder if it is purely in terms of the number of papers published. A common type of story in the newspapers is to report the work of a scientist (usually backed up by an extensive team) who is apparently engaged on trivialities, conducting experiments to prove the obvious, when he could just have asked his grannie.

There are some commentators on science (I'm thinking of Lewis Wolpert, and sometimes Richard Dawkins) who seem to have a "purist" attitude to science, and do not include applications of science, i.e. dirty technology, under that term. In my view pure science cannot be divorced from its applications nor from its moral implications.

In conclusion, there is a need for a two-way exchange of views between expert scientists in their various fields and concerned members of the public. The interest of the public can be, and needs to be, engaged in what scientists are doing, and scientists need to be aware of, and to take account of, the possible social impact of their work.

This note has been in my files since it was written in October 2001.