There can be no doubt that the situation for women has improved hugely since I started at UCL, 50 years ago. At that time women were not allowed in the senior common room. It’s improved even more since the 1930s (read about the attitude of the great statistician, Ronald Fisher, to Florence Nightinglale David).
Recently Williams & Ceci published data that suggest that young women no longer face barriers in job selection in the USA (though it will take 20 years before that feeds through to professor level). But no sooner than one was feeling optimistic, along comes Tim Hunt who caused a media storm by advocating male-only labs. I’ll say a bit about that case below.
First some very preliminary concrete proposals.
The job of emancipation is not yet completed. I’ve recently become a member of the Royal Society diversity committee, chaired by Uta Frith. That’s made me think more seriously about the evidence concerning the progress of women and of black and minority ethnic (BME) people in science, and what can be done about it. Here are some preliminary thoughts. They are my opinions, not those of the committee.
I suspect that much of the problem for women and BME results from over-competitiveness and perverse incentives that are imposed on researchers. That’s got progressively worse, and it affects men too. In fact it corrupts the entire scientific process.
One of the best writers on these topics is Peter Lawrence. He’s an eminent biologist who worked at the famous Lab for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, until he ‘retired’.
Here are three things by him that everyone should read.
From Lawrence (2003)
"Listen. All over the world scientists are fretting. It is night in London and Deborah Dormouse is unable to sleep. She can’t decide whether, after four weeks of anxious waiting, it would be counterproductive to call a Nature editor about her manuscript. In the sunlight in Sydney, Wayne Wombat is furious that his student’s article was rejected by Science and is taking revenge on similar work he is reviewing for Cell. In San Diego, Melissa Mariposa reads that her article submitted to Current Biology will be reconsidered, but only if it is cut in half. Against her better judgement, she steels herself to throw out some key data and oversimplify the conclusions— her postdoc needs this journal on his CV or he will lose a point in the Spanish league, and that job in Madrid will go instead to Mar Maradona."
"It is we older, well-established scientists who have to act to change things. We should make these points on committees for grants and jobs, and should not be so desperate to push our papers into the leading journals. We cannot expect younger scientists to endanger their future by making sacrifices for the common good, at least not before we do."
From Lawrence (2007)
“The struggle to survive in modern science, the open and public nature of that competition, and the advantages bestowed on those who are prepared to show off and to exploit others have acted against modest and gentle people of all kinds — yet there is no evidence, presumption or likelihood that less pushy people are less creative. As less aggressive people are predominantly women [14,15] it should be no surprise that, in spite of an increased proportion of women entering biomedical research as students, there has been little, if any, increase in the representation of women at the top . Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them . Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”
From Lawrence (2011).
"There’s a reward system for building up a large group, if you can, and it doesn’t really matter how many of your group fail, as long as one or two succeed. You can build your career on their success".
Part of this pressure comes from university rankings. They are statistically-illiterate and serve no useful purpose, apart from making money for their publishers and providing vice-chancellors with an excuse to bullying staff in the interests of institutional willy-waving.
And part of the pressure arises from the money that comes with the REF. A recent survey gave rise to the comment
"Early career researchers overwhelmingly feel that the research excellence framework has created “a huge amount of pressure and anxiety, which impacts particularly on those at the bottom rung of the career ladder"
In fact the last REF was conducted quite sensibly (e.g. use of silly metrics was banned). The problem was that universities didn’t believe that the rules would be followed.
For example, academics in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London were told (in 2007) they are expected to
“publish three papers per annum, at least one in a prestigious journal with an impact factor of at least five”.
And last year a 51-year-old academic with a good publication record was told that unless he raised £200,000 in grants in the next year, he’d be fired. There can be little doubt that this “performance management” contributed to his decision to commit suicide. And Imperial did nothing to remedy the policy after an internal investigation.
Crude financial targets for grant income should be condemned as defrauding the taxpayer (you are compelled to make your work as expensive as possible) As usual, women and BME suffer disproportionately from such bullying.
What can be done about this in practice?
I feel that some firm recommendations will be useful.
The Royal Society has already signed DORA, but, shockingly, only three universities in the UK have done so (Sussex, UCL and Manchester).
Another well-meaning initiative is The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. It’s written very much from the HR point of view and I’d argue that that’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.
For example it says
“3. Research managers should be required to participate in active performance management, including career development guidance”
That statement is meaningless without any definition of how performance management should be done. It’s quite clear that “performance management”, in the form of crude targets, was a large contributor to Stefan Grimm’s suicide.
The Concordat places great emphasis in training programmes, but ignores the fact that it’s doubtful whether diversity training works, and it may even have bad effects.
The Concordat is essentially meaningless in its present form.
I propose that all fellowships and grants should be awarded only to universities who have signed DORA and Athena Swan.
I have little faith that signing DORA, or the Concordat, will have much effect on the shop floor, but they do set a standard, and eventually, as with changes in the law, improvements in behaviour are effected.
But, as a check, It should be announced at the start that fellows and employees paid by grants will be asked directly whether or not these agreements have been honoured in practice.
Crude financial targets are imposed at one in six universities. Those who do that should be excluded from getting fellowships or grants, on the grounds that the process gives bad value to the funders (and taxpayer) and that it endangers objectivity.
Some thoughts in the Hunt affair
It’s now 46 years since I and Brian Woledge managed to get UCL’s senior common room, the Housman room, opened to women. That was 1969, and since then, I don’t think that I’ve heard any public statement that was so openly sexist as Tim Hunt’s now notorious speech in Korea.
On the Today Programme, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest", so there’s no doubt that those are his views. He confirmed that the account that was first tweeted by Connie St Louis was accurate
Inevitably, there was a backlash from libertarians and conservatives. That was fuelled by a piece in today’s Observer, in which Hunt seems to regard himself as being victimised. My comment on the Observer piece sums up my views.
I was pretty shaken when I heard what Tim Hunt had said, all the more because I have recently become a member of the Royal Society’s diversity committee. When he talked about the incident on the Today programme on 10 June, it certainly didn’t sound like a joke to me. It seems that he carried on for more than 5 minutes in they same vein.
Everyone appreciates Hunt’s scientific work, but the views that he expressed about women are from the dark ages. It seemed to me, and to Dorothy Bishop, and to many others, that with views like that. Hunt should not play any part in selection or policy matters. The Royal Society moved with admirable speed to do that.
The views that were expressed are so totally incompatible with UCL’s values, so it was right that UCL too acted quickly. His job at UCL was an honorary one: he is retired and he was not deprived of his lab and his living, as some people suggested.
Although the initial reaction, from men as well as from women, was predictably angry, it very soon turned to humour, with the flood of #distractinglysexy tweets.
It would be a mistake to think that these actions were the work of PR people. They were thought to be just by everyone, female or male, who wants to improve diversity in science.
The episode is sad and disappointing. But the right things were done quickly.
Now Hunt can be left in peace to enjoy his retirement.
Look at it this way. If you were a young woman, applying for a fellowship in competition with men. what would you think if Tim Hunt were on the selection panel?
After all this fuss, we need to laugh.
Here is a clip from the BBC News Quiz, in which actor, Rebecca Front, gives her take on the affair.
Some great videos soon followed Hunt’s comments. Try these.
Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt Sparks a #Distractinglysexy Campaign
(via Jennifer Raff)
This video has some clips from an earlier one, from Suzi Gage “Science it’s a girl thing”.
15 June 2015
An update on what happened from UCL. From my knowledge of what happened, this is not PR spin. It’s true.
16 June 2015
There is an interview with Tim Hunt in Lab Times that’s rather revealing. This interview was published in April 2014, more than a year before the Korean speech. Right up to the penultimate paragraph we agree on just about everything, from the virtue of small groups to the iniquity of impact factors. But then right at the end we read this.
In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?
Hunt: I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.
This suggests to me that the outburst on 8th June reflected opinions that Hunt has had for a while.
There has been quite a lot of discussion of Hunt’s track record. These tweets suggest it may not be blameless.
— Dr*T (@Dr_star_T) June 16, 2015
— Dr*T (@Dr_star_T) June 16, 2015
That's v interestting. It's been alleged tht nobody has grumbled. It seems thay have, but they daren't come forward https://t.co/AlUz0mAJbt
— David Colquhoun (@david_colquhoun) June 16, 2015
19 June 2015
Yesterday I was asked by the letters editor of the Times, Andrew Riley, to write a letter in response to a half-witted, anonymous, Times leading article. I dropped everything, and sent it. It was neither acknowledged nor published. Here it is [download pdf].
One of the few good outcomes of the sad affair of Tim Hunt is that it has brought to light the backwoodsmen who are eager to defend his actions, and to condemn UCL. The anonymous Times leader of 16 June was as good an example as any.
Some quotations from this letter were used by Tom Whipple in an article about Richard Dawkins surprising (to me) emergence as an unreconstructed backwoodsman.
18 June 2015
Adam Rutherford’s excellent Radio 4 programme, Inside Science, had an episode “Women Scientists on Sexism in Science". The last speaker was Uta Frith (who is chair of the Royal Society’s diversity committee). Her contribution started at about 23 min.
Listen to Uta Frith’s contribution.
" . . this over-competitiveness, and this incredible rush to publish fast, and publish in quantity rather than in quality, has been extremely detrimental for science, and it has been disproportionately bad, I think, for under-represented groups who don’t quite fit in to this over-competitive climate. So I am proposing something I like to call slow science . . . why is this necessary, to do this extreme measurement-driven, quantitative judgement of output, rather than looking at the actual quality"
That, I need hardly say, is music to my ears. Why not, for example, restrict the number of papers that an be submitted with fellowship applications to four (just as the REF did)?
21 June 2015
I’ve received a handful of letters, some worded in a quite extreme way, telling me I’m wrong. It’s no surprise that 100% of them are from men. Most are from more-or-less elderly men. A few are from senior men who run large groups. I have no way to tell whether their motive is a genuine wish to have freedom of speech at any price. Or whether their motives are less worthy: perhaps some of them are against anything that prevents postdocs working for 16 hours a day, for the glory of the boss. I just don’t know.
I’ve had far more letters saying that UCL did the right thing when it accepted Tim Hunt’s offer to resign from his non job at UCL. These letters are predominantly from young people, men as well as women. Almost all of them ask not to be identified in public. They are, unsurprisingly, scared to argue with the eight Nobel prizewinners who have deplored UCL’s action (without bothering to ascertain the facts). The fact that they are scared to speak out is hardly surprising. It’s part of the problem.
What you can do, if you don’t want to put your head above the public parapet. is simply to email the top people at UCL, in private. to express your support. All these email addresses are open to the public in UCL’s admirably open email directory.
Michael Arthur (provost): email@example.com
David Price (vice-provost research): firstname.lastname@example.org
Geraint Rees (Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences): email@example.com
All these people have an excellent record on women in science, as illustrated by the response to Daily Mail’s appalling behaviour towards UCL astrophysicist, Hiranya Pereis.
26 June 2015
The sad matter of Tim Hunt is over, at last. The provost of UCL, Michael Arthur has now made a statement himself. Provost’s View: Women in Science is an excellent reiteration of UCL’s principles.
By way of celebration, here is the picture of the quad, taken on 23 March, 2003. It was the start of the second great march to try to stop the war in Iraq. I use it to introduce talks, as a reminder that there are more serious consequences of believing things that aren’t true than a handful of people taking sugar pills.
11 October 2015
In which I agree with Mary Collins
Long after this unpleasant row died down, it was brought back to life yesterday when I heard that Colin Blakemore had resigned as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), on the grounds that that organisation had not been sufficiently hard on Connie St Louis, whose tweet initiated the whole affair. I’m not a member of the ABSW and I have never met St Louis, but I know Blakemore well and like him. Nevertheless it seems to me to be quite disproportionate for a famous elderly white man to take such dramatic headline-grabbing action because a young black women had exaggerated bits of her CV. Of course she shouldn’t have done that, but it everyone were punished so severely for "burnishing" their CV there would be a large number of people in trouble.
Blakemore’s own statement also suggested that her reporting was inaccurate (though it appears that he didn’t submitted a complaint to ABSW). As I have said above, I don’t think that this is true to any important extent. The gist of it was said was verified by others, and, most importantly, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest". As far as I know, he hasn’t said anything since that has contradicted that view, which he gave straight after the event. The only change that I know of is that the words that were quoted turned out to have been followed by "Now, seriously", which can be interpreted as meaning that the sexist comments were intended as a joke. If it were not for earlier comments along the same lines, that might have been an excuse.
Yesterday, on twitter, I was asked by Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, whether I thought he was misogynist. I said no and I don’t believe that it is. It’s true that I had used that word in a single tweet, long since deleted, and that was wrong. I suspect that I felt at the time that it sounded like a less harsh word than sexist, but it was the wrong word and I apologised for using it.
So do I believe that Tim Hunt is sexist? No I don’t. But his remarks both in Korea and earlier were undoubtedly sexist. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that, as a person, he suffers from ingrained sexism. He’s too nice for that. My interpretation is that (a) he’s so obsessive about his work that he has little time to think about political matters, and (b) he’s naive about the public image that he presents, and about how people will react to them. That’s a combination that I’ve seen before among some very eminent scientists.
In fact I find myself in almost complete agreement with Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, when she said (I quote the Observer)
“And he is certainly not an old dinosaur. He just says silly things now and again.” “Collins clutches her head as Hunt talks. “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say,” she says. “You can see why it could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s.”
Nevertheless, I think it’s unreasonable to think that comments such as those made in Korea (and earlier) would not have consequences, "naive" or not, "joke" or not, "upbringing" or not,
It’s really not hard to see why there were consequences. All you have to do is to imagine yourself as a woman, applying for a grant or fellowship, and realising that you’d be judged by Hunt. And if you think that the reaction was too harsh, imagine the same words being spoken with "blacks", or "Jews" substituted for "women". Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that he’d have done this, but if anybody did, I doubt whether many people would have thought it was a good joke.
9 November 2015
An impressively detailed account of the Hunt affair has appeared. The gist can be inferred from the title: "Saving Tim Hunt
The campaign to exonerate Tim Hunt for his sexist remarks in Seoul is built on myths, misinformation, and spin". It was written by Dan Waddell (@danwaddell) and Paula Higgins (@justamusicprof). It is long and it’s impressively researched. it’s revealing to see the bits that Louise Mensch omitted from her quotations. I can’t disagree with its conclusion.
"In the end, the parable of Tim Hunt is indeed a simple one. He said something casually sexist, stupid and inappropriate which offended many of his audience. He then confirmed he said what he was reported to have said and apologised twice. The matter should have stopped there. Instead a concerted effort to save his name — which was not disgraced, nor his reputation as a scientist jeopardized — has rewritten history. Science is about truth. As this article has shown, we have seen very little of it from Hunt’s apologists — merely evasions, half-truths, distortions, errors and outright falsehoods.
8 April 2017
This late addition is to draw attention to a paper, wriiten by Edwin Boring in 1951, about the problems for the advancement of women in psychology. It’s remarkable reading and many of the roots of the problems have hardly changed today. (I chanced on the paper while looking for a paper that Boring wrote about P values in 1919.)
Here is a quotation from the conclusions.
“Here then is the Woman Problem as I see it. For the ICWP or anyone else to think that the problem.can be advanced toward solution by proving that professional women undergo more frustration and disappointment than professional men, and by calling then on the conscience of the profession to right a wrong, is to fail to see the problem clearly in all its psychosocial complexities. The problem turns on the mechanisms for prestige, and that prestige, which leads to honor and greatness and often to the large salaries, is not with any regularity proportional to professional merit or the social value of professional achievement. Nor is there any presumption that the possessor of prestige knows how to lead the good life. You may have to choose. Success is never whole, and, if you have it for this, you mayhave to give it up for that.”
I had never intended to write about climate. It is too far from the things I know about. But recent events have unleashed a Palin-esque torrent of comments from people who clearly know even less about it than I do. In any case, it provides a good context to think about trust in science,
My interest in it, apart from little matters like the future of the planet, lies in the reputation of science and scientists.
I have been going on for years now about the lack of trust in science, and the extent to which it is a self-inflicted problem. The latest reactions to the developments at the University of East Anglia and the IPCC may show the nature of the problem with dreadful clarity,
Many of us came into science because, apart from the sheer beauty of nature, it seemed like one of the few honest ways of earning a living. Most scientists that I know still think like that, but recent
events invite some reexamination of honesty in science.
How dishonest is science?
The first thing to say is that I have never come across anything in my own field that would qualify as fraud, or even dishonest. I did once have a visit from a rather distressed postdoc (not in my area of work) who felt pressurised by her boss into putting an interpretation on her work that she did not agree with. In the end, the bit of work in question was left out of the paper. That could be held to be dishonest, in that the omission wasn’t mentioned, but it could also be held that the omitted result was too ambiguous to contribute much to the paper. It was just short of the point where I’d have felt compelled to do something about it. But only just. That is about the worst thing I’ve encountered in a lifetime.
There is, of course, an enormous difference between being wrong and being dishonest. Any research that is worth doing has an outcome that can’t be predicted before the work is done. At best, one can hope for an approximation to the truth. Mistakes in observations, analysis or interpretation will sometimmes mean the announced result is completely wrong, with no trace of dishonesty being involved. But when that happens, others soon fiind the mistake. It is that self-correcting characteristic of science that keeps it honest in the long run.
Of course there have been occasional cases of outright fraud, simple
falsification or fabrication of data. How often it occurs is not really known. There is a recent analysis in PLoS One, about verified cases of misconduct in the USA suggested that 1 in 100,000 scientists per year are to blame, but other ways of counting give larger numbers. For example, if asked around 2 in 100 scientists claim to be aware of misconduct by someone else., The numbers aren’t huge but they are much bigger than they should be.
It isn’t perhaps surprising that the Fanelli study found misconduct was most frequent in “medical (including clinical and pharmacological) research studies”, which are often funded by the pharmaceutical industry, Basic biomedical research and other subjects were better, though sadly that could be only because they are less often offered money.
What gives rise to dishonesty?
It seems obvious that one motive is money, as suggested by the worst rates of misconduct being found in the clinical pharmacological studies, It is well known that studies funded by industry are more likely to produce results that favour the product than those funded in other ways.
The other reason is presumably the human desire to win fame, promotion and to get grants.
It is no excuse, but it is perhaps a reason for misconduct that the pressure to publish and produce results is now enormous in academia. Even in good universities people are judged by the numbers (rather than the quality) of papers they produce and by what journal they happen to be published in. Contrary to public perception, even quite senior people have no guarantee that they can’t be fired, and life for postdoctoral fellows, who do a large fraction of experimental research, is harsh to the point of cruelty. They exist on a series of short term contracts, they work exceedigly hard and have poor prospects of getting a secure job. In conditions like that, the only surprising thing is that there is so little dishonesty.
The pressure to publish in particular journals is particularly invidious because it is known that the number of citations that a paper gets (itself a fallible measure of quality) is independent of the journal in which it appears. Bibliometrists are the curse of our age. (See, for example Challenging the tyranny of impact factors, 2003; and How to get good science, 2007 or its web version; and Peter Lawrence’s article, The mismeasurement of science)
The enormous competitive pressure under which academics work is imposed by vice-chancellors, research councils and other senior people who should know better, It is a self-inflicted wound.
In other words, the authorities provide a strong incentive to do poor, over-hurried and occasionally dishonest science. Perhaps the surprising thing in the circumstances is that there is so little outright fabrication. The very measures that have the aim of improving science actually have just the opposite effect. That is what happens when science is run by people who don’t do it.
For an idea of what life is like in science now, try Peter Lawrence’s Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. Or, for someone at the other end of their career, Jennifer Rohn’s account on Nature blogs.
Given the high degree of insecurity for young researchers, compounded by well-intentioned but vacuous “training” from daft Robert’s’ "training courses", or the dismaly ineffective Concordat, the only surprise is that so many people remain honest and devoted to good science. Nothing raises the ire of hard-pressed scientists more than the constant emails form HR trying to force people to go to gobbledygook courses on "wellbeing". Times Higher Education recently did a piece on "Get happy", The comments are worth reading.
So what about climate change?
Out of thousands of pages in the IPCC reports, a single mistake was found, On page 493 of the IPCC’s second 1000-page Working Group report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” (WGII) it was said that Himalayan glaciers were “very likely” to disappear by 2035. Glaciers are melting but that date can’t be justified. This single mistake has been blown out of all proportion. Furthermore it is important to notice that the mistake was found by scientists, not by ‘sceptics’. It is a good example of the self-correcting nature of science. Nevertheless this single mistake has provoked something close to hysteria among those who want to deny that something needs to be done.
On the other hand, the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia (UEA) look bad. It simply isn’t possible at the moment to say whether they are as bad as they seem at first sight, We just don’t know whether anything of importance was concealed, but we should know.
One thing can be said with certainty, and that is that the reaction to their revelation by Dr Phil Jones, and by the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, was nothing short of disastrous. Fred Pearce put it very well in Climate emails cannot destroy proof that humans are warming the planet
Most unforgivably of all, UEA refused to comply with requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and there is some reason to think that relevant material was deleted. The deputy information commissioner, Graham Smith, said: in a statement that
“The emails which are now public reveal that Mr Holland’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation. Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information.”.
That seems to me to be a matter that requires the resignation of the vice-chancellor. On this matter, I think George Monbiot is spot on in his article “Climate change email scandal shames the university and requires resignations“.
There was a big feature about academic freedom in Times Higher Education recently. One of the problems was what happens to someone who brings their own university into disrepute. But when that term is used, it is always used about junior partners in the organisation (you know, professors and the like). It should apply equally to heads of communications and vice-chancellors who bring their own university into disrepute, whether the disrepute is brought about by failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, or by promoting courses in junk medicine.
In general, conspiracy theories are wrong. I’m not sure how much of the distortion of climate data results from surreptitious funding of opposition to doing anything by the fossil fuel industry. The Royal Society is an organisation that is not usually prone to conspiritorialist views. That means one must take it seriously the fact that in 2006, the Royal Society wrote to ExxonnMobil to ask them to stop funding climate denialist organisations. This is a bit like the way Big Pharma has been caught funding “user groups” that endorse their products. Some newspapers like to stir up controversies about things that aren’t very controversial. For example there is a good analysis of a recent Sunday Times piece here.
Of course it is often alleged that "quackbusters" are funded by Big Pharma, though in fact the amounts of money involved are far too small for Big Pharma to bother. Climate deniers too like to suggest that there is some sort of conspiracy, arranged between hundreds of labs in the world to conceal the fact that there is no such thing as warming. I guess that shows only that deniers know little about how science works. it is an exceedingly competitive business, and getting hundreds of labs to say the same thing would be like trying to herd cats.
If there is a problem, it is the other way round. Labs are in such intense competition with each other, that it lcan lead to undesirable levels of secrecy.
Blogs in which researches have a direct dialogue with the public are a big help. As always in the blogosphere, the problem is to find the reliable sources. Two excellent sites, in which scientists (not journalists or lobbyists) talk directly with the public are realclimate.org and Andrew Russell’s blog. The post on RealClimate, IPCC errors: facts and spin, is especially worth reading.
Total openness is the only cure
All the raw data and all emails have to be disclosed openly. Everything should be put on the web as soon as possible. By appearing to go to ground, UEA has made enormous problems for itself and for the rest of the world. Some people object to total openness on the grounds that the other side tells lies. In the case of climate change (and in the case of junk medicine too) that is undoubtedly true. The opponents are ruthlessly dishonest about facts. The only way to counter that is by being ruthlessly and visibly honest about what you know, and why.
The UK’s Meteorological Office has, to its great credit, put raw data on line. That policy has already paid off, because a science blogger found a mistake in the way that some Australian data had been incorporated into forecasts. The Met Office thanked him and corrected the mistake. In fact the error makes no substantial difference to the warming trend, but the principle is just great. The more people who can check analyses and eliminate slip-ups the better.
Putting raw data on the web is an idea that has been gathering force for a while, in all areas of work, not just climate change. In my own are (stochastic properties of single ion channel molecules) our analysis programs have always been available on the web, free to anyone who wants them, despite the large amount of work that has gone into them. And we run a course. almost free, on the theory that underlies our analyses. Within the last couple of months we have been discussion ways of making public all our raw data (in any case, we would always have sent it to anyone who asked). Digitised single channel records are big files (around 100 Mb) and it is only recently that the web has been able to deal with such large amounts of raw data. There are also problems of how to format data so other people can read it, The way we are all heading is clear, and the fact that some people in climate science appeared to be hiding raw data is a disgrace.
Public relations is not the cure
It is not uncommon to read that science needs better PR. That is precisely what is not needed. PR exists to put only one side of the story. That makes it an essentially dishonest occupation. Its aims are the very opposite of those of science. The public aren’t stupid: often they recognise when they are getting half the story.
It is particularly unfortunate that many universities have developed departments with names like "corporate communications". Externally they are seen as giving information about science, and indeed some of the things they do are successful public engagement in science. Only too often, though, it is made clear internally that an important aim of these departments is to improve the image of the university.
But you have to choose. You can engage the public in science or you can be a PR image-builder. You can’t be both.
The matter came to a head in 2008 when, according to a report in Times Higher Education, the University of Nottingham issued a memo that defined public engagement as: “The range of activities of which the primary functions are to raise awareness of the university’s capabilities, expertise and profile to those not already engaged with the institution”.
The mainstream media and political blogs
The biggest problem of all with climate change is that it has become more about politics than about facts. It has become an essential credential for any conservative to deny that climate is changing. It is part of their public image, and most conservatives neither know nor care about evidence. Like Sarah Palin, they just know. In the USA especially, the argument is not really about climate at all. It is really about discrediting Barack Obama -a sort of swift-boat treatment that uses whatever lies are needed.
Just as with the great MMR fiasco and the promotion of its false link to autism, reports in newspapers and blogs must bear much of the blame for failing to inform readers of the actual underlying facts and, just as important, the uncertainties. Of course some papers have done a pretty good job, particularly the Guardian and the Independent in the UK, and the New York Times.. The political blogs, by and large, haven’t. The Huffington Post has made little effort (and publishes some appalling nonsense about medicine too).
The problem with political blogs and tabloid newspapers is that they are much more interested in sensation and circulation than they are in giving accurate news and information. Take, for example, the Guido Fawkes blog. To be fair, the blog itself says "The primary motivation for the creation of the blog was purely to make mischief at the expense of politicians and for the author’s own self-gratification. Its writer", so you know not to expect much, Paul Staines, was at the Westminster Skeptics event, Does Political Blogging Make a Difference? He makes no pretence of taking the news seriously, which, I guess, is why I don’t read his blog. After the talks I asked why his blog did little about climate change. His answer was "where are your sandals?". On the way home I tweeted, from a very overcrowded train (most trains from Euston being cancelled that night),
"On way home from #sitp political blogging. Learned that Guido serious about nothing but Guido. Narcissist not journalist."
At least one other person there agreed (thanks, Dave Cole).
It was good to hear Sunny Hundall of Liberal Conspiracy (the only one I read), but I found myself agreeing mostly with the chair, Nick Cohen. It would be a tragedy if the great national and local papers were to vanish. Guido Fawkes and Huffington Post are not remotely like proper newspapers.
Specialist blogs like this one are fine if you are interested in the topics we write about, but we don’t begin to supplant proper newspapers. Bloggers can and do occasionally get good stories. Those that are written by scientists can analyse more critically than most journalists have either the knowledge or the time to do. Bur they don’t come close to supplanting the detailed reporting in good newspapers of local events, what happens in law courts or in parliament. That’s why it is vital to buy newspapers, not just read them free on the web.
James Hayton, who is in nanoscience has posted his thoughts obout trust in science on his blog. I discovered this via Twitter (@James_Hayton). He also posted a beautiful clip from the Ascent of Man, in which Jacob Bronowski speaks, from Auschwitz, of the consequences of irrational dogma. I’m old enough to remember Bronowski on a 1950s radio programme, the Brains Trust, though James Hayton clearly isn’t. Now I enjoy equally his daughter, Lisa Jardine‘s talks about science and history.
1 March 2010. Phil Jones, and the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, appeared before a parliamentary committee. I found their responses to questions very disappointing. The evidence submitted by the Institute of Physics was strongly worded, but spot on.
“The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law. The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital.”
7 March 2010. Thanks to some kind remarks from Michael Kenward (see first comment). I sought wider coverage of this item in the mainstream media. Consequently, on Thursday 4 March, a much shortened version of this article appeared on the Guardian environment site. That piece has accumulated so far, 230 comments. The discussion of it has spread to the two blogs that I recommended, Andy Russell’s blog and RealClimate.org, though it has been diverted onto the side-issue of the letter from the Institute of Physics. The seemingly innocent idea that total openness would increase trust has, to my real astonishment, resulted in hysterical accusations that I’m a crypto-denialist. The constant politically-motivated attacks on climate science seem to have induced a paranoid siege mentality in some of them. There is a real danger that such people will harm their own cause, and that would be tragic.
Being interested in science communication, I was pleased when the BMJ asked me to review Unscientific America , by Chris Monney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.
The BMJ provides a link that allows you access to the whole review. They have made very few changes from the submitted version, which is reproduced below (with live links in the text. [Download pdf of print version]
I very soon discovered that the book had already caused ructions in the USA, as a result of its advocacy of appeasement of religious groups. In particular there was all out war with P.Z.Myers, whose very popular blog, Pharyngula. documented the battle in detail).
It is an American book through and through, and in the USA the biggest threat to reason comes from the far-right religious fundamentalists who preach young-earth creationism. It is said that 46% of US citizens believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. The same far-right religious groups also preach that carrying guns is good, that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, that climate change is a socialist conspiracy and that health care for everyone is a communist plot. And they never hesitate to lie in the promotion of their ‘religious’ views. The US situation is totally different from that in Europe, where religion is all but dead, and young earth creationism is the preserve of a few cranky used-car dealers (and possibly Tony Blair?)
Review of the Week
Trust me, I’m a scientist
David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology, University College London
Unscientific America sounds like a fascinating topic, not least because the book is a follow-up from Mooney’s The Republican War on Science. It is written entirely from a US perspective (the USA sequenced the genome and invented the internet, apparently unaided). It’s reported that 46 percent of Americans believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. That’s certainly cause for alarm and Mooney & Kirshenbaum are certainly alarmed. They think that the public needs to be educated in science. They identify the obvious problems, evolution, climate change and quackery and ask what can be done. The problem is that they propose no good solutions, and some bad ones. Their aims are worthy but sometimes the book reads like an over-long and somewhat condescending whine about why science and scientists are not sufficiently appreciated.
I simply don’t think that it’s true that the public are not interested in science, nor that they can’t understand it at a level that is sufficient to be useful. It’s true that they have been let down badly by some sections of the media. Think particularly of the “great MMR hoax”1. The disastrous fall in vaccination is more attributable to talk show presenters and air-headed celebrities than to lack of interest from the public. People are systematically deceived by anti-vaxers, climate change denialists, vitamin pill salesmen and a horde of crackpot alternative therapists.
There is one problem that Mooney & Kirshenbaum don’t talk about at all, yet it seems to me to be one of the biggest problems in science communication. It isn’t lack of interest by the public, nor even lack of understanding, but lack of trust. The tendency of real science to indulge in hyperbolic self-promotion is one reason for the lack of trust. Sometimes this descends into outright dishonesty2,3. That is a tendency that is promoted by government and funding agencies by their insistence on imposing silly performance measures. The public is quite sensible enough to take with a pinch of salt the almost daily announcements of “cancer cures” that emanate from university press offices.
On the face of it, one should be encouraged that ‘public engagement in science’ is the mode du jour. It isn’t quite that simple though. Only too often, universities regard public engagement as a branch of their own PR machine4. They even instruct you about what tone of voice to use when talking publicly.
One reason why scientists need to talk to people outside the lab is precisely to counteract this tide of nonsense from PR people, who are paid to deceive. The problem for academics is usually time. We already do three jobs, teaching, research and coping with HR bollocks. How can we find time for a fourth job? That’s not easy, especially for the best researchers (those that do research themselves, not just lead a team). Mooney & Kirshenbaum suggest that the solution is to create a “cadre of communication and outreach experts”. I don’t think this would work. They would, by and large, be outsiders, writing uncritical paeans, dictated by big name scientists. A new cadre of PR hangers-on does not sound like a great idea. A better, and very much cheaper, solution would be to provide a course in free blogging software and we’ll do it ourselves.
The two chapters that I looked forward to reading, on religion and on “The bloggers cannot save us”, proved deeply disappointing. The authors are firmly in the camp of what Richard Dawkins called the “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists&rdquo.; They maintain “if the goal is to create an America more friendly to science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive”. They are particularly critical of P.Z. Myers5, the University of Minnesota developmental biologist who is splendidly clear in his views. Of the communion wafer, he famously said “It’s a frackin’ cracker”. But he, and Dawkins, are right. When it comes to young earth creationists we have a war on our hands, and nowhere more than in the USA. What’s more it’s a winnable war. Mooney & Kirshenbaum are all for appeasement, but appeasement won’t work. It might please the more moderate wings of the church, but they already believe in evolution and are regarded by fundamentalists as being just as big an enemy as Myers and Dawkins. And, one must ask, who has done best at getting a wide public readership? P.Z Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, has up to two million page views a month. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has sold three million copies. In comparison the bland and often rather condescending corporate science web sites get tiny numbers of hits.
In Europe in general, and the UK in particular, young earth creationists are not the major problem that they are in the USA, despite being supported by Tony Blair6. Perhaps the nearest analogy in Europe is the threat to reason from various sorts of crackpot medicine. The appeasers are widespread. The Royal Colleges and the Department of Health are at the forefront of the Neville Chamberlain approach. But appeasement hasn’t worked there either. What has worked is the revelation that university courses are teaching that “amethysts emit high yin energy”7. Or, in a lecture on herbal approaches for patients with cancer, “Legally, you cannot claim to cure cancer. This is not a problem because: ‘we treat people, not diseases’ “8. This is shocking stuff but it has not been unearthed by the corporate media, but by bloggers.
I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum have it all wrong. They favour corporate communications, which are written by people outside science and which easily become mere PR machines for individuals and institutions. Such blogs are rarely popular and at their worst they threaten the honesty of science. More and more individual scientists have found that they can write their own blog. It costs next to nothing and you can say what you think. A few clicks and the world can read what you have to say. Forget corporate communications. Just do it yourself. It’s fun. And think of the money you’d save for doing science if the PR people were just fired.
(1) Goldacre, B. The media’s MMR hoax. 2008 http://www.badscience.net/2008/08/the-medias-mmr-hoax/
(2) PLoS One. Ghostwriting documents now fully available on PLoS Medicine website. 21-8-2009 http://speakingofmedicine.plos.org/2009/08/21/ghostwriting-documents-now-fully-available-on-plos-medicine-website/
(3) Colquhoun, D. Universities Inc. in the UK. The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education: part 2. 6-12-2007 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=193
(4) Corbyn, Z. Nottingham raises eyebrows over definition of ‘public engagement’. 21-8-2008 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=403234
(5) Myers, P. Z. Pharyngula. 2009 http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/
(6) Pyke, N. Revealed: Blair’s link to schools that take the Creation literally (Independent 13 June 2004). 13-7-2004 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-blairs-link-to-schools-that-take-the-creation-literally-732032.html
(7) Colquhoun, D. Westminster University BSc: "amethysts emit high yin energy". 23-4-2008 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=227
(8) Colquhoun, D. Herbal approaches for patients with cancer. 10-8-2009 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043
P.Z. Myers has posted about thie book review, on Pharyngula, as Is this book dead yet? There are a lot more comments there than here, though few of them address the question of science communications..
Butterflies and Wheels is generating a lot of hits