Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How Can Scientists Communicate with Politicians?

A recent article in the prestigious scientific journal "Nature" made some valid, if unpalatable points (such as the fact that politicians usually see scientists as just another special interest group), but also made some frankly barmy suggestions about how to bridge the science/politics communication gap (such as the idea that scientists could get their message across by helping politicians in their election campaigns).

I believe that the real problem is a lack of understanding by politicians about how science works, and a corresponding lack of understanding among scientists about how politics works.

I am working to help remedy the deficiency, most recently at a meeting between scientists and politicians in Venice, held under the auspices of the International Risk Governance Council, to discuss how we can handle slowly changing risks with potentially catastrophic consequences.

I have now published my own letter in "Nature" ( outlining my conclusions about communication between scientists and politicians. The published letter (Nature Vol. 481 (2012) p.29) is edited for space. Here is my full original letter:

Re: Rees Kassen “If You Want to Win the Game, You Must Join In” Nature 453, December 8th (2011) p. 153 (
Rees Kassen offers some thoughtful ideas for better communication between scientists and politicians, but has omitted three important ones. These became especially clear during a recent international meeting of scientists, senior policy makers and politicians, held in Venice from August 24 - 26 under the auspices of the International Risk Governance Council, and concerned with effective planning for long-term risks.The points that emerged during our discussion were: 
1) It is important for scientists to avoid over-claiming - for example, for the predictive accuracy of this or that particular model. One subtle form of over-claiming is to request more funding for basic research into a particular question. Long-term basic research is essential, and needs to be supported, but it is a fallacy to assume that fundamental research into a question will always provide an answer to that question. In fact, most significant technological advances are based on the answers to fundamental questions that had no foreseeable application to the technology in question (think quantum mechanics and the transistor, or the conductivity of gases and X-rays, to name just a couple). 
2) It follows that the best bets to answer immediate, focused questions such as those posed by resource depletion, global warming, and ecosystem collapse are i) further development of known technologies &/or ii) novel juxtaposition of already established fundamental knowledge from different areas. In the latter case, governments should be putting more faith in the advice of interdisciplinary scientists with vision and the ability to bring apparently disparate fields together, rather than subject specialists who often have their own barrows to push. 
3) Finally, scientists need to recognize and respect the agendas of politicians, and especially their need to win votes in the next election. Politicians will not be able to carry a long-term, scientifically-based policy through unless they retain power. Scientists who are urging long-term policies will do best if they can identify and suggest short-term, intermediate benefits for such policies. 
These points may seem obvious, but practical experience shows that they are not so obvious. For the sake of our own and our planet’s future, they need to be addressed now.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Advice for Aspiring Non-Fiction Writers

I have collected quotes relevant to my writing for a long time. Here I offer two that are particularly apposite to the craft and ambitions of other non-fiction writers:
The success of the Origin may, I think, be attributed in large part to my having long before written two condensed sketches, and to my having finally abstracted a much larger manuscript, which was itself an abstract. By this means I was enabled to select the more striking facts and conclusions. I had also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.
            Charles Darwin “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin”. Icon Books (2003) p. 60.

Bertrand Russell … dreamt he was on the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100 … A librarian was going around the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down book after book, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them in the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copies of Principia Mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated …
            G.H, Hardy. Quoted in Paul Hoffman “The Man Who Loved Only Numbers”. Fourth Estate, London (1998), p.111.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Owls are a Real Hoot

Continuing on a relatively light-hearted theme, I wonder how many people have come across the following observation from Gilbert White's marvellous 1770 classic "A Natural History of Selborne"?

"Most owls seem to hoot exactly in B flat according to several pitch-pipes used in tuning of harpsichords, and as strictly in concert pitch."
White was a country parson with time on his hands, an acute sense of observation, and an interest in nature that bordered on the professional (he identified and named several new species, including the harvest mouse and the noctule bat). It would be interesting to know whether his observation also applies to owls in other countries, and also whether there is any relationship to the fact that many musical instruments, such as the trumpet, trombone and clarinet, are tuned to B flat. Maybe there is a research project here?

Science in Everyday Life

Welcome to my new blog, where I discuss how we can use science to think about the problems of everyday life, from the pernickety to the profound, and diarise my efforts to make science an integral part of our wider culture. I am particularly concerned with how we can understand the problems of living in a complex world, and how we can better understand and control sudden runaway collapse in everything from personal relationships to banking systems, social structures and global ecosystems (see  Len's website for further details, and in particular my work with the International Risk Governance Council).

To begin on a lighter note, however, here is a letter that I recently had published in the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper (this is the original, which was slightly edited in the published version:

If neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light, then Jim Al-Khalili will eat his boxer shorts (Guardian, November 23). Speaking as a scientist who has occasionally provided technical advice to leading chefs, I would like to advise Professor Al-Khalili that the correct way to eat boxer shorts is to heat them to carbonization in a closed, oven-proof dish, and then sprinkle the ash on a rare porterhouse steak.  I hope this helps. At the least, the charcoal will help to cure the indigestion that can arise from having to eat one’s words.