This well-considered post in today’s Occam’s Corner blog (hosted by The Guardian) strikes a delicate balance between strident retaliation and gracious acceptance of criticism – while still maintaining an overall air of fury.
The author, biologist Stephen Curry, takes objection to the comments made by another Guardian columnist, Simon Jenkins. Jenkins had railed against the arrogance and privileged position of science and scientists in today’s western culture, in the context of the jailings of the Italian seismologists last week. His position is that, by virtue of their exalted status, scientists expect immunity from criticism and unquestioning deference.
Curry’s view is that Jenkins simply betrays his fundamental lack of understanding of science, how science works, of concepts such as risk and probability, and of how science deals with uncertainty in inherently complex natural systems. Jenkins also makes outrageous comments unsupported by any evidence and fails to accurately reflect the genuine and open debate within the scientific community itself on these very topics.
However, as Curry freely acknowledges, Jenkin’s ignorance is in part the fault of science and the scientific community, which continues to suffer from serious challenges when trying to communicate to the general public and policy-makers, especially when the message is mediated by media channels. Despite the rising profile of science communication as a discipline in its own right, science continues to wrong-foot itself at every opportunity. Combining that “institutional autism” (is that a horrible phrase? Apologies if so) with the widespread ignorance of the commentariat, the political classes and the general public, creates a yawning chasm in mutual understanding.
But the best bit of the post is Curry’s gloriously school yard insult: “Arguing about science with Simon Jenkins is like trying to wrestle with a fart — you can’t miss the odious stink but there’s almost nothing to get hold of”.