Science, bloggers, activists, and science as "the one true global culture"?

By Grant Jacobs 09/09/2010 7

Originally written some time ago (unpublished) as an invitation for visitors to ruminate, opine and generally waffle on,* this has been revised to ally it to a meme currently circulating science bloggers.

Several science bloggers are writing that some scientists should do more to promote scientific activism, scientific culture and thinking – with some caveats. Ed Yong has pulled most of these together. I’ll catch up on the fuss once I have time to read, but I’d like to start at another point – is science the ‘one true global culture’, in the sense that it can pervade in any country – and how (and if) this should be encouraged in poorer nations.

Some time ago, I was reading Martin Bycroft reporting his attendance at the 2009 Royal Society Prizes for Science Books in the October ’09 edition of the SCANZ newsletter. (On the ground at the 2009 Royal Society Prizes for Science Books, PDF file). He recounts:

’Lord Rees and MC Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock began with some suitable bromides about the “power of the imagination to bring books to life” and about science being ’the only true global culture. […]’ [My emphasis added.]

Profound, grandiose nonsense, or – somehow – both?


This passage was apparently followed by Richard Holmes supporting Lord Ress. Bycroft suggests Holmes should know, being the author of the The Age of Wonder, which, by coincidence, I happen to have just borrowed from the library.

While they were talking about science writing it got me thinking is science the one true global culture?

It’s a lofty ideal and one that might appeal to a scientist.

I’m not well-equipped to take on this formally. I’m not a sociologist, science philosopher, or or science historian.

I guess there are two lines or questions we might consider here, the first being ’technical’: (1) is it a culture, and (2) is it global? The other line of thinking, one I’d like to emphasise, is how we would approach encouraging it in poorer nations. (Aside from the obvious ’more money’!)

Is it a culture?

From a pragmatic point of view, in terms of the wider advocacy issue, I think it’s a moot question: if the culture is good, it’s good thing regardless of it’s ultimate origins or status, but one it’s certainly interesting to look back at the history of science and see it’s origins.


Those who practice or respect science share a respect for evidence, and share the honesty and skeptical questioning that comes with trying to create the best current understanding of reality we can and putting that to use. (I write this phrase in the way I have bearing in mind that science does not seek absolute truth, in the manner that some religious people speak of, but deals with current best understanding with the expectation of later improvement.)

Applied properly, this can be a powerful force for improving our lot.

Is it global?

Restricting ourselves to wealthier nations, science is shared across different political, religious and cultural backgrounds, so my initial thoughts are that it has the potential to be global, but that science needs to be taken up more strongly in poorer nations before this might be true.

Bhikhu Parekh’s abstract for his paper Promoting a Global Culture of Science (European Review (2009), 17:477-486; doi:10.1017/S1062798709000891) has some words on this:

’Basic scientific research is largely limited to the West. Original scientific contributions by the rest of the world are extremely limited, though China, South Korea and India are beginning to make their presence felt. This absence of scientific research is largely due to the undeveloped state of scientific culture. To counter this, systematic and rigorous theoretical training of talented minds is crucial. That requires close interaction with the West. The author suggests various ways to do so.’

Having travelled a little I can see where Parekh is coming from. When I can I try to visit local universities, as a way of meeting locals. (And people who are more likely than most to know English!) Few countries I have visited have no universities or research of some kind, but the support was very poor by Western standards.


It seems to me that with some exceptions, science as pervasive national endeavour is mostly a Western culture, as consequence of education and, let’s face it, wealth. Research institutes and universities cost money.

The discussion Yong refers to no doubt focuses on Western nations. (I’ve yet to find time to read it, but there is no mention of promoting science in poorer nations in what I have read so far.


As Ed Yong points out, advocacy comes with it’s downside. Cheer-leaders are needed, but this isn’t the only thing, or the main thing to my mind.

Personally, though, I’d like to see more attention paid to poorer countries and for some of this ’cognitive surplus’ to be directed that way.

It reminds me that I must check again what the World Federation of Scientists and it’s ilk are doing. There is also a World Federation of Science Journalists. (Do point out other organisations to me: we I have time I will look them up.)



* I know so nothing about this at a formal level, so I can hardly offer this as anything more.

** As an aside, a recent report had China wishing to double the number of science communicators, largely targeted at their rural population.

Other articles on Code for life:

Preserving endangered species – of gut microbes (includes science from Africa)

Minorities, disabilities and scientists

Map shows New Zealand with lowest death rate on earth in 1856, over 11 in 1000 dying

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

Neurological shorts

7 Responses to “Science, bloggers, activists, and science as "the one true global culture"?”

  • Playing devil’s advocate here…
    It could be argued that ‘science as global culture’ is a view that might well be espoused by the science community, but almost certainly not in the wider community, even in the West. After all, it doesn’t allow for ‘other ways of knowing’, and as for its attitude to alternative & complementary therapies :)
    /end of advocate :)
    Let me know what you think of ‘Age of Wonder’. I’ve picked up a copy but haven’t had a chance to get into it yet :(

  • Hi Alison,

    Being devil’s advocate right back: isn’t that a cultural attitude? :-)

    Seriously, obviously we’re both calling for more of the former (scientific approaches to things) and less of the latter (“other” ways of “knowing”) :-)

    I just would like to see more attention on poorer countries. While it’s not to say wealthier countries can’t improve their lot (as we’ve both said some of the nonsense out there is truly bizarre), poorer countries have a real need yet I don’t see it mentioned much in these sorts of discussions.

    I haven’t gotten past the first few pages of TAOW yet. The only reason I can get this post out (never mind reading anything) is that it was mostly written ages ago!

  • It’s gotta be said that Japan is also putting out lots of research, particularly in the hi-tech fields…

  • Aimee,

    While I take your point (nitpick, etc.), I’d like to think that the intended meaning is clear. It’s part of the reason I opened the section ‘Is it global?’ writing ‘poorer’ v. ‘wealthier’, etc. i.e. fair point, but if you nitpick one way, I’ll nitpick the other way :-)

    Just to follow-up on my earlier reply to Alison, I’m not trying to suggest that people shouldn’t try clean up their own backyards as it were (or that this doesn’t need doing), just that the global scene — in particular the poorer countries — don’t often get mentioned much in these sorts of discussions.

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