Bryan Walker’s post on the new BBC documentary, “Science under Attack”, was so interesting I sat down and watched all 6 parts on youtube. While I would recommend watching them all, I found part 5 quite interesting for a number of reasons.
Part 5 includes Sir Paul Nurse talking to a somewhat belligerent James Delingpole, the journalist who broke the “climategate” story. Freely admitting that he has no science background, Mr Delingpole says he doesn’t have time to read peer reviewed papers but instead sees his job as an “interpreter of interpretations”. Of course this begs the question, how does he decide whose interpretations are worth paying attention to? Indeed his approach reminds me of a character in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series who believes that science is not about experiment and observation but simply involves reinterpreting the work of previous scientists. (Sounds like very boring “science” to me).
Sir Paul then talks to Tony Lance, a quiet spoken, free-lance writer who believes AIDS is not caused by HIV, but by a severe imbalance of intestinal micro flora. Mr Lance describes reaching this conclusion through reading, self-analysis and “observing the gay community.” I found his comments really interesting in that his beliefs seem to be a result of his frame of reference. As a gay man he has observed certain sexual behaviours and has linked them to AIDS by proposing they result in disruption of intestinal microflora. A look around youtube provides a clip of him explaining this hypothesis, however it doesn’t effectively explain why AIDS occurs in many other populations. I think Tony demonstrates how many people interpret science. When the subject is very complex, like HIV/AIDS, it is easier to suggest an alternative cause based on one’s own anecdotal experience, cherry picking out other information that fits. His talk also demonstrates how believers of “alternative” hypotheses may construct conspiracy attitudes towards mainstream science.
Some of Sir Paul’s comments on the need for scientists to communicate more effectively with the public also made me reflect on my own feelings about scientific communication. Sometimes I find myself thinking there must be a secret to how to do it easily and persuasively. However, I am coming to realise that science communication is very much like science – results are only achieved by working hard, being persistent and coming up with, and testing, new and creative approaches.