A selection from Lord Robert Winston's 12 aphorisms about science

By Grant Jacobs 18/08/2010

Food to invite discussion: comments about science and the public

Robert Winston’s recent book, Bad Ideas?: an arresting history of our inventions, closes with chapter 12, Scientists and Citizens: Twelve Aphorisms and a Manifesto.


I saw this book at the university this morning and thought I might offer a few of his aphorisms or manifesto points as an invitation to discussion. (I haven’t read the book itself, as I haven’t enough free time to read for leisure currently.) Giving away a few of his aphorisms or points of his scientists’ manifesto shouldn’t be a spoiler for those who have yet to read his book.

Most of his aphorisms will be familiar in one form or other to those who have some basic idea of what science is ’about’ and are thus will be uncontroversial to most of you.

A few are a little more intriguing:

  • We constantly reinvent the same technological advances and rediscover the same discoveries.
  • Even ‘good’ governments frequently misuse scientific knowledge
  • Scientists are no better than anyone else at forecasting the future. In fact, their predictions are usually wildly inaccurate.

The second, I have no trouble agreeing with.

The last, I’m sure might puncture a few egos! Perhaps science fiction writers do better? (They may have a wider perspective in their favour?)

(Source: alexcartoon.com)
(Source: alexcartoon.com)

The manifesto for scientists is a longer, each item being a substantial paragraph.

I suppose it’s appropriate that something intended for scientists should be more verbose!

With that in mind, I’m going to cite just one. I wouldn’t claim this to be the best of them, just that it might be suitable to encourage discussion on this forum.

12. In the Western world, most of our best basic science is done in universities. But historically universities have been élite and mysterious institutions, and even today the are sometimes perceived as rather threatening places where the complex and unintelligible takes place. Those of us working at universities should try to help foster a new culture of open access to our institutions and, where we can, help strengthen activities which involve community service and outreach. Where possible we should do our best to support whatever aspect of public engagement is undertaken by the university.

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