Paul Nurse on 'anti-science doubters' and the blogosphere

By Grant Jacobs 25/10/2010

Paul Nurse remarks that the WWW and blogging have given anti-science views a disproportionate impact on policy. I idle away part of my Labour Day holiday ruminating the thought.

The closing three paragraphs of an article in the Guardian on Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and now president of the Royal Society of London, reveal an interest in the activities of the blogosphere and how science is perceived by society:

Before he takes up his new jobs, Nurse will spend a few weeks finishing off a documentary for the BBC science series Horizon on the subject of trust in science.

“I think it is clear that the rise of the blogosphere and the internet has allowed a very small group of vociferous anti-science doubters to have a disproportionate impact on policy issues,” he says.

For his part, Nurse — “as ever the old socialist”, as Hunt puts it — is clear about the solution: engagement with the public, a mantra that he is likely to repeat throughout his Royal Society presidency. As he says: “Scientists have to earn their licence to operate and that means getting out there to talk to people and explain what we do.”

People expressing anti-science views on the internet isn’t new, but perhaps their impact on a wider range of readers and policy is.

As a Ph.D. student I used to follow a number of newsgroups, mostly on bionet. Good sound science there. But other newsgroups were less conventional.

Oh, you little devil. (Source: Living Internet)
Oh, you little devil. ASCII email signature art. (Source: Living Internet)

This was before the WWW became the dominant thing it is today, with all correspondence being by email.

No web pages with comment forms.

Email addresses were openly displayed in the newsgroups and weren’t the privacy screens they can be today.

There wasn’t the tendency to anonymous posting as there is today, either. More the trend – to my memory – was posting with email signatures openly giving people’s details.

Email signatures were sometimes works of art – literally. For a while I had a spider – scrolling down the page, it ’fell’ dangling on it’s silk thread. I’ve no idea what my Ph.D. supervisor thought of it.

The newsgroup section for ‘anti-science doubters’ was .alt – literally the ‘alternative’ section. Various versions of it still exist. Things seemed very alternative in there to my student-day self.

I once timidly ventured in there. Being rather naïve then, it felt at that time as if I were Craig Schwartz in an alternative take of Being John Malkovich,[1] where I’d fallen into the brain of someone with a cognitive disorder, perhaps a schizophrenic. (Nothing against schizophrenics: I’ve the upmost respect for those who struggle with mental health issues, I just mean that back then this was a leap into a very different, unsettling, mindset.)

Being John Malkovich poster 1

What has changed since then? (Aside from that now I might see many of those people as simply people with unorthodox views.)

Maybe it’s just that I personally have grown more aware of the noise as the years go by, but it does feel as if orthodox views have gained a wider public voice with the popularity of the WWW in a way it never did in the old newsgroups.

Or perhaps this noise has always been there, but just in a new more globally-accessible medium now? The lesser print publications have always had their share of nonsense, but their distribution is mostly local.

I never did read tabloids much. Still don’t.

Articles on web pages can be ‘disguised’ to be more creditable than they in fact are, in a way that would be difficult with a ‘.alt’ dangling off the end. The stewardship of the early internet has long gone. It’s a free-for-all now, with all the chaotic noisiness that brings.

Lesser print publications share the ‘tagging’ or categorisation seen in the newsgroups in some ways. Publishers target a niche. Most people know broadly what they’re in for when they buy, say, a magazine that favours speculating on political conspiracies. Readers surfing from one web page to another have to work harder to determine the creditability of their reading. You bypass the front cover (top page) and other contextual matter, and the hand of editor and publisher is missing.

Reputable publications – both print and web – occasionally allow unsound material, leaning it a creditability it does not deserve. I sometimes think that science-literate editors, or better use of advisors, lie at the heart of many problems in presenting science and health in the media.

Movie poster, source Wikimedia Commons
A crowd masquerading. (Source Wikimedia Commons.)

Another small part of the picture, perhaps, is that anonymous writing has enabled writers to hide their conflicts of interests and thus (sometimes innocently) play puppeteer to the external body they present to the world, playing out the character and motivations they want to present, whatever their true motivations might be. A small number of commenters to some of my own articles practice this and I feel painfully aware that my readers aren’t seeing the full picture.

Most of those directly affecting policy, like those Paul Nurse is referring to, will be speaking in public as themselves, where anonymity isn’t an option or issue. Here perhaps a blend of media ‘balance’ and a political correctness that says even unsound views must have a voice play a part – ?

(Even writing ‘alternative’ in a more serious public forum seems to want to involve careful phrasing to avoid causing offence. As I write, I have wonder someone will demand that my earlier paragraph mentioning ‘alternative’ be rephrased in more politically correct wording…)

Much of this seems to come back to the point of how readers determine the creditability of what they are reading.

What do readers think? Do you think that ’rise of the blogosphere and the internet[2] has allowed a very small group of vociferous anti-science doubters to have a disproportionate impact on policy issues’? If so, what do you think is driving it?

Whatever the answer it’ll be interesting to observe if Paul Nurse’s stewardship of the Royal Society will have an impact on science blogging in England, and hopefully by example elsewhere.


If overseas readers are wondering why there isn’t the usual Monday rush of posts on sciblogs, it’ll be because it’s long weekend. Today is Labour Day, which commemorates the effort to promote an eight-hour working day. Falling on a Monday, it makes for a long weekend. New Zealanders are busy – or not so busy – lazing about!

[1] Kaufman’s movie is about a wider range of philosophical thoughts, but it still provides a nice analogy to use here. Imagining (anonymous) commenters as puppeteers controlling a body they present to others is a fun

[2] I would write WWW, not internet. Like many (somewhat older) geeks, I distinguish the two. The latter is the network. Using this are many different services, one of which is the WWW. Nit-picky, perhaps, but I’ll insist it’s the proper usage! 😉

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