An Appalling Misrepresentation of Science

By Michael Edmonds 03/03/2013 4


I just came across what i would consider one of the most appalling (and bordering on incoherent) misrepresentations of science by Eliane Glaser published in the Guardian on March 1st.

Ms Glaser’s delivers a series of inconsistent and absurd assertions about science which include:

“It’s ironic that the public engagement with the science crowd is so pro-wonder, because they’re so anti-religion.”

Apart from the flawed generalisation that all of the “science crowd” are anti-religion, she appears to make the assumption that “wonder” is somehow the exclusive province of religion! She really needs to get out and actually talk to a scientist or two.

“The crucial question, though, is who is doing the worshipping. Cox and co make much of their own humility in the face of natural marvels. They express wonder and we are meant to follow suit. But it’s too easy for the meekness we feel in the face of extraordinary facts to blur into deference towards popular scientists themselves, with their public profile and their privileged access to those facts. Like priests, they occupy an elevated position in relation to the phenomena they admire.”

Okay, I’m not sure I follow this but I think she seems to be saying the Professor Brian Cox and other science communicators are so humble about the wonder of the universe that we, the stupid public, will worship them? Very hard to follow this line of thought.

“While putting on a good show of being amazed, they function as powerful gatekeepers to a mystical beyond. Cox may not look like a boffin, but it’s telling that he’s always called professor.”

So by taking the time to explain science, they are acting as gatekeepers? And it’s wrong to acknowledge his expertise by calling him professor?

The article seems to me to be a muddled (and jealous?) attack on science communication, and possibly a veiled attack on atheism (its a bit too contorted to be sure). Read it yourself and make your own decision.

(Warning – You might just need an aspirin or two after trying to untangle yourself after the mental gymnastics contained within the article.)


4 Responses to “An Appalling Misrepresentation of Science”

  • Read that silly article too, Michael. And followed the discussion on twitter.

    Some of the same people involved in a previous Guardian attack on Brian Cox participated – there seems to be a History of science vs science divide. A sort of interprofessional professional jealousy going on.

    I commented on the previous stoush in my blog post Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science and Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists.

    MInd you, a think the scientists decided this time to apply a bit of humour. They took the title of this article “Prof Brian Cox: physicist or priest?” and responded with tweets of the sort:
    From @AdamRutherford):
    “@ProfBrianCox is a physicist, he’s got certificates and everything. Priests are dress wearing religious people. That really is the end of it”
    “I look forward to forthcoming insightful articles: @jimalkhalili: physicist or pig farmer? And @DrAliceRoberts: anatomist or cheese maker?”

    From Ed Yong (@edyong209):
    “Apparently, “wonder” in pop-sci is an “infantilising power dynamic” and “anti-intellectual”. Bilious waffle gu.com/p/3e4x8/tw”

    From Jim Al-Khalili (@jimalkhalili):
    “@ProfBrianCox @AdamRutherford I think the first comment under this silly article says it all. Disappointing tosh. bit.ly/Xetkm7”

    and from Robin Ince (@robinince):
    “@ProfBrianCox I see you as priest, probably Father Dougal.”

    Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) himself reacted:
    “Lazy badly argued intellectually barren cliché “@commentisfree: Prof Brian Cox: physicist or priest? bit.ly/Xetkm7”

    Mind you, he wondered a bit later:
    “I am of course aware that linking to poor articles is analogous to paying ransoms – it encourages more nobbery ! @commentisfree”

  • The difference is that religious titles are (more-or-less) self-appointed, where-as “Professor” is external recognition of knowledge and ability. Cox doesn’t insist that others call him Professor; it is a mark of respect that others do so.
    And of course, the good thing about science is that anybody can do it. If you want to buy a telescope and look at the stars, you can! There’s no “privileged access”.

  • Shadowmind,
    I’ve noticed that one common tactic of the antiscience brigade is to to drop academic titles, unless of course referring to a scientist/academic who supports their position so they can use an appeal to authority. And of course one wouldn’t dare not address cleric without using his (or occasionally her) title.

  • Ken, some great tweets there. I followed the comments on the guardian website and I think the majority were attacking the article as poorly thought out, anti-science and incoherent.
    There seems to be such a bitterness to the article that I find hard to fathom.