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Understanding the future: is public perception and comprehension keeping pace with science?

17 Nov 2016

Communicator and presenter Quentin Cooper considers the evolving face of science journalism and the role it has in changing future attitudes to science

Happy 30th CaSE. It’s not much of an age, yet in that time think how much of the fabric of our everyday lives has been replaced and rewoven. It’s almost harder to point to what hasn’t changed than what has. Science, technology and engineering – we’ll call it science and engineering to keep CaSE happy – have driven the bulk of those changes.  But even as we’re all swept along in this endless revolution, how much of a shift has there been in attitudes to science and engineering: in general awareness and appreciation of all that’s been achieved?   

As researchers themselves are fond of saying in their papers, “the findings are inconclusive”. Usually before adding, in a thinly disguised attempt to solicit additional funding, “further research is necessary”. So let’s examine the data and see if we are making quantum leaps in the right direction. Although only fair to mention that whereas the media, politicians and other technobabblers use “quantum leaps” to mean something big and purposeful, for physicists – who coined the term – they are something infinitesimally tiny and random.     

Certainly there are positive signs. The quantity and quality of science programmes on TV and radio is far greater than it was even a couple of decades ago. And the roster of television science faces who look more or less like television science faces always have looked (Robert Winston, Michael Mosley, Mark Miodownik et al.) have been enhanced by others who are equally capable but confound those old stereotypes (Alice Roberts, Jim Al Khalili, Hannah Fry etc.), trading in a little of the grey hair and gravitas of their predecessors for snazzier wardrobes and unalloyed joy at tangling with what makes our universe tick.    

Just as significantly – in terms of reaching mainstream audiences – there are also familiar figures like Richard Hammond, James May and Heston Blumenthal making programmes which contain a fair amount of scientific details and ideas but which avoid being boxed and labelled as “about science”.  In crude terms, the positive is that viewers get informed and entertained, the negative is that many will not register it as being scientific unless it gets baffling or boring so any negative attitudes towards science are likely to remain unchanged.   It’s one of the challenges across all media that audiences find a huge range of scientific stories and issues engaging and engrossing only so long as they don’t think of them as such. They like what science covers, they dislike science on the cover.   

That said, there is no danger of media science disappearing into a black hole. There will always be room for stories about dinosaurs, cavemen, space exploration, amazing new gadgets, grotesque medical conditions and the other aspects of science that are conceptually straightforward with little need for explanation and lots of opportunities for pictures. Is that enough though? Go back to those monumental changes science and engineering have made to our lives and lifestyles in the 30 years since CaSE started campaigning. Around the clock and across all sorts of different fields, science is constantly nudging us into the future – adding to and altering our thinking about every aspect of existence from sub-atomic particles to solving the energy crisis, from brewing better beer to building better mousetraps. If we lack the basic knowledge to relate to those advances then they are shifting us into a future we increasingly feel unable to comprehend or control. Good science journalism enables us to bridge that gap. So does CaSE making their case. Neither can transform everyone into instant experts or even guarantee any more than rudimentary understanding – but both can stretch imaginations, help limit fear and distrust, and allow individuals and society to make more informed decisions about what we want, and don’t want, from science over the next 30 years and beyond.

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