Friday, February 27, 2009

Science and Public Policy

What is the purpose of science in society? Let me start with three data points.

1. The UK Parliament has asked the British public what science issues it should investigate (via Bad Science).

2. The media are constantly packed with celebrity scientists, who pontificate on a wide variety of subjects, often way outside their narrow specialism, unconstrained even by the feeble discipline of "peer review". For example, Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield, who appeared on BBC Newsnight on Tuesday, debating the perils of Facebook with Dr Aric Sigman and Dr Ben Goldacre. [The Perils of Facebook, “Facebook causes cancer”, There is a Greenfield far away, Susan Greenfield Profile]

3. The UK Prime Minister has set targets to increase the number of pupils in secondary school in England taking science subjects, in particular the "triple science" GCSE exam. [BBC News, 27 February 2009]

As it happens, my son is currently doing a triple science course at his high school. I find myself particularly puzzled by the chemistry syllabus, which doesn't seem to have very much to do with the chemistry I did at school. My hunch is that they have taken out much of the real science in an attempt to make the subject more "relevant". Sadly, the more they vainly try to make these subjects "interesting", the fewer students appear able and willing to study these subjects seriously at university.

What these three data points have in common is the idea that foolish and shallow notions of relevance, and ill-considered pseudo-scientific pronouncements by people who should know better, may create a barriers to the development of a genuine interest and deep understanding of science, as well as to properly informed debate on public policy based on good and authoritative science.

The Prime Minister obviously thinks that science education is a Good Thing. He has doubtless been briefed by his officials that British Industry needs so many scientists a year, whatever it is that scientists do, contributing (in Harold Wilson's phrase) to the White Heat of Technology. (As it happens, Britain has only had one prime minister with a science degree, and I think I may have read somewhere that she thought being a scientist-PM was an even more unlikely achievement than being a woman-PM.)

But I question the educational value of undifferentiated science. Are schools supposed to teach children lots of random and incoherent bits of science, so that they may grow up to be white-coated experts on a wide range of policy issues? Or is there some macroeconomic formula that depends on a fixed percentage of science graduates? Surely this isn't what science is about.

When an expert witness is called in a court case, there is the possibility of challenging not only the expertise itself, but also its relevance to this particular case. Perhaps similar challenges should be institutionalized whenever contributions to public debate rest on some claim of scientific authority.

My suggestion to the Parliament Select Committee will therefore be to investigate the nature and source of scientific authority in a democratic society, and to ask how society should assess and evaluate the available scientific expertise.

1 comment:

Will said...

Good post Richard

I *hate* it when science is presented to children in that "science is all about wacky men making bangs and smells" way. Surely this is not necessary to make science interesting or 'relevant'? I think there is also a problem in teenagers being given too much choice at GCSEs and A-level. I did physics chemistry and biology at A-level largely because they were the only things I was interested in. Had psychology been offered at A-level (as it increasingly is) I might have chosen that instead. As someone who teaching psychology at degree level I would rather my students had a grounding in the physical sciences than in psychology, particularly biology.