Science, Facts, and Public Discourse

In the Guardian on Thursday, Martin Robbins (sadly, not Marty Robbins — that would be cool) writes about the paucity of actual scientists in BBC reporting on, errr, science. The column is strong and outraged, as it might well be. As he observes, ‘All political questions lie at least partly within the domain of scientific or empirical study, but the idea that policy might actually have something to do with “facts”or “evidence” is one of the biggest taboos in modern politics.’ Hear, hear!
My cavil — and you knew there would be one — arises just at the point where science and its allies want both to be represented in public discourse, and to have a privileged prerogative to determine what counts as a fact. Wait, wait: I’m not defending creationism or climate-change deniers. I am, though, underscoring the problem that the status of ‘factuality’ is never quite as clear-cut as one might like, especially with regard to controverted facts, especially when lay mediators have to report on these matters of scientific fact. And especially especially when a particular, limited cadre of people hold the letters patent to determine which are the facts that must be reported, and which the follies that should be ignored.
There’s no need to trot out the cases in which scientific knowledge underwent convulsive change (nor to explain that in every such case, it was actually scientific process that brought about the convulsive change, so it’s all really okay, not a problem). The principle is simply that a polis is poorly served by the notion that a particular limited body of spokespeople determine the facts. Who would have been credentialed to name the facts in the days before the Great Recession began a few years ago? The received wisdom from Those Who Should Know held that there was no need to worry, and they had the facts to support their conclusion.
Again, I believe that climate-change science is both sound and urgently important; I am no creationist (old-earth, young-earth, or otherwise); and I encourage a greater representation of articulate, engaging scientists in the media. Go, team!
But at the same time, let’s seek out more than one angle on facts, especially when those other angles have the backing of more than one scientist, especially when the other angles have track records of being grounded in broader scientific reasoning. ‘Scientist’ isn’t a synonym for ‘infallible oracle’; they make mistakes, they change their minds, and so do reporters (who are not less fallible than scientists).
And much the same could be said about theology and theologians, where (in part through an atmosphere cultivated by some spokespeople for science) just about anyone with a cockamamie notion can get coverage, as though their sentimental fancies and conspiracy theories were as noteworthy as a Regius Professor’s deliberations. Scorn from the cultured despisers notwithstanding, there are distinctions in the quality of theological discourse, just as in scientific discourse.
It doesn’t befit the advocates of making those distinctions in one field to disregard them in another.*

* Not accusing Martin Robbins here, but simply taking his column as a point of departure.

2 thoughts on “Science, Facts, and Public Discourse

  1. Hi, thanks for the follow up post.

    I agree about scientists not being infallible, and actually you should Google my interview with Connie St. Francis for more thoughts on whether journalists challenge science enough.

    In the piece you’re responding to, I make the point that you rarely see two scientists on the telly in serious debate. I think this actually plays into the potential problem you describe. When I call for more scientists in current affairs coverage, that shouldn’t just mean bringing people on to declare ‘x’ is true. It should mean more room for reasoned, informed debate; and it should mean more opportunities to challenge scientists (after all the whole point of shows like BBCQT is to allow the public to put their questions to public figures).

  2. Thanks, Martin!
    I think we’re on the same page with respect to reporting science; I was leaping onward from your spot-on critique with quibbles of my own. I could have underscored more explicitly the points of your argument and the extent of my agreement with it.
    One of the BBC’s foremost characteristics should be its mission to inform, drawing on the soundest reasoning from the best sources. That would, optimally, include displaying scientific dissent as well as selecting reliable representatives. I’m not sure, though, that such a vision would have much traction nowadays.
    As to my own concerns about adjudicating factuality, and about representing theological depth in media, I think these too would benefit from the sort of reporting ethos you describe — so a second level of affirmation to you as well, sir!

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