President Brian Trench at Dunedin opening

11 April 2018

Stories, and histories, connect us, even across great distances.  Defined broadly, science communication is society talking about science. That could well be recast: science communication is society telling stories about science.

Ireland and New Zealand are almost as far apart as any two countries on earth. Yet consider these connections:

Dave Gallaher: A New Zealand legend as a rugby player, and captain of the first team that took the name, All Blacks. He led them on a tour of Britain and Ireland in 1905, when they won 34 or their 35 matches, and attracted curiosity and animosity in equal measure. But Gallaher was born in County Donegal in north-west Ireland, moving to New Zealand when he was five. He missed the 1905 All Blacks’ match against his native country in Dublin through injury.

Ernest Rutherford: Another New Zealand legend and near-contemporary of Gallaher; as a school student in Nelson, he became Head Boy despite playing “mediocre” rugby. He is remembered as a “country boy” in the exhibit on his life and work at the former Canterbury College in Christchurch, where he obtained his first degree. He migrated to England and Canada, then back to England, to pursue his career in science. He won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1908, the year Gallaher retired from international rugby. He was the first New Zealand-born scientist to win a Nobel.

Harry Thrift: While a student at Trinity College Dublin, he was selected to play for Ireland, including against the All Blacks in 1905. He is credited with a major role in keeping the All Blacks to only 15 points. He became a physics lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, but was also a president of the Irish Rugby Football Union, and later a long-serving secretary of the International Rugby Board.

Ernest Walton: Born the son of a Methodist minister, he was tutored in Trinity College Dublin by Harry Thrift and later studied as a graduate under Ernest Rutherford – then director of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1932, Rutherford announced to the Royal Society that Walton and John Cockcroft had achieved the first splitting of the atom, though Rutherford’s announcement was scooped in Reynolds’s Illustrated News as ‘Science’s Greatest Discovery’. For this, Walton (with Cockcroft) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1951, becoming the first Irish-born winner of a Nobel science prize.

C. P. Snow: Also at the Cavendish with Walton and also credited with a major breakthrough in 1932, the discovery of a means to produce Vitamin A synthetically. The discovery was reported in Nature and endorsed by the President of the Royal Society but later had to be retracted because the calculations were faulty.  So Snow turned to literature, but at the start of World War II was made responsible for recruiting scientists to the war effort. He asked Walton to join him, but Walton declined, saying he wanted to devote his efforts to science in neutral Ireland.

William Campbell: Studied science at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s, when Walton was a physics lecturer there, emigrated to the United States, and eventually appointed to a research post with Merck where his work on a drug, Avermectin, to treat river blindness won him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2105, becoming the second Irish-born scientist, after Walton, to win a science Nobel Prize. Even after more than fifty years out of Ireland, Campbell remains strongly attached to his native town of Ramelton in County Donegal. This was also the birthplace of Dave Gallaher, who is now commemorated there through a Dave Gallaher Memorial Park. Campbell and Gallaher were baptised in the same small Presbyterian church.

The Presbyterian communities of the northern counties of Ireland trace back to the Scottish settlement of that area in the 17th and 18th centuries. The largest church in Dunedin is the Presbyterian Knox Church, which traces back to the Scottish settlement here in the 19th century. The founder of Otago University was a Scottish Presbyterian.

There are many other possible loops to these stories, including the mention of “H. Thrift” in James Joyce’s Ulysses. In my looping stories, Ireland and New Zealand are connected through sport and science but we also see that science is connected to many other facets of society, including war, neutrality, migration, literature and small religious communities.

Stories are everywhere in social talk. Defined broadly, science communication is society talking about science. That could well be recast: science communication is society telling stories about science. Along with the crafted stories told by institutions and associations, there are everyday stories about science on radio programmes, in social networks, in artists’ studios, in cafés and bars – and, indeed, we need to learn how to listen better to these.

There is a broad repertoire of story-types available and practised, from celebration stories of breakthroughs, revolutionary advances and great promise, of extraordinary people with extraordinary dedication, doing extraordinary things, to (much rarer) interrogation stories, questioning why and how certain scientific endeavours are being done. In science communication practice we always have choices to make, and we should be conscious of how and why we make these choices. Do we join governments and scientific institutions in telling stories of science’s success, of a necessary “belief in science”, of “loving science” or “loving research”, and other evangelising and moralising messages?

Stories of science, in general, tend to be future-oriented – this discovery will lead to this possible cure / solution / better research.  These Hope or Promise stories present science as proceeding irresistibly – incrementally – towards fuller knowledge.  With its gaze fixed on the future, science rarely looks back. C. P. Snow, in his famous Two Cultures lecture, referred to scientific culture as progressive and optimistic, distinguishing it from literary or traditional culture which “wishes the future did not exist”.

But that story can be told another way, as a story of forgetting our history, even amnesia. Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, a theoretical physicist and science-essayist, developed this point thirty years ago, showing that the large majority of references in physics papers came from the last ten years. “Science doesn’t recognise itself much beyond a decade,” he wrote, implicitly contrasting it with the longer historical view of the humanities and social sciences.

I checked this against a small sample of research articles published in February 2018 editions of Nature, but also 10 research papers published in Public Understanding of Science. In the Nature papers, three-quarters were from the last decade (in one paper, this reached 94 per cent!). In the PUS papers, this proportion was just over half, as it also is in the 361 references in Sarah Davies’s and Maja Horst’s comprehensive treatment of science communication as culture. But some science communication research appears less historically aware, as it seeks to stress how novel, or scientific, it is.

Stories can be powerful but also seductive, and the repetition of highly simplified stories can be especially seductive and comforting. Big, easily-told, many-times-repeated stories can become myths and science, like other human endeavours, is vulnerable to myth-making. Myths can carry important meanings over generations but, in contemporary usage, myth more often means misrepresentation. I think it is fair to speak of myths in this sense about The Scientific Method – often presented as a single, unfailing phenomenon. Thirty years ago, English Nobel-winning scientist Peter Medawar spoke of the illusion that “scientists caper from pinnacle to pinnacle of achievement and that we exercise a Method that preserves us from error”. I think it is fair to speak also of myths about peer review as a sure guarantee of scientific validity and quality. John Ioannidis and others have claimed that the majority of scientific effort – including the effort that is endorsed through peer-reviewed publication – represents a waste of scientific resources.

Considering science’s wider impacts and implications, there are myths about its role in driving economic growth.  There are myths too in science history, like Isaac Newtown’s observation of the failing apple leading to his theory of gravity or Alexander Fleming’s observation of patterns of mould and bacteria in his petri dishes leading to the discovery of penicillin. Flashes of genius are a common story-type in popular science history, like that of astronomer and mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, to whom a key insight into quaternions came as he walked from his observatory to his university in Dublin.

Science historian John Waller has unpicked some of these stories in his book, Fabulous Science, showing how the discoveries are always more complex than the simple heroic version can accommodate. Importantly, he links the production of these simpler stories to a Great Man view of history – that is, the notion that history is made by outstanding men who do daring deeds, make bold decisions, challenge received wisdoms..

We science communicators probably think of ourselves as myth-busters, for example, leading the charge against pseudo-science. But we may have generated our own myths too. Already over twenty years ago, Morris Shamos questioned the Myth of Scientific Literacy, suggesting as a physicist and educator that the goal of universal scientific literacy was unattainable. Yet this goal, or something like it, is a guiding light of very much effort in science communication. Shamos’s work of 1995 is one of the many works of previous decades that deserves continued or renewed attention.

Arguably, C. P. Snow was responsible for generating a myth with his talk of two cultures, though we should remember that Snow himself said that “the number 2 is a very dangerous number … attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion”. He would have known that binary oppositions are a strong feature of myths.

Consider the binary of Deficit and Dialogue: we have told ourselves the story of how we woke up at the start of the 21st century and corrected the errors we had been making. This qualifies as myth because it obscures how many of the supposedly new practices had old assumptions built into them.

Science writer Michael Brooks considered that the common view of science as always logical and trustworthy is its brand, its myth, and a caricature of the real thing. In his book, Free Radicals, he tried to bring to light “the secret anarchy of science” and the humanity of science. The stories of the setbacks, of the blind alleys need also to be told. So too the stories of chance encounters in the coffee breaks that led to unexpected turns. And the stories of competitive pressures that lead to short-cuts and misconduct.

Speaking of the limits of science does not diminish science’s achievements – which Ioannidis, who might be considered a science critic, calls “amazing”. Peter Medawar, who wrote on the limits of science, also described science as “incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon”. It is possible to be an admirer or practitioner of science at the same time as a critic.  Stories of science’s pitfalls can make the stories of achievement more visible, and more credible.

In everyday conversation, when we meet someone at the end of the day, or after a lapse of time, we often ask ‘Any news?’ or ‘What’s the story?’ – and we don’t generally want or expect to hear how wonderful everything has been.  A reasonable ambition of science communication, as an organised practice, might be to situate science in the everyday. That means telling science as often exciting and awesome, but also sometimes messy and murky.

Long, long ago, when I was very young, I used to listen to stories that began “long, long ago”, sometimes on a children’s radio programme, where the stories were introduced as follows: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” Maybe after this brief look at a more complex setting for telling stories, I can ask: Are you sitting uncomfortably? Then, let us begin.  Let us be creative but also careful with our stories. Let us beware of binaries. Let us be mindful of our histories.

PCST Network President – Brian Trench