Real Science

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Talk like a scientist

They really should try harder. At a time when our political leaders are highly articulate but intellectually dishonest, and maybe even corrupt, scientists should be telling us clearly how things really are.

You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to know Iraq had only short-range aerial transport for its weapons. You didn’t need a degree in nuclear physics to know those weapons couldn’t possibly include a fission bomb. You did need a little scientific knowledge – the difference between natural and enriched uranium, for instance – and a willingness to read the weapons inspectors’ reports.

Scientists should be speaking out clearly about such important issues. But scientists nowadays still communicate as they’ve always done – like it’s everybody else’s job to figure out what on Earth they’re talking about.

Take antibiotic resistance - the ability of modern bacteria to resist the wonder drugs that once destroyed them. Here’s what Steven Hagens said recently about his fascinating work (scroll down to Friendly killers) on using viruses to make antibiotics more effective, and maybe beat the bugs:

“Pseudomonas bacteria for example are particularly multi-resistant to antibiotics because they have efflux pump mechanisms that enable them to throw out antibiotics. A pore in the cell wall would obviously cancel the efflux effect.”

This, mind you, wasn’t in his original paper (published in Microbial Drug Resistance., 2006, 12 (3), 164). In that he says things like: “Noninfected PAO1 was resistant t0 1,500 mg/ml of carbenicillin, whereas a concentration of 200mg/ml carbenicillin was sufficient to inhibit growth in the presence of the Pf3 phage.”

But that’s fine. That’s how scientists write when they’re writing for scientists. Precision takes precedence over elegance.

No, that stuff about pores cancelling efflux effects was in an interview with a trade paper aimed at chemists and businessmen – none of whom, I suggest, would have found it in the least bit obvious. The words were then taken up and circulated by a press officer to science journalists.

Since journalists need quotes, that one would have been picked up and used verbatim by many of them, leaving even their best-educated readers wondering why – if this was so obvious – they couldn’t make any sense of it at all. So next time a science story appears in their newspaper what will they do?

Chances are they’ll skip to something they know will make sense and won’t make them feel dumb - such as the latest piece of inane emptiness and distorted reality from our political leaders.

The story is told of the eminent mathematician G H Hardy that he was once giving a lecture when he made a casual remark, and said, “Of course that’s obvious.” Then he stopped talking and looked very thoughtful. Time wore on and he continued staring dreamily into space. After a while the class was getting very restless, but finally the great man emerged from his deep thoughts and said to the students:

“Yes I was right – it is obvious.”

Now that sort of thing makes sense to a mathematician or a scientist, but not to normal people. So come on guys. We want you to explain things to us. We need you to explain things to us. But don’t come out with some piece of gobbledygook, tell us it’s obvious and make us feel like morons.

Try to talk English for heaven’s sake. It's our future that's at stake.

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