Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sciblog 2008 (part 2)

Saturday had a hazy brightness, and was warm and humid. It was just three stops along the Jubilee line from Bankside to Green Park and the west end of Piccadilly. The Royal Institution is in Albemarle Street, in a series of grand-looking houses designed by northerner John Carr some time in the last half of the eighteenth century. So, by London standards is not that old, and the Institution itself was only established in 1799 - a mere youngster, then compared to some of the other august establishments in the capital - and moved to Albemarle Street soon afterwards. However, during its relatively brief existence it has been responsible for much. including the discovery of ten chemical elements and the home of fourteen Nobel Prize winners.

It has just undergone 'the most complete reimagining of the space in our history' and its interior is certainly now impressive - a good blend of old and new.

There is a cafe and a bar (and a red candelabra - something to commemorate the fact that the room used to be a high class jewellers)

and libraries and museums (with this great installation/mobile of surplus-to-requirements scientific instrumentation)

and, of course, the Faraday lecture theatre (which is a lot smaller than I remember from watching numerous Christmas lectures when a child).

The keynote lecture was by Ben Goldacre who writes Badscience - a column in the Guardian as well as a blog...and now a book too. Dr Goldacre, it turns out, crusades against the rubbish spouted in the media about science.

His first point was that the nerd has been neglected. Science, he said, is being wilfully dumbed down, and this is suiting no one. At this point I noticed that Dr Grump, who had come with me, had become oddly slumped in her chair and was lolling backwards with a sickening sycophantic smile on her face.
'What's up?' I asked her.
'Nothing...' she said dreamily, 'It's just that I think I have found my soul-mate.'

Obviously I am used to this sort of nonsense from the woman by now, so after muttering that he was easily fifteen years too young for her (despite the application of Boot No 7 Revive and Rejuvenate every morning and evening), decided to ignore her.

Young Goldacre turned out to be an inspiring speaker, describing how blogs were the new weapon in the hands of the people. Together we can stamp out the effects of persons in the media perpetuating bogus associations between things like vaccinations and autism (something which my mother still believes caused her grandson's autism no matter how many times I try to convince her otherwise) just because they happen to make good news stories.

'Yes, yes!' La Grump who by this time had stirred herself.

He also described how other bloggers, notably people like Brain Duck who run their own campaigns against such inaccuracies, are his new heroes, and that people like that become famous in their own circles, and felt honoured and excited to meet them. In our society of spin and hype, it is bloggers like this that he feels able to trust because they refer back to the original papers and even provide links. He said there should be more editors and less science writers. I am not sure I completely agree with this - in my experience scientists are perfectly capable of being just as biased as everyone else, and think that a good science writer such as Marcus Chown, Simon Singh or Jon Turney can have a better and more balanced overview. I do agree that there is a lot of rubbish published, but I think it is not written by the specialised science writers. It is more likely to be written by the people writing columns on things like health, diet and beauty. (Added later: see Brian Clegg's post here for more on this)

Part 3 of the Sciblog report is here.



Blogger stu said...

That's probably true, but at least part of the problem is that people are disinclined to take that sort of challenge in the popular media seriously until it's too late, precisely because it's not in a refereed journal. The blogs/magazines are what rather more people actually read.

Thu Sept 04, 06:20:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, that is exactly right. Difficult to see a solution, really. Sensationalism sells by being wrong.

Fri Sept 05, 08:32:00 pm  

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