Mark Pagel on what makes scientists tick
We are dismayed by the disasters and diseases of our time. There is the HIV pandemic, the foot and mouth epidemic and bird flu. We have socalled Frankenstein foods, rogue asteroids, monstrous tsunamis, nuclear accidents, bioterrorism, global warming. We are beset with reports of ozone holes in the atmosphere, discussion of cloning and stem cells, concern with animal suffering. Oh, yes, and we still have cancer, heart disease, alcoholism, dementia, drug abuse, underage sex, and a list of other tribulations that have been with us since anyone can remember. What links these phenomena is that to some degree or another scientists are called in to cure the diseases, interpret the meanings, plug the holes, stop the leaks, and manage the behaviour and ethics: science and scientists are more intertwined with society than ever before. But against such a litany of worries, failures, and irritations, it may be little wonder that, if the polls can be trusted, they no longer occupy quite the exalted status that they once did.
What Scientists Think records interviews with twelve 'scientific thinkers' on their ideas and research, the relationship between science and technology, and social and political questions that arise from science and its findings.
The interviewerauthor, Jeremy Stangroom, is provoked into a call to arms by what he argues is the increasingly poor image of scientists in society and the often startlingly weak grasp of science among the general public. He hopes to show via the interviews "why the work which scientists do is important and why they deserve to be supported in their endeavours".
This is a tall, but timely, order. The public's increasingly contradictory response to scientists expecting more, trusting less betrays a deep confusion and ignorance of what science is, what it studies, and what its boundaries are, or should be. Some of the issues scientists are held to account for are scientific, but many are matters of behaviour, others of technology, and others yet matters of belief. Added to these confusions is a relatively unsophisticated appreciation among most nonscientists of the fiendish difficulties of understanding nature.
No one to this day has ever even seen a prion, the rogue protein that is the causative agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and its human equivalent. They are just too small. All scientists can do is work in a Platonic cave hoping to understand the prion from the shadows it casts on the walls of its victims.
At the other extreme of scale is global warming. Everyone can see its putative effects, but disagreement abounds as to the precise causes. Why? Not because scientists are slothlike, dimwitted or unimaginative but because of the enormous complexity of the systems involved, not to mention the vested interests doing all they can to stall debate and muddy the waters. Bravely, Stangroom draws inspiration from the profound difficulties of his task.
His interviewees include people working on questions of genetics, psychology, neuroscience, robotics, cosmology, and biology. Martin Rees, the next President of the Royal Society, is particularly effective in discussing how scientists can engage in the social implications of their work. Norman Leavitt reveals how science as a way of knowing is profoundly misunderstood even by other academics, leaving it vulnerable to antiscience movements such as Intelligent Design that cloak themselves in ostensibly calm and reasonable language.
Colin Blakemore is the current head of the Medical Research Council and convenient hatefigure of animal rights activists for his intrusive investigations of brain function with cats and primates. But, here, Blakemore is allowed to put forward his careful arguments for the continued use of animals in scientific research, justified by the benefits they bring to the human species. Despite his own and no doubt most readers' unease with animal experimentation, Blakemore gives a simple and robust defence of animal research with which any rational reader will find it difficult to disagree.
What Scientists Think and books like it can begin, incrementally, to give nonscientists a glimpse of how scientists work, and their thoughts and worries, without the distractions of a shrill or demanding early morning radio interview, or those dreadful probings of sofabound interviewers seeking innuendo or thrills. Stangroom has produced a volume in which the issues are contemporary and the interviewees speak clearly and nontechnically. At just 194 pages, it is a simple and pleasingly effective manual for understanding scientists and what they think.