I am a great believer in the public understanding of science (which is nowadays usually referred to as public engagement with science; see note below about this). I was a Café Scientifique organiser for five years, and know first-hand how much people who have not had the opportunity to learn much science in the conventional way appreciate such initiatives. I also believe the public have a right to a say in how money is spent on science, since it is their money, and is being invested in their names.

Nevertheless, I am aware that, with greater and greater specialisation, the gap between the scientist and the person-in-the-street is continually widening. So we face a dilemma: should the public understanding of science concentrate on more accessible science, such as Newton’s Laws, the Periodic Table, Darwin? Or are people more likely to want to know about the “cutting-edge” stuff, which may be difficult to explain – such things as the Higgs Boson or nanotechnology?

Certainly in my experience of Café Sci, we usually managed to find speakers who could talk about their own very up-to-date research, but in a way that made at least the gist of it comprehensible to our very diverse audience. One of the most memorable sessions featured theoretical physicist Fay Dowker on the subject of her research into “Atomic Spacetime”, or the quantisation of spacetime. It sounded a bit scary, but she managed to pull it off (I think).

Yet sometimes I wonder. Often modern science is simplified so much in order to make it comprehensible to lay people, that the original meaning is distorted, and people go away thinking they have understood it when they haven’t. That is surely the worst outcome of all. And often it hinges on a misunderstood word or phrase.

Recently Jon Butterworth’s Guardian Science blog featured the question of degrees of “rightness” and “wrongness” of scientific theories – a very important topic in my view, and one that straddles the boundary between science and philosophy of science. He illustrated this with two examples – the LHC (which of course is what Jon does for his day job) and then a more everyday topic – the flatness of the earth. The point here was to show that a theory can be considered true within a limited domain – in this case, that the earth is flat over a small area of its surface. The experimental verification of this is done by measuring its curvature, and the crucial quantity here is the accuracy with which curvature can be measured.

However, one respondent, reading all this about flatness and curvature, clearly assumed Jon was talking about “curved spacetime”, which is a term one comes across in the study of general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity:

Since the amount of gravity is nearly everywhere the same on Earth, we have to say that the Earth is flat. It’s a bended space so to speak.

This didn’t make much sense to me so I asked him/her to elucidate. This is what came back:

The surface of the earth is like a plain sheet of paper that has been bend around a mass centre. So it’s bended space.

At this point it was pretty clear (s)he had got his/her wires crossed, so I pointed out that this was nothing to do with mass or gravity, and the same would apply if the earth were a light hollow sphere with hardly any mass at all; it was just 3D geometry. But I wasn’t getting through:

Geometry works without mass. So it’s not applicable here.

I think this person had been told that, in 4-dimensional spacetime, different “geometries” apply depending on the nature of the region of spacetime we are interested in – specifically how much mass was present – and had seen the oft-peddled example of how we can have a “geometry” on the surface of a sphere which resembles the sort of geometry we do in a plane, but has different rules, specifically about “parallel lines”, angle-sums of “triangles”, etc. This is of course only meant to be an analogy, since we cannot really visualise 4-dimensional spacetime in our heads; but people all-too-often take it literally. And as if that was not enough, another reader backed the first one up:

Earth’s gravity is curved space, and the curved space is what makes Earth curved.

By this time I was getting pretty exasperated. I pointed out that the “curvature” of spacetime associated with gravity should not be confused with ordinary curvature as exhibited by 2-dimensional surfaces in 3-dimensional space; but that even if one did mix these concepts up, the former sort of “curvature” would be hardly detectable at the surface of the earth, because the earth is such a light body; also that this conversation could easily have taken place 100 years before Einstein was born. (I didn’t – but possibly should have – go on to say that for the two “curvatures” to be put into any sort of correspondence, the earth would have to have the density of a black hole). But there was no “oh, sorry, got the wrong end of the stick”, or “thanks for pointing that out”; the original respondent just moved on to another tack:

And if we consider insights of the fractal theory we can conclude how the whole Earth looks like.

Now, I have no idea what that means; to give this person the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume they do, although they probably don’t. I didn’t ask. Clearly there are people out there whose need to know is so strong that it overrides any difficulty they may have had in actually learning or understanding stuff – so they just parrot nonsense instead.

Maybe such people are unrepresentative though, and should just be politely ignored. But I do sometimes wonder whether instead they’re actually fairly representative of the general public. I have heard some pretty far-out questions asked at Café Scientifique, but the great thing about Café Sci is that any misunderstandings can usually be sorted out there and then, in a face-to-face interchange. Blogs are not like that – for a start, there is far less interaction between participants: no opportunity for gesture, nuance or body language as there is in a face-to-face discussion. And usually the participants do not know one another’s real names, or even whether they are male or female. Often the “discussion” descends into a slanging match. And even if the majority of people reading blogs are “lurkers” who do not participate, those people will read all the comments and, at best, think “well, it’s all nonsense – they can’t even agree among themselves”, and, at worst, actually believe the more nonsensical contributions (which tend to be more strident and confident-sounding) over the sensible ones. Remember that, on a blog, you can’t usually tell who’s who or what qualifications people might have; and issuing a starchy “believe me – I’ve studied this stuff you know” would probably not be a good move.

During the Science In Public conference at UCL last summer, there was apparently a big spat going on on Twitter about science communication, with Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh apparently complaining about publicly-funded science communication. Goldacre and Singh protested that “the bloggers” did not get enough recognition for the work they do in communicating science. But if the exchange I have described above is typical of this medium, is it really worth the effort?

This isn’t meant to be just a moan; I’d like to think of some way the situation could be improved. Public understanding and outreach are still, one might argue, in their infancy and it will take a while to get it right. Café Scientifique is certainly an anarchic entity, as its practitioners, including myself, have often boasted. It has no rules – at least not overt ones; and any unwritten “rules” there might be concern the environment – comfy chairs, informality, alcohol, a public space well away from academia – not the content of the talks.1 The PR effort for the LHC was admirable, but seemed to concentrate on getting plenty of airtime and column inches – again, I’m not sure there was that much emphasis on content. Butterworth admits that some of the catch-phrases the media have adopted as a result of this campaign, such as “atom-smasher”, annoy him slightly, but not enough to make it worthwhile making an issue out of it. Likewise, I would add, “God particle” and “big bang machine”. These are harmless phrases; but maybe science communicators do need to be a bit more careful of the language they use.  I believe that training is now available for scientists who wish to do outreach, and maybe that could be formalised. Perhaps the discussion of very complicated topics such as general relativity and quantum mechanics should be discouraged.

Finally, a note about “engagement”. Apart from being a trendy buzzword (and hence rapidly becoming devoid of all meaning) engagement means making an active contribution to science as opposed to just passively soaking it all up. At Café Sci we always stressed that this was what it was all about; in other words, the audience were quite entitled, and encouraged, to tell a guest speaker that their work was pointless, boring, unethical or not worth the money. This rarely happened, however; mostly what our audience wanted was the facts, and indeed it does seem logical to inform yourself about something before presuming to express an opinion of it. It is quite possible that the “engagement” phase will follow later.


1 So it should by now be clear that the events currently billed as “Café Scientifique” at UCL and Imperial College are not worthy of the name. If you want to try it out, support the excellent Cosy Science in High Holborn – or click the link above to find one near you.