Last week there was a very interesting piece in the Guardian about Brian Cox. The author, Eliane Glaser, seemed to be arguing that Brian Cox and his ilk are something like the priests of modern science. The rhetoric of wonder, according to Glaser, is something like: ‘let’s reflect on how amazing science is’. The trouble is, she argues, that although all this wonderment, mediated by Cox and co., is designed to make us engaged with science, it does the opposite. She suggests that popular depictions of science make the public feel less and less able to cope with the complexity of the subject, and more in need of ‘priests’ like Cox to guide us.
The piece did not go down well on Twitter. I think Ed Yong’s criticism, summed things up. I agree with him: wonder in itself is not ‘anti-intellectual’ – I certainly feel a wonder at the complexity of the universe, and amazement at how far humans have come in understanding it. (And I would consider myself intellectual, at least to the extent that I have a science PhD.)
But the Glaser article does have some points of interest tucked into it. There are problems, I think, with the idea of selling science based on the idea of wonder.
Steve Fuller tried to express this in a piece on Refractive Index recently. I couldn’t really understand what he was on about in the article, but a talk he gave around the same time, on the same subject made much more sense! What he meant, I think, is that if we try to sell science based on the feeling of ‘wonder’ then it starts to be hard to justify the levels of money that it costs. You could argue that art creates a feeling of wonder at the natural world too – but we don’t spend anything like as much public money on that discipline.
Of course, few scientists (including Cox) try to justify their discipline based solely on wonder. There’s also the fact that it gives us knowledge about certain things which is superior to other methods. And of course it has practical benefits like medicine.
The problem, I think, is that some science communicators do have ‘creating a sense of wonder about science’ as their core aim. Jen Wong from Guerilla Science, a science communication events organiser, said this was what her work was all about in a recent Q&A I attended.
If our communicating science is only about wonder, then I think there’s a danger of people beginning to say ‘so what?’
Yes, those stars are wonderful. But you want me to pay you to tell me so?!
That would be the end of the story if it wasn’t for an achingly cool campaign which a few friends have started called #TheBrianCoxEffect.
There is a conversation to be had here, I think. The application numbers to study physics at Manchester have soared, but is that because people have been shown how amazing physics is? Or have they simply been captivated by Cox’s celebrity?
I once heard Evan Davis tell a conference what he thought science journalism should be all about. “Explaining and exposing,” he said. For me, that is what I try to keep in mind when doing science communication. Creating a sense of wonder can be a means to an end – but not the end itself.