09 March 2010

Asking the Impossible of Science

Many of the self-appointed defenders of science are in fact asking science for the impossible. Consider this expectation from Peter Preston, writing in the Guardian:
Democracies move in particular ways. Voters have to clamber on board when sacrifices are required. They have to see the need for pain, to sense the danger of doing nothing. They have to lead their leaders as well as follow – once they switch off, nothing good happens easily, if at all. . .

What's to be done (except wait for a natural disaster that ends all argument – and much else besides)? First, through gritted teeth, say what won't work, what's been tried already and failed.

More jaw and Gore from politicians can't cut it. They have come to seem secondhand sources, merely parroting a frail scientific thesis. That goes, alas, for journalists, too – and for pressure groups issuing lurid warnings or staging angry demos. Those of us who are convinced, who believe in the necessity of action, haven't changed our minds. But we're not the point. The audience that matters is out there, sleeping or drifting. And rousing it will demand something different, not more of the same. . .

And the plain fact is that we surely need a prophet, not yet another committee. We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince – not because he preaches apocalypse in gory detail, but in simple, overwhelming terms. We need to be taught to believe by a true believer in a world where belief is the fatal, missing ingredient.
For those really wanting to support the scientific community, I would suggest that asking scientists to be the leaders of a political campaign for action on climate change is certainly not the right way to go about it. I'd further venture that looking for prophets in the scientific community to convince unbelievers is distinctly unhelpful.