Tuesday, 15 July 2014

An uneasy alliance: science, politics and scientifically-trained politicians

Last April, whilst speaking of the need for technological innovation in order to promote economic growth, President Obama joked that his physics grades made him an unlikely candidate for "scientist in chief". With the recent unease surrounding the (now thankfully dropped) takeover bid of leading UK pharmaceutical company Astra Zeneca by the American firm Pfizer, it seems appropriate to investigate whether science at the national level could be better supported if more politicians had a scientific background or were at least more savvy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. After all, had the Pfizer bid proved successful, the British pharmaceutical sector was predicted to lose in the long term, both scientifically and economically.

There are many statistics that prove the notion that the past half century has seen a major dumbing down in Western politics, such as the reduction in average sound bite length for US presidential candidates from over forty seconds in the late 1960s to barely seven seconds today. It's quite easy to suggest that politicians are simply following mainstream societal trends, but such lack of substance only serves to further distance politics from science, since the latter rarely offers straightforward yes/no answers, especially in cutting-edge research.

One rather bizarre example of how little science can mean in mainstream politics can be seen in President Reagan's reliance for key policy decisions during most of his term in office on astrologer Joan Quigley. Whilst it is easy to mock the far right wing (and Reagan himself looks increasingly liberal by the standards of the Tea Party), those on the left could be equally guilty of paying short shrift to science, especially if there isn't an immediately obvious benefit to society. A combination of relativism and overdosing on political correctness make for difficulties in proclaiming judgement values: if everyone deserves an equal opportunity to air their own pet theory as to how the universe works, then science appears as just another set of beliefs.

If we look back further than the Reagan administration, how well do scientifically-inclined American Presidents fare up? Here's a brief examination of those with scientific leanings:
  1. Thomas Jefferson made contributions to palaeontology and agricultural technology but perhaps more importantly promoted science as essential to national wealth. However, he was still very much man of his time, maintaining conventional Christian beliefs that sometimes overrode his scientific sensibility, including those that questioned the Biblical timescale.
  2. Theodore Roosevelt is well known for what would today be called sustainable development, creating national parks and wildlife refuges at the same time as promoting a balanced exploitation of natural resources. He went on expeditions to Brazil and Africa, ostensibly to find specimens for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, although the results appear more akin to the curious modern phenomenon of scientific whaling (in other words, somewhat lacking in the conservation stakes). Roosevelt also considered a "thorough knowledge of the Bible...worth more than a college education".
  3. Jimmy Carter gained a Bachelor of Science degree and later majored in reactor technology and nuclear physics whilst maintaining a conventional Christian faith. During the energy crisis of the late 1970s he seemingly promoted alternative energy, most famously having solar panels installed on the White House roof. However, in some ways he resembled Nineteenth Century Anglican scientists such as the Dean of Westminster William Buckland, particularly in his looking for the proof of God's existence in nature.
  4. An example from the other side of the Atlantic can be seen in Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, who trained in chemistry under the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. Despite her right-wing, monetarist policies (incidentally the political antithesis of Hodgkin), Thatcher has been acclaimed as an active environmentalist: her late 1980s speeches supported action to combat climate change; policies to rapidly phase out CFCs; and the promotion of sustainable development. Yet commentators have viewed Thatcher's concerns for cost-benefit analysis as taking precedence over science, with blue sky thinking getting scant attention. At a practical level, in 1987 she sold the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge to Unilever, which has been deemed detrimental in the long-term to British public science.
The only current major Western leader with a scientific background is the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry. In contrast, eight out of the nine top government officials in China have backgrounds in STEM subjects. Is it any wonder they have already got their own space station and have become the world's largest exporter of high technology, now only second to the USA in terms of annual expenditure on research and development? Yes, the rate of progress has come at enormous environmental and personal cost, but the way in which the Chinese government is clearly imbued with science and technology is to be marvelled at.

From looking at the above examples, it doesn't appear that scientifically-trained national leaders have substantially improved science's output or public opinion and have on occasion been quite detrimental. The late Stephen Schneider, author of various reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stated that since is up to governments (and to some extent the general public as well) to formulate policy rather than scientists, the former need to understand not just the data, but how to interpret it. In the UK, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently launched a public consultation over spending plans for the research infrastructure of the next five years. But scientific endeavours require a certain level of knowledge and that least common of commodities, critical thinking. Science just doesn't adhere to the simple black versus white mentality so beloved of Hollywood.

This is where scientifically-literate politicians hopefully come into their own, being able to accurately represent to the electorate such difficult material as probability statistics, as well as understanding risks and benefits themselves. If anything, science will only fare better if the majority of politicians have a more thorough science education, rather than just relying on the occasional professionally-trained key statesperson. But therein lies an obvious catch-22: how to persuade politicians to invest more funds in science education? I suppose it starts with us voters...

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Opening hearts and minds: Cosmos old, new, borrowed and blue

As a young and impressionable teenager I recall staying up once a week after the adults in my home had gone to bed in order to watch an amazing piece of television: Cosmos, a magical journey in thirteen episodes that resonated deeply with my own personal hopes and dreams. Now that Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has completed its first run it's worth comparing and contrasting the two series, serving as they do as reflections of the society and culture that created them.

Both versions were launched with aggressive marketing campaigns: I was surprised to see even here in Auckland a giant billboard promoted the series in as hyped a media operation as any Hollywood blockbuster. But then I assume the broadcasters have to get returns for their massive investments (dare I call it a leap of faith?) Both the original series and the updated / reimagined / homage (delete as appropriate) version have greater scope, locales and no doubt budgets than most science documentary series, a few CGI dinosaur and David Attenborough-narrated natural history shows excepted.

The aim of the two series is clearly identical and can be summed up via a phrase from Carl Sagan's introduction to the first version's tie-in book: "to engage hearts as well as minds". In addition, both the 1980 and 2014 versions are dedicated to the proposition that "the public are far more intelligent than generally given credit for". However, with the rise of religious fundamentalist opposition to science in general and evolution in particular, there were times when the new version obviously played it safer than the earlier series, such as swapping Japanese crabs for much more familiar species, dogs. As before, artificial selection was used as a lead-in to natural selection, exactly as per Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Another example to put the unconverted at their ease in the Neil deGrasse Tyson series is the use of devices that rely on the enormous popularity of science fiction movies and television shows today. Even the title sequence provokes some déjà vu, reminding me of Star Trek: Voyager. But then one of the directors and executive producers is former Star Trek writer-producer Brannon Braga, so perhaps that's only to be expected. In addition, the temple-like interior of Sagan's ship of the imagination has been replaced by something far more reminiscent of the Enterprise bridge. I suppose the intention is to put the scientifically illiterate at their ease before broaching unfamiliar territory.

Talking of science fiction, an echo of the space 'ballet' in 2001: A Space Odyssey can be seen with the use of Ravel's Bolero for the beautiful sequence in episode 11 of the new series. Unfortunately, the commissioned music in the Tyson programme fails to live up to the brilliant selections of classical, contemporary and folk music used in the Sagan version, which were presumably inspired by the creation of the Voyager Golden Record (a truly 1970's project if ever there was one) and with which it shares some of the same material. At times Alan Silvestri's 2014 score is too reminiscent of his Contact soundtrack, which wouldn't in itself be too distracting, but at its most choral/orchestral is too lush and distinctly overblown. Having said that, the synthesizer cues are more successful, if a bit too similar to some of the specially written material Vangelis composed for the 1986 revised version.

I also had mixed feelings about the animated sequences, the graphic novel approach for the characters seemingly at odds with the far more realistic backgrounds. Chosen primarily for budgetary reasons over live-action sequences, the combination of overstated music, dramatic lighting and quirks-and-all characterisation heavy on the funny voices meant that the stories tended to get a bit lost in the schmaltz-fest. I know we are far more blasé about special effects now - the Alexandrian library sequence in the original series blew me away at the time - but I'd rather have real actors green-screened onto digimattes than all this pseudo Dark Knight imagery.

Back to the content, hurrah! For readers of the (distinctly unpleasant) Keay Davidson biography, Carl Sagan, champion of Hypatia, has become known as the feminist ally who never did any housework. He has been left distinctly in the shade by the much greater attention paid to women scientists in the new series. Presumably Ann Druyan is responsible for much of this, although there are some lost opportunities: Caroline Herschel, most obviously; and Rachel Carson wouldn't have gone amiss, considering how much attention was given to climate change. As with the original series, the new version made a fair stab at non-Western contributions to science, including Ibn al-Haytham and Mo Tzu in the new series.

As to what could have been included in the Tyson version, it would have been good to emphasise the ups and downs trial-and-error nature of scientific discovery. After all, Sagan gave a fair amount of time to astronomer, astrologer and mystic Johannes Kepler, including his failed hypothesis linking planetary orbits to the five Platonic solids. Showing such failings is good for several reasons: it makes scientists seem as human as everyone else and also helps define the scientific method, not just the results. Note: if anyone mentions that Kepler was too mystical when compared to the likes of Galileo, point them to any modern biography of Isaac Newton...

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an excellent successor to Sagan but at times he seems to almost be imploring the audience to understand. But whereas Sagan only contended with good old fashioned astrology, his successor faces an audience of young Earth creationists, alien abductees, homeopaths and moon landing hoax theorists, so perhaps his less relaxed attitude is only to be expected. Despite the circa 1800 exoplanets that have now (indirectly) been detected, the new series failed to mention this crucial update to the Drake equation. Indeed, SETI played a distinctly backseat role to the messages of climate degradation and how large corporations have denied scientific evidence if it is at odds with profit margins.

All in all I have mixed feelings about the new series. For a central subject, the astronomy was at times second fiddle to the 'poor boy fighting adversity' theme of Faraday, Fraunhofer, etal. Not that there's anything bad about the material per se, but I think a lot more could have been made of the exciting discoveries of the intervening years: dark matter and dark energy, geological activity on various moons other than Io, even exoplanets.

The original 1980 series was a pivotal moment of my childhood and no doubt inspired countless numbers to become scientists (British physicist and presenter Brian Cox, for one), or at least like me, to dabble amateurishly in the great enterprise in our spare time. I'm pleased to add that I'm one degree of separation from Carl Sagan, thanks to having worked with a cameraman from the original series. But we can never go back. Perhaps if we're lucky, Tyson, Druyan and company will team up for some other inspiring projects in the future. Goodness knows we could do with them!