I’m wearing white, are you in black? The modern media machine is fast. I sometimes graze 10 articles before my morning coffee seeps into tepidity. I have 973 words left on this article to steal your attention. Now 962. You won’t read it. You’ll skim. We all skim. Then forget the bulk in five minutes because we are barely evolved apes clutching mobile CPUs like mental crutches. This will be a drop of information pigment in the canvas of your diurnal rushing death spiral. Your opinion will form within a few sentences and the remainder of the article will be seen through the tinted lens of that initial judgement. Twitter is so fast it makes the online article ‘revolution’ seem glacial; Tweeps are the modern media gunslingers, their power echoed from the pages of the BBC to the Guardian. I’m sure something faster than Twitter is already rustling in the loins of some tech guru’s pants in Silicon Valley.
Fast is good. Fast and short: even better. Digestible. Fun. Memorable. Witty. Printable. Modern. Convincing. Shallow and vacuous is tolerated over ponderous, complex and clumsy. The intellectual equivalent of shoving a greasy pie down your throat en route to work. We’ve all done it. The cerebral heroin hit of fast news while speeding down the highway of our individually chosen cages. Swapping needles when you’re done is a common courtesy on the trains and tube. It’s how the Trump-Brexit dystopian Brave New West was won.
Science is slow. From project inception and science research questions to grant writing, to funding, months can flee like the bombed masses we collectively choose to ignore. Gathering data for a paper can take years to consolidate and many more months to write up. Culminating a single scientific statement riddled with cautious caveats and hesitant predictions, like the disappointing limp erection of the promising talker.
Scientists always talk of error. What flavors and tastes are conjured in your mind’s eye by this word? Error. For many this is an admission. “Honey, babes, I made an error, it won’t happen again, I promise, Rita’s a slag, it’s probably not even mine”. A failure. An acceptance of imprecise incompetence. Why shouldn’t an honest, hardworking tax payer balk when the affluent scientist talks about the error in their government tax funded research project? It’s enough to make you angry perhaps. But what a scientist means when they discuss random and systematic error and what Joe public views error to be are widely divergent. Likewise for data adjustment. The English of an alternate universe to the cookie factory worker who hears mistakes and lies coming from the horse’s mouth.
This slow and careful logistical process of science is also reflected in scientific speech and a scientist’s mind frame. Stating something as ‘AN ABSOLUTE FACT!!’ or maybe as ‘THE TRUTH!!’ is anathema to scientists who live in a world view that comprises of the best working model to fit the available data at the time, buffered by error bars and uncertainty. How can such scientists tackle anti-science Trumpsters machine gun spraying alternative facts from the hip into crowded malls? How do such scientists respond to climate change deniers selectively mishandling trend data, naively or deliberately? Or Brexiteers entrenched in economic La La Land? The answer, inevitably, is that scientists respond slowly, ponderously and with excruciating glacial care. A precise, accurate, well intention musket shot against an array of anti-aircraft guns. It’s why they are losing the social and political battle. Bang. Bang.
The media and public tidal wave of alternative facts, misrepresented data, invented nonsense and malicious deception overwhelms and saturates the discussion platform environment with such startling and ever increasing rapidity that measured scientific response to it becomes impossible. There are too many ridiculous claims to counter with well researched educational responses. Add to this the very real reticence and snobbish disdain many scientists have towards scientific communication, or ‘sci comm’, mixed with the linguistic divergence between what scientists mean by certain words and how the public perceive those words and we have a recipe for a vast fetid soup of stupendous ignorance on the one hand and intellectual isolationism on the other.
The consequences of an ivory academic tower speaking slowly in tongues attempting to counter a crowd of hyper-cocaine up idiots proposing everything from scrapping environmental laws, human rights to suggesting NASA, NOAA and the MET office are involved in a grand climate conspiracy is frightening. In a best-case scenario, the planet will continue to warm, sea level rise, drought increase, refugee crises spiral sparking tension and human misery on epic scales. In a medium case scenario, we end up with more intense and honest wars of scarcity and control of resources. A rise in authoritarian, non-democratic, non-international responses to global geopolitics. At worse, we become extinct as a failed and foolish species unfit for evolutionary progression. Perhaps you think such words are ludicrous hype in a daily rag. The Huff is really going downhill with such nonsense opinions being printed. It’s not all that bad, and people in real power are sensible you retort. Then you remember the most powerful politician in the world invites the clown Kayne West for a chat before Nobel prize scientists or heads of state and a cold chill of dinosaur sweat runs down your back.
So, what can be done? Well, certainly scientists need to realize the absolute importance of public engagement and science communication. Currently it is just viewed as tiresome window dressing that distracts them away from important lab research time. They need evicting from the ivory tower. They’ll kick and scream and resist this, but it needs to happen. Scientists must learn the language of regular people and how to speak quickly without sacrificing accuracy. Public support for science leads directly into political support, policy and science budgets. Anyone who feels science and politics should remain separate, like church and state are desperately naïve, for the two are and always have been incestuously entwined with more reckless passion than Cersei and Jaime Lannister.
The public also have a responsibility to save themselves. Stop reading cruddy short articles like this one. It’s rubbish. You’ll not learn much. Not in 1000 words. Certainly not in 140 Twitter characters. Why shouldn’t you learn something on the way to work over your coffee? Put down that greasy information pie, you’re obese. Turn off Twitter for 30 minutes and read a longer in depth analysis by a qualified source. Here, I’ll even get you started. Just once a day. Hell, if you do that just for a week then this scribble has been a well-aimed musket shot. Now, scribble your stupid comments about why I’m wrong and how Trump is a good man and Brexit will make our irrelevant abusive relationship of tired nations great again…..
Adrienne Macartney runs the public engagement project ‘Science Hooker’, and is a final year PhD student at the University of Glasgow where she studies the loss of the early atmosphere of Mars, and what lessons this loss might provide for tackling climate change.