Interview: Quentin Cooper

Quentin Cooper

Photo credit: Charlie Chan

Science seems to be crippled by the language barrier between scientists and those who are interested, but cannot understand the excited babble of jargon scientists try to impose upon them. Journalists are the best translators we have, but often their efforts skew the data, or miss the important developments, in such a way that frustrates both sides. Nina Seale interviews former Material World host Quentin Cooper, whose background includes both science and journalism, to find out how these problems in communication should best be tackled.

How can scientists improve the quality of information going into the media?

Scientists need to try to think a bit more like the media do. Too often the journalists find themselves having to try at taking a stab at trying to translate the scientist into what they think the public wants. The more the scientists can see what the journalists are after, and what the public is after, the more they can provide that themselves, and the less likely their work is to be garbled and distorted by the journalist, however well-meaning the journalist might be.

Do you think science should be more democratised, with the public choosing where their funding goes?

It’s a lovely idea, in a world where the public understood more about science. I’d love to work towards that but if that happens in my lifetime I’d be very surprised. As things stand, absolutely no. I don’t think the public have that ability, I don’t think most scientists have that ability because most scientists don’t have a broad spectrum of knowledge about other sciences.

Do you think anyone does?

No, I don’t think any one individual does, I think it has to be as it is, flawed, where we can certainly improve the system we’ve got but at the moment it’s a series of collective decisions made by organisations based on a whole series of inputs. The idea of one individual sitting down and doing an X-Factor version of science is rather scary. I don’t want it to go to the cutest, most floppy-haired physicist who happens to be out there!

Do you think public money should be spent on non-applicable science, or so defined ‘blue sky science’?

Yes. Absolutely. I think scientists need to get better at explaining why that’s important, but it clearly is, because if I was to take your question literally “Should money be spent on non-applicable science?” Then no, if it is by definition completely inapplicable and always will be-

How can you know that?

You can’t, exactly. Everything might at some point be applicable, you can’t be sure, and I think it was Norbert Wiener who said back in the forties that all the most important advances are happening in the gaps between disciplines, and that has become ever more true. I love stories of people who have done that. I love the fact that Andre Geim, who won the Nobel Prize for graphene, was the first person to have also won an IgNobel for his work on magnetically levitating frogs. People gave him an IgNobel because people thought his work was so stupid and trivial, but actually he’s the same guy who, a decade later, won a Nobel Prize. So, it is very dangerous to say ‘Only do research over here’.

How should scientific ambiguity be presented to the public so as to avoid extreme statements by the media?

Often when I’m talking to people about the media I show them a headline from the Metro saying ‘Further research needed, scientists say it could take years’ and people take a while to realise I’ve made it on Photoshop. That’s the headline that scientists always want to write, but it’s never there. Scientists will have a certain reservation, ambiguity, because science doesn’t trade in certainty. You always have the best hypothesis at a given point in time. Everything we ever think about the universe is just what we think now. One thing we know from the history of science is that, a hundred years from now, something that we hold dear and true, something that we hold as a fundamental core belief, will almost definitely turn out to be complete twaddle. It might be anti-matter, it might be dark matter…

Imagine this, to suddenly realise that everything we think we know, every type of particle and atom, everything we know about nature, that’s only six or seven per cent. Everything else is dark matter, or something else… We are at the most aware point in human history of how ignorant we are. We’ve never been more aware of our ignorance than we are right now.

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