Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
A Charade About Science

Modern science appears us in two roles. On the one hand, the boring seriousness of lessons, lectures, and other "scientific and technical information", and on the other, attention-grabbing examples of science fiction and curious news topics. However, is it necessary to turn science into something for the public's amusement?

There was a time when science did not need public attention. For example, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe thought that acquired knowledge ought to only be accessible to rulers who know how to use it. His follower, Johannes Kepler, was of the opposite opinion and even wrote a fantastic story about a flight to the Moon.

For a long time science kept to the midpoint between these extremes. Knowledge was not concealed but great effort has been required to obtain it and understand it. It is in such conditions that the scientific community has been formed, with mechanisms adopted in it of mutual recognition of competency. This scheme was completely acceptable as long as financing depended on enlightened monarchs or patrons. But with the transition of developed countries to a democratic system science began to be financed out of public funds, but this means that it depends on public opinion, which understands only show business language.

Of course, scientists took this change with difficulty. Many were not inclined to play the role of large-scaled organizer, entertaining office workers and manual laborers with stories about the evolution of the universe, for example, especially if it was about controversial issues where everything was not clear to the scientists themselves. "We realize, however, that we ought to explain to the people, the taxpayers, what we are doing. But we need to popularize those fields of science which are already completely understood", insisted Ludvig Faddeyev, an academician of the RAN [Russian Academy of Sciences] and a specialist in mathematical physics, at a meeting of the Science Journalists Club. "Contemporary science is more difficult to popularize. It ends up badly to talk about any quarks, strings, Young-Mills fields, with misrepresentations [obmany]". In the West such expressions delayed the formation of scientific show business until the end of the 1970s, but in Russia [it has delayed it] to this day.

On a Par With the Great Triangle

Once a science show is an inseparable element of science in an era of democracy it will be more worthy of attention. And the first question is about the needs which this product satisfies. Why do people look at and read materials built on scientific ideas? What moves them in so doing? We leave aside the obvious first layer, the desire to relax and be entertained; this can be done in other ways. Why does a person go to look at a science fiction anti-utopia and not a light comedy? Why does he read a column about the stars in the sky in a newspaper and not on television? (Of course, we are talking about those who look at and read all this and, by the way, there are not many of them).

The only convincing answer to this question is to repeat Sagan's idea (see insert) about interest in "the deepest scientific questions about the nature and the origin of the Earth". The desire to know is the primary human need along with the well-known triangle of "sleep, eat, and reproduce". It is the most human of all the primary needs and at the same time it is easier than the others to repress. It is not necessary to know about the arrangement of the stars and the evolution of life "for anything" - this is valuable in itself (which, however, does not prevent such knowledge from occasionally and unexpectedly producing quite practical benefits).

The desire to understand the makeup of the world in which we live does not need further explanation. But the world is complex and mankind has been studying it for a long time. Only someone who carves out a narrow field and dedicates his life to it relying on an enormous mass of already accumulated knowledge can find something really new. It turns out that knowledge of nature is forcibly "farmed out" to a caste of professional scientists whom society supports. They deliver the acquired knowledge, putting it in a form which satisfies the needs of the rest. This is the essence of the "contract" between society and scientists as a social group. A science show is the performance of contract obligations. Science gets money for development in return for them and it has earned it honestly.

        From Apollo to Cosmos

        In the postwar period the mastery of atomic power, space travel, and the creation of computers provided feverish interest in science. This was especially clearly expressed in fantasy. Previously, a few fantasy writers used literary means to popularize the progressive ideas that excited them. Free, although somewhat one-sided, advertising for science was obtained. But then the achievements of real science seemed so impressive that now it, as if repaying old debts, supported fantasy with its authority.

        Science is associated with accuracy, reliability, efficiency, and power. But in the movies realism, which gives the appearance of scientificness to even the most improbable subject, is valued most of all. One look at the control panels on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise subconsciously creates a confidence that the best Dolby Surround Sound ensures the viewer's immersion in the world that the film depicts.

        But nothing is eternal. The public's interest in science began to fall by the end of the American Apollo program of piloted flights to the Moon. Repeatedly shown visual scientific subjects ceased to attract wide attention. Even the successful landing of the Viking on Mars in 1976 did not provoke much enthusiasm. The press and television almost ignored this event. Science as it is, in and of itself, has ceased to be a show. Meanwhile, as before, it has had to confirm the mandate of trust from the public in the form of money for research. The show must go on. And it continued.

        At the end of the 1970s Jentry Lee, the director of data analysis and planning of the Viking project, founded a production company which made a 13-episode popular science film called Cosmos from a script by astronomer, biologist, and science writer Carl Sagan. The film encompasses a very broad collection of themes, from the fate of the Library of Alexandria to interplanetary flight, from the evolution of stars to the origin of life. The series was "targeted at a lay audience and needed wonderful visual imagery and music in order to engage both the heart and the head", wrote Sagan. This popular science show did not lower itself to the level of popular culture but was created "with the assumption that the public is much more intelligent than is usually thought, and that the deepest scientific questions about nature and the origin of the Earth provoke curiosity and enthusiasm among an enormous number of people".

        Sagan turned out to be right. Since then Cosmos has been seen by 600 million viewers (about 10% of the Earth's population) in more than 60 countries of the world (Russia is not among them). This was one of the first experiments in the professional creation of a fascinating popular science film. In 1985, five years after the premiere of Cosmos, the Discovery Channel, completely devoted to popular science and history programs, was launched. Today in the US it is a leading cable channel in subscribers, 92 million, and has 300 million more in 170 other countries.

Popular Anomalies

Understanding the role of the popular science show process we can look anew at some anomalies peculiar to it. Imagine that people who have no relation to science put on a show with scientific surroundings. In this event the public will get a false, pseudoscientific product and the resources gathered to support science will end up directed at entirely different purposes.

This problem affects our country very directly. The previous system of popularizing science disintegrated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the following decade concerns about daily bread almost crushed the thirst for knowledge in the public. Money was almost not budgeted for science itself, let alone its popularization. Now small sums have begun to appear. But if something else has been kept in science then the people and the structures ready and able to make a high-quality science show have simply not appeared. (We have almost not had any before, for this is an attribute of a democratic society)

When a growth of interest in science was noted on Russian television (completely natural in a period of economic stabilization) the people who were pursuing strange activities far from real science began to obtain financing. As a result films began to appear which were technically impeccable but with a pseudoscientific content. Take, for example, the improbably beautiful tape "The Great Secret of Water" (2005, the Rossiya Channel) which was imbued with such topical humanistic pathos in our days, thanks to which it won an enthusiastic reception with the viewers. At the same time, the entire "scientific" basis of the film is a dense mix of errors, swindles, and disinformation around the well-known pseudoscientific theme of the so-called "memory of water". Can anything worthy rest on such a foundation?

The harm from such a show production is not limited to the fact that the resources spent on popularizing science did not go there this time. It is much worse that the public ended up being deceived, perceiving everything more emotionally than rationally. As a result the film gave strong support to numerous semi-fraudulent companies selling all sorts of "charged" water, "information" treatments, and other objects for the "comparatively legal extraction of money from the population". At the same time real science had been knifed in the back, for now any scientist who rejected the myth of "the memory of water" was not only going against public opinion but in its eyes seemed a "soulless technocrat" who raised a voice against a good and beautiful film. But since such a pseudoscientific video production is a constant ingredient of a majority of Russian television channels this has already started to be reflected in the public's world view.

To Find a Common Language

But one ought not think as if any enemies of science have been hiding in television. The appearance of such subjects is completely normal in the current structure of interests and financing. However interested the public is in familiarizing itself with "the deepest scientific questions" nevertheless as its first priority it needs a beautiful and attractive spectacle (or reading material in order that our discussion not be limited to TV alone; the situation is approximately the same everywhere). It is much more difficult to make beautiful and high-quality material about real science than to be led around by swindlers and publish false material. Pseudoscience does not spend money on research. It can devote the majority of its resources to the promotion of its ideas, which are still easily adapted to the tastes of journalists and the public for they are not dependent on real nature, which is unresponsive to our whims. In working with swindlers a journalist will constantly hear approval, he can even feel himself to be a participant in the "research". But a real scientist will catch inaccuracies in detail and force everything to be redone and, finally, remain not completely satisfied with the result because, in the words of Fadeyev, "it ends up badly, with false impressions". So, being left alone with the public, the mass media will unavoidably yellow, substituting cheap sensation for high-quality scientific information.

The solution to this situation is well-known. In the "science-mass media-government" link science is trying to continue research, the mass media to earn money, the public to be entertained and satisfy its curiosity, and the government (if it is "correct"), to maintain competitiveness and improve the welfare of society. For the mass media a science topic is expensive and the expense to produce it is above average. Moreover it is oriented at a relatively small segment of the audience. Therefore the mass media will hardly do its utmost and ensure the quality of scientific information at its own expense. The outcome might change only if science is allowed to display interest in informing the public about its research.

Advertising? Of course! Science ought to compensate the mass media for the difference in labor costs in preparing scientific and ordinary materials. And the world thought up how to do this long ago. Naturally, the trivial mechanism for a paid placement of an advertisement is not suitable here. Paying the authors of publications a bonus in addition to an honorarium is also wrong inasmuch as it would violate the principle of the mass media's independence. One thing is left: to take upon themselves part of the work of preparing publications and providing journalists with the maximum comfortable information conditions.

In America and Europe the press services at research centers and science information agencies such as EurekAlert!, ScienceDaily, NewsWise, and AlphaGalileo do this. Some large science journals, including Nature, prepare digests of the most interesting publications especially for journalists and provide free access to original articles. Russia does not have this important feedback mechanism between science and the public. Even in those scientific research institutes where there are formal press services they cannot handle their mission of regularly providing the press with information appropriate to their work. Meanwhile large science conglomerates, say, NASA or CERN, also have large multimedia archives and even prepare their own television programs which other mass media can use. Here, at the websites of a majority of research centers we do not even have decent pictures of the equipment in use.

Is it possible that science in our country is simply not interested in its own survival? No, the idea is simply that science should not be formal and bureaucratic but accessible, attractive, and happily accountable to the public, and no longer packed away in the heads of our scientists and science administrators. In a scary dream the director of a scientific institute does not, say, allot two percent of his budget to public relations. Well, he also does not have such a right - such expenses are not foreseen.

And here is a problem which has to be solved at the governmental level. Budget-supported research organizations should not only have the right to spend resources to popularize their work but should be actively encouraged to do this. The country's leadership seems to be saying that it understands that the development of science is important to increase welfare and security. But the important thing is that the citizens ought to understand it and in the process learn to distinguish real science from the fraudulent. But to do this science shows need to be regular, and people who are competent and whose words evoke confidence must appear in them.

Without this the systematic advertising of pseudoscience (for you don't prohibit it) will lead to dangerous consequences. For example, right now genetically modified organisms have been discredited in the eyes of the public because of incompetent coverage but meanwhile nonexistent methods of treatment with embryonic stem cells are actively advertised and provoke great interest; fear of vaccinations is growing at the same time as extremely dubious medical devices are widely distributed. Really and truly, even at the Khrunichev Scientific Production Association they are developing in complete seriousness an "engine" which violates Newton's Third Law and it goes without saying that the press reports about this.

We have already reached a point where cases come to courts against the theory of evolution and in defense of the astrological harmony of the world. Right now they are being dismissed. But if the breakdown in rationality and the decline in trust in science continues at the same rate as in the last 10 years it is quite likely that science will lose its privileged position in the eyes of the public. People will cease to be confident that they need to study physics in school and not parapsychology and that a scientist should conduct a forensic examination and not a psychic.

The social structure of science is not at all unalterable. If we are not careful, it can collapse completely unexpectedly because the public has begun to think of scientific knowledge as nothing more or less than one possible opinion. But then it will be a completely different country. And science will certainly have to find a common language with the public so that this does not happen. The show must go on.

        From Hubble to the Higgs Boson?

        Astronomy laid the foundation for other science show formats. NASA moved part of the resources freed up after the end of the Apollo problem to the creation of a space telescope which was named after Edwin Hubble. When the telescope was working at full power in the 1990s workers of the Space Telescope Institute began to receive images of previously unknown quality. Joining several pictures together made with different filters they made surprising color photographs of objects which had previously seemed to them hazy whitish spots on the negatives.

        The Hubble telescope was equipped with charged-coupled arrays that were large for that time, 800x800 pixels (astronomy then had already begun to switch to "digital"). This actually gave birth to a new genre of photographic art, artistic astrophotography. The best pictures were collected in The Hubble Heritage Project gallery and the space telescope was diverted monthly from other scientific programs to update it. However, today thanks to improved CCD's and technological progress in processing images even amateur astronomers photograph bright nebulae and galaxies no worse than Hubble.

        Paleontologists began to make a professionally attractive show of their science right after the astronomers. The widespread dinosaur mania which began when "Jurassic Park" came out (1993) packed up not long ago. But back at its peak the theme of an asteroid danger spread with the films "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" (1998), which was smoothly replaced by the next global science PR show connected with global warming, "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004) and "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006). Incidentally, the latter two themes are directly associated with the concept of nuclear winter which the aforementioned Carl Sagan promoted back in the 1980s. The recent award of the Nobel Peace Price to Albert Gore evidently marks the culmination of the theme of global warming. New waves are already hastening to replace it - stem cells and nanotechnologies, then the searches for the Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider, and in the far future, like 20 years ago, shines thermonuclear [fusion].

        The opinion is often encountered that all these subjects are supposedly most likely inflated out of nowhere in order to fleece money from the government. Only the second half of this idea is true. Science PR exists to justify and stimulate the financing of science. However the truth is that there are real scientific problems behind all the popular subjects listed, although they are of course structured more complexly and the results achieved are not so unambiguous as what can be shown from an entertaining torrent of information. But were it not for these subjects real, serious science would not get enough resources for much important research.

Aleksandr Sergeev

Translated by Gary Goldberg


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