Simonyi on Popularizing Science

A while back, we merry wanderers of the Net got into a discussion about who would be the best Presidential Science Adviser. While a candidate for that job must meet many qualifications, many people focused on the ability to be the “go-to guy” for science, the voice and face which can be trusted to represent an issue or a discovery accurately, fairly and concisely, as appropriate to the audience. Now, those names will be brought out and debated again, although I expect we’ll see less concern for their ability to work inside the Beltway. The occasion is that, after more than a decade in the position, Richard Dawkins is retiring from the Charles Simonyi Chair at Oxford, a professorship endowed in 1995 to support the “public understanding of science.” Having reached the chair’s mandatory retirement age, Dawkins is moving on, in his words,

to be even more strident, shrill etc etc etc. I expect to be busier than ever, with two Foundations to run (the British and American branches of RDFRS), books to write (I have already started the next one) and who knows what else?

Oxford has put the application requirements online, for those who wish to fill Dawkins’ shoes. Americans are eligible, too, and the professor himself has sent the advertisement to Carolyn Porco, Lawrence Krauss and PZ Myers, among others. Not being qualified for the job myself, I would like to draw attention to a point Charles Simonyi made when he endowed the chair, all those many years ago:

The chair is for ‘Public Understanding of Science’, so the holder will be expected to make important contributions to the public understanding of some scientific field rather than study the public’s perception of the same. By ‘public’ we mean the largest possible audience, provided, however, that people who have the power and ability to propagate or oppose the ideas (especially scholars in other sciences and in humanities, engineers, journalists, politicians, professionals, and artists) are not lost in the process.

The rise of online science writing has made clear the fact that no single expositor of science works in a vacuum. While it may once have seemed that the point of science writing was to help people earn better marks on quizzes, or possibly to vote in a more informed way, we have come to realize that the act of sharing knowledge stimulates the formation of social groups.

Here it is useful to distinguish between the roles of scholars and popularisers. The university chair is intended for accomplished scholars who have made original contributions to their field, and who are able to grasp the subject, when necessary, at the highest levels of abstraction. A populariser, on the other hand, focuses mainly on the size of the audience and frequently gets separated from the world of scholarship. Popularisers often write on immediate concerns or even fads. In some cases they seduce less educated audiences by offering a patronizingly oversimplified or exaggerated view of the state of the art or the scientific process itself. This is best seen in hindsight, as we remember the ‘giant brains’ computer books of yesteryear but I suspect many current science books will in time be recognized as having fallen into this category. While the role of populariser may still be valuable, nevertheless it is not one supported by this chair. The public’s expectation of scholars is high, and it is only fitting that we have a high expectation of the public.

I suspect there is a legitimate debate of terminology to be had here: is it better to speak of popularizers and scholars, or of shoddy popularizers versus good ones? Nevertheless, the point is a valuable one. Considered in this light, who are the famous sinners, and who is a virtuous scholar?

7 thoughts on “Simonyi on Popularizing Science”

  1. As the man says, hindsight can be 20-20; post-mortem candidates like Feynman, Gould and Sagan spring immediately to mind, but to no avail.

    I’ll variously nominate Roger Penrose, Steven Pinker and Ben Goldacre as sinners, despite liking and respecting them all in their different ways. They’re all clearly scholars, but not in a fashion that actually improves public understanding of science. Goldacre’s righteous sticking-the-boot-into pseudoscientific fuckwits, for example, though a weekly godsend, is too fleeting and parochial to actually impact how people think. It’s just pissing in the wind.

    Also a sinner, probably more controversially, is Stephen Hawking, whose public persona constitutes some kind of secular beatification, which is nice and on the whole deserved, but a distraction. The public respects him, but they do not understand his science. A Brief History of Time was a totem rather than an aid to comprehension.

    One decent candidate, I think, would be Steve Jones, author of many good popular books, regular media guest, and an excellent speaker and educator. (I know there are a good few at his (and my) home institution who would disagree, but I really think they’ve missed the point.) Anyone who can repeatedly pack out public lectures titled “Why Intelligent Design is Stupid” (available from several sources online) has to have something going for him.

    Douglas Hofstadter is another virtuous scholar, but for all his polymathy he’s basically not teaching the public the things they need to know just now; and he’s also (undeservedly, I think) a long way past his 15 minutes in the limelight.

    So, off the top of my head and in the certain knowledge that other better choices will occur to me the moment I submit this comment, I think I’ll plump for Ian Stewart as the most promising candidate for the Chair. The world needs a good high-profile mathematician, and his old pal Jack Cohen would keep him at least somewhat in touch with the all-important battlefields of biology…

  2. Carl Sagan was derided as a popularizer, but now everyone seems to want to know where the next Sagan will be. Popularization doesn’t necessarily mean ‘dumbing-down’ or ‘sensationalized.’ The idea is to CONNECT to other people in a memorable way. Timothy Ferris would be terrific, as far as I’m concerned. Lisa Randall has been writing a lot of general science stuff and she’s certainly accomplished. I would like to see someone who is an astronomer/physics type myself. What are your thoughts?

  3. I got Ian Stewart confused with Iain Stewart, the bloke who does the BBC’s geology programmes. I almost choked on my tea, it seemed such an inappropriate suggestion!

    And re: Ben Goldacre — I get the impression that he has a deeper and longer lasting contribution to make than just the newspaper column. (A book about quick fix pills for complex socio-medical problems will be the first, is my bet.)

  4. “I get the impression that he has a deeper and longer lasting contribution to make”

    I suspect you’re right. Only time will tell, but he has talent as a writer and a wide ranging understanding of science. Those have to be the two most important abilities for a scholar/populariser.

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