magazine

Your Christmas Presents is Requested

Boz magazine, 81: 12, December 2001.

Brian J Ford

'Dear Santa, if I could have a present I'd like it to be a magic way of getting people to write about science without making silly mistakes. Our lives could depend on it, Santa. Please?' Down at the Royal Institution down in Albemarle Street they are setting out to bring journalists and scientists together. The RI is am amazing place. Grand rooms, an historical lecture theatre (where Faraday used to lecture, indeed his workshop is preserved in the basement); and behind the closed doors the most muddled assortment of dusty relics you could imagine. It's quite like a forgotten corner of Santa's workshop.

They hold lectures, why, I have even lectured there myself, and they arrange the annual Christmas lectures for children, which everybody knows about, but which most of those who have don't watch. And now its director, Baroness Susan Greenfield, has launched a centre where science journalists can meet with scientists to sort out the truth from the fiction. The aim, it seems, is rumour-and-innuendo-free science reporting.

Sounds good - but will it work? One of the greatest problems is getting science across to the public, and there is now a whole industry based on the idea of the 'public understanding of science'. Very laudable. Except that the lack of understanding is nothing to do with the public: au contraire, it's the fault of the scientist. As I first said, oh, ages ago now: much more important than the public understanding of science is the scientists' understanding of the public. That's what we lack. On the scientist's part is the need for exposure. Long gone are the days when scientists were shy of speaking to the media. Now they know that public attention underpins funding. The people who sit on grant-giving committees reads the newspapers, and if the applicant is some renowned young entrepreneur who has been all over the Daily Mail the week before, he's much more likely to get the grant. Funding sources like public relations. They give grants to people who provide them with column inches.

Media people, though, almost always get science wrong. They also believe that the public are dafter than they seem. Producers always insist that Latin names have no place in a popular broadcast. 'Stick to common names,' they say. 'Latin names are just to complicated, and people don't understand them.' Oh yes? What child is there who doesn't delight in the lengthy Latin names of dinosaurs? Tyrannosaurus rex is an easy example. Every seven-year-old knows Latin names. At the other end of the age scale? Garden centres are thronged by senior citizens seeking a good specimen of Echinofossulocactus pentacanthus or Azureocereus hertlingianus for the greenhouse.

So, if both old and young people are perfectly happy with Latin names, why should the middle-aged audience be deemed to stupid to follow them? The result if that newspapers always print them wrongly. Our friend E coli, for example, comes out as e-coli more often than not. That is simply wrong - it is as wrong as writing t-blair or o-b-laden, Please note, sub-editors: Latin names are in italics, with an upper case initial for the first name (the genus) and a lower-case letter for the second name (the species) thus: Homo sapiens. The other versions you see, h-sapiens, homo sapiens, whatever, are wrong. You can use a capital letter for the species, if it's named after a person, but people sometimes don't bother with that. If Professor Wilson discovers a new species of early human, it could be named Homo Wilsoni (though Homo wilsoni might do). But it cannot be h-wilsoni, and editors who use that as house style these days simply perpetuate the error.

If the Royal Institution's attempt to bring the two sides together wants a visible target at which to aim, then getting people to print names properly would be a start. About the idea of bringing the journalists face to face with a consensus, or with a clearly-expounded viewpoint, I am not so sure. Journalists like to beard the scientists in their den, obtain a unique insight, capture a quick quote that nobody else will have. The last thing the want is a laundered view, or what seems like a managed interpretation. Journalists also need to be able to get behind the facade of institutionalised science. It's fascinating, for example, to compare the public utterances of people working on BSE. Up to the moment that Stephen Dorrell made is statement about people dying from a terrifying new disease in March 1996, all the experts were saying that there was nothing, absolutely nothing in the world, to worry about.

In this new era, the same group of people are raising public fears with unwarranted hints about lamb being as big a danger (with not a scrap of evidence to prove it) - because their future grants depend on creating a sense of anxiety that they alone can resolve. I wish Baroness Greenfield well. It seems a great idea. However, here in the real world, journalists will always prefer to get near the truth through their own, personal enquiries. If journalism has anything it really could learn, then printing Latin names would be a good start. If we are going to encourage reportage of the latest developments, we might as well print them properly. Hand out the guidebooks Santa, please.

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