Bang! talks to . . . Simon Singh

Science, media and monkeys
On Thursday 21st January 2011, the team at Bang! spoke to Simon Singh, PhD in Physics, science writer, and famous proponent for Libel Law reform […]

Art by Sam Roots and Samuel Pilgrim.

On Thursday 21st January 2011, the team at Bang! spoke to Simon Singh, PhD in Physics, science writer, and famous proponent for Libel Law reform at the British Association SciBar meeting at the Port Mahon pub.

Bang!: Simon Singh, welcome to Oxford’s British Science Association SciBar meeting and thank you for talking to us at Bang! Magazine. You’ve dedicated much of your career to talking about science and mathematics in an accessible manner.  Why do you think this is important?

Simon: Science has always been important, but we live in an age where we have cloning, stem cell research, climate change and much more. Almost every area of our lives is affected by science and technology.  I also think it’s part of our culture.  If we look at cosmology and mathematics, subjects that I often write about, the research may have nothing to do with the practical side of our lives. We are curious, and understanding science is part of the joy of being human.  And then thirdly, for me it’s just fun. I like science, I studied science and I wish I could have been a scientist, but the next best thing about being a scientist for me was to write about science.

B: So, how important do you think it is for the average person to understand the scientific method itself?

S: When people leave school, I think they’re left with the view that science is cut and dried.  So I think it’s important for people to learn that if you go to a scientific conference, it’s full of arguments and heated debates.  If more people are aware of that part of science, then they would bear it in mind when science is in the news—is this discovery really important, is it certain, is it still disputed, is likely to be plain wrong?

B: How do you see the role of social media in science journalism?

S: There are many people who use Facebook, but not me. And I don’t even have a blog.  I do twitter, but I’m a generation behind the people who really know how the new social media works and in that respect I’m a little bit nervous of it!  I’m sure there’s huge potential out there.  One of my favourite stories recently concerned a chap called Rhys Morgan.  He’s 15 years old and from Wales.  He became aware of a treatment called ‘Miracle Mineral Solution’, which has been used by patients with Crohn’s disease, which Rhys himself has.  And he began to question this on bulletin boards and discussion boards and forums and so on, but he got rather a rough ride from those who read his thoughts.  But because he was on the internet, because he could write blogs, he could tap into the resources of other people and they could support him and provide extra information. He could access databases, access articles in America, he could start really understanding what the problem was with ‘Miracle Mineral Solution’; it’s basically just bleach. Other people came to his support, and because of his blogging, trading standards have stepped in.  Even as far as Kenya, this stuff has been used to treat malaria and now the Kenyan government has stepped in.  So the power of the internet, and blogging, in terms of the public understanding of science, the discussion of ideas and activism in science is incredible.

B:  Looking at the mainstream media—newspapers, TV and things, do you feel that scientific research is covered adequately?

S: The trouble is that there is just a huge spectrum of science coverage, and it is a very complicated picture.  When I was your age, in addition to Horizon, there was Tomorrows World, Antenna, QED and more.  And now on BBC1 there’s Bang Goes the Theory, and on BBC2 we still have Horizon, It appears to be a disappointing selection, but if you look at BBC4 just before Christmas, you have the Royal Institute Lectures, you have the Beauty of Diagrams, the Joy of Stats.  Today we have a massive outpouring of science, but it’s on BBC4 so it’s quite tucked away.  The landscape has changed so it’s hard to say it has been dumbed down, or to say it’s gone more highbrow.  It’s just a much more complicated picture.  Similarly, 20 years ago there was just BBC1 and BBC2, now there is National Geographic, the Discovery channel and more.  There are fantastic resources on the internet, with people making brilliant YouTube science videos.  So in one way you could say there is more wonderful science out there than ever before.
However, I am worried that most people get their scientific news from the newspapers, and the job of newspapers is not to communicate science.  The job of newspapers is to sell newspapers, and the way they do that is by scaremongering and sensationalising occasionally.  We’ve seen the MMR scare, which I think was largely drummed up by the media on the basis of a flimsy research paper.  If the media had taken their role more responsibly, then I don’t think we’d have got into the mess we’ve got into, namely plummeting vaccination rates, which are only now recovering.

B: You are about to start a tour with some fellow scientists called ‘Uncaged Monkeys’.  Could you tell us a bit about the project?

S: It’s fantastically exciting.  It is the most extraordinarily exciting thing imaginable, because when I was your age this didn’t exist.  There’s a chap called Robin Ince, a well known performer, comedian and writer. His background is not really in science, but he has a love of science, a passion for science and in the last three of four years he’s been getting people (scientists like myself , Ben Goldacre and Brian Cox) and saying: come out of your comfort zone, step up on a stage, and explain your science to the audience.  Not just explain it, but make it entertaining, interesting and hopefully inspiring.  So we’ve been doing this in pubs, in small theatres, in slightly bigger theatres, and now we are on the verge of a national tour.  I think we’re doing 14 cities in 2 weeks.  Literally, one night we’re in Aberdeen, the next night we’re in Cardiff.  I think every venue is over 1000 seats.  One of the venues, the Hammersmith Apollo is 3000 seats, and it’s just extraordinary that you can take Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox, myself, Robin Ince, we’ll have some guests as well, and stick us on a stage.  It is overtly scientific and geeky, but there are fantastic numbers of people out there who love science. In fact, we will be kicking off the tour at the New Theatre in Oxford on May 1st. I think half the tickets are sold already and we’re still two months away from the first show!

B: That’s brilliant!  Do you have any wise words of wisdom for any would-be science communicators?

S: I think, it’s tough. There are lots of courses in science and the media, but there aren’t that many jobs.  So my advice would be: do whatever it is you would do otherwise.  So if you want to do a postdoc or a PhD, then just carry on doing it.  And if writing is your thing, you can always do it in parallel.  You can be a young researcher and submit articles to New Scientist, submit articles to the national newspapers, submit articles to your local specialised press, or student science magazine like ‘Bang!’.  That’s the great thing, you don’t have to abandon a research career or a career in industry. You can do the two in parallel.  .  So that’s my advice, maybe not to see it as an either-or, but to maybe do in parallel with what you’re  already doing.  Which is not what I did, but that’s another story!

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