#Scicom21 Review: The Scientist as Public Intellectual

This is part of a series of reviews of the sessions held by the Science Communication Group on 13th September, in celebration of 21 years of the Science Communication MSc at Imperial College. We will be putting up reviews of each session over the next couple of weeks. If you went to the celebrations and would like to have your say, please get in touch: @I_science_mag, or via the contacts page.

The Scientist as Public Intellectual
Chair: Ehsan Masood – Editor, Research Fortnight
Panel: Jessica Bland (Technology Futures: Research Analyst, Nesta), Jon Butterworth (Professor of Physics, UCL), Fiona Fox (Chief Executive, Science Media Centre), and Steve Fuller (Professor of Sociology, Warwick University).

Few scientists achieve the status of public intellectual, and Richard Dawkins came up throughout the debate as the most notable recent example. Yet Dawkins became famous, or perhaps infamous, for his views on religion more than for his scientific statements. According to Fiona Fox, this is typical of a public intellectual. Scientists who speak only about science are not, by Fox’s definition, public intellectuals; they are experts. Fox was concerned that experts are frequently overlooked in favour of more public, less suitable figures. She recalled many requests to the Science Media Centre for Lord Winston to speak on areas outside of his expertise, when there were more suitable experts in the field available.

The distinction between experts and public figures divided the panel, with Jessica Bland and Jon Butterworth preferring scientists who speak about their own research areas. Steve Fuller was highly critical of Richard Dawkins, saying that his pronouncements on Islam were “ignorant”. Yet he claimed that figures like Dawkins, in making incorrect statements outside of their expertise, actually served a valuable purpose. According to Fuller, this exposes the vulnerability of public figures, humanising them to the public.

Suggesting public figures, Jessica Bland came up with James Brown, a scientist and entrepreneur from Cambridge with a passion for public engagement. Other panellists were hesitant to name names, although there was debate over whether or not TV professor Brian Cox should be deemed a public intellectual or not. This ended in what can only be described as a begrudging consensus, with the panellists conceding that Cox probably fits the bill.

The “Geek” movement was suggested as an audience for scientific public intellectuals, but Steve Fuller accused its membership of being “wannabe scientists and computer jocks” with no real understanding of science. He called the movement “the new petit bourgeois”, a view unsurprisingly not supported by the rest of the panel.

The session inevitably ran out of time before any substantial conclusions had been drawn, but it was a very interesting and entertaining discussion.

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