Sunday, 6 December 2009

Hawking and Dawkins: the dynamic duo

There was a time not so long ago when the defining attributes of famous British scientists were little more than a white coat, wild hair, and possibly a monocle. Today, it seems the five-second sound bite mentality of the MTV generation requires any scientist who can top a man-in-the-street poll to have some atypical personality traits, to say the least. So are the current British science superstars good role models in the way they represent science to the public, or having achieved fame are they content to ride the media gravy train, with science taking a backseat (in the last carriage, if you want to continue the metaphor)?

If today's celebrities are frequently reduced to mere caricatures of their former selves (supposing they had anything more in the first place), how can the complex subtleties of modern science survive the media simplification process? If there is one thing that defines our current state of scientific understanding, it is surely that the universe is very subtle indeed. A recent episode of The Armstrong and Miller Show highlighted this beautifully via a sketch of Ben Miller (who in real life swapped a physics PhD for luvviedom) as a professor being interviewed about his latest theory. Each time he was asked if it was possible to provide a brief description of his theory in layman's terms, he succinctly replied, "no".

Arguably the two biggest names today, at least in Britain, are Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. After appearances on everything from Star Trek to The Simpsons, Hawking has overtaken Einstein as the scientific genius everyone has heard of. But, like Einstein's last few decades, has Hawking reached the height of fame long after completing his best work, a genius revered without comprehension by a public unaware of the latest developments in astrophysics? If it's true that theoretical physicists' main period of productivity is usually in their twenties, Hawking wouldn't be any different from other physicists his age (remembering he retired from the Lucasian Chair several months ago).

Hawking himself implies that his fame is compounded of demand from a lazy and scientifically non-savvy media (as in "who's the current Einstein?") twinned with the tedious if understandable interest surrounding his condition. It's probably fair to say that a physically-fit Professor Hawking wouldn't be considered to provide nearly as interesting copy. Of course to be able to write the best-selling (nine-million copies!) A Brief History of Time was a fantastic achievement, not least for its brevity. If it (and Hawking's later ventures) succeed in promoting scientific knowledge and methodologies then all well and good but it's not difficult to get the feeling that he is primarily viewed as a brand name. Very little of the blame can be passed to Hawking himself, but the question that must be asked is does the interest in him divert the limited media attention span for science away from a younger generation of scientists?

Richard Dawkins on the other hand seems to have deliberately cultivated media attention, no doubt revelling in his description as Darwin's Rottweiler. As holder of the Charles Simonyi Professorship until late last year he had an official position from which to promote public understanding, but for me his single-minded crusade has become rather tiresome. His role model, Thomas Henry Huxley, promoted science as "nothing but trained and organized common sense" whilst in addition espousing, via his "trade mark" agnosticism, the notion that one should not believe or disbelieve a proposition without justifiable evidence. Surely Huxley's agnosticism and the ideal of the scientific method are indistinguishable?

In contrast, Dawkins' approach is to browbeat all opposition, religious, scientific, or otherwise, with techniques that ironically having rather more in common with "faith viruses" than science. His documentary The Root of All Evil? allegedly omitted interviews with religious moderates to concentrate on the oddballs. It's understandable that documentary producers like a clear-cut argument, but skewing the evidence to fit the theory is inexcusable for a scientist. Dawkins' use of probability is his most objective method in support of atheism but when the law of parsimony, otherwise known as Occam's razor, cannot obviously be applied to resolve many aspects of the sub-atomic world, how can a glib theory along the lines of "I believe there's a less than even chance of the existence of a deity, therefore there isn't a deity", be accepted any more than a literal interpretation of Genesis? Warning of the increasing dangers of fundamentalism to both science and society as a whole is admirable, but to promote a simplistic thesis regarding complex, largely non-scientific, issues seems more an exercise in self-promotion than anything else. And Dawkins has the cheek to say that the word 'reductionism' makes him want to reach for a weapon...

It pains me to say it but I'm not sure either of the dynamic duo, somewhat atypical scientists as they undoubtedly are, can be said to be ideal promoters of science. If such excellent communicators as Martin Rees, Richard Fortey, or Brian Cox were as well known as Hawking and Dawkins is it more likely we see an increase in science exposition and less media shenanigans? At the end of the day fame is very fickle, if the example of Magnus Pyke is anything to go by. Ubiquitous in the 1970s and '80s, Pyke appeared in everything from a best-selling pop single (and its video) to a washing machine commercial. Voted third in a 1975 New Scientist poll only to Einstein and Newton as the best-known scientist ever, this charismatic and socially-aware 'boffin' is unfortunately almost forgotten today. But then an American business magazine recently claimed that Hawking was an American, no doubt lulled by the speech synthesiser into a false sense of security...

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