Science, openness, and conspiracy theory

Hopefully, now that 20 March has passed, people feel a bit more confident in assessing for themselves the abilities of Ken Ring (and others) to predict major earthquakes. No doubt the offenders will try to wriggle out of it by claiming that a M5.1 aftershock in Christchurch was ‘close enough’, but I’m afraid Mr Ring that a 5.1 aftershock is hardly one "for the history books".

Last night (during the quarter/half time breaks in the netball – which by the way was much much better than last week – well done Ms Williams, Langman etc)    I was reading through an article I’ve been preparing with a couple of colleagues on Cafe Scientifique. To be fair, though, it’s the colleagues, Alison and Kathrin,  who have done most of the work here. One thing that we mention is that when scientists don’t listen to people’s concerns, the trust people have for scientists goes down. We draw from the UK’s House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Techology, who reported that "supressing uncertainty is bound to diminish public trust and respect". What’s needed is genuine, open discussion between the science community and the public, in a way that the public feels they own. Otherwise it’s fuel for the conspiracy theorists. So well done GNS for getting out there and trying to do just that in the run up to last weekend – presenting what we do know about earthquakes and what we simply don’t know.

It’s a tricky tightrope to walk because science (and there’s no better example than understanding earthquakes) is full of uncertainy. As much as we (I mean scientists) would like to, we can’t predict exactly when and where earthquakes will strike. We can talk in statistical terms, and talk about the probability of one of size X or greater hitting near somewhere in the next Y years, but pinning a date to it is cloud-cuckoo land, which, I’m afraid, is where Mr Ring lives. There is no conspiracy to hide this information from anyone.

An example of where scientists fell off this tightrope was the run up to ‘switch on’ of the Large Hadron Collider a couple of years ago. There were many, many people who were genuinely scared of what was going on in Geneva, and us physicists didn’t really do our job properly in reassuring our communities. (I did, eventually, but only AFTER the thing had switched on, and then promptly fallen over.)

Cafe scientifique, amongst other events, is a way of getting that genuine dialogue going between experts and non-experts. People can feel that they can interact with scientists equitably – the latter don’t have some intellectual monopoly on knowledge that they wield for their own advantage. My experience has been that some topics create considerable discussion, some less so, but people do feel that they can air their views and genuine concerns about some aspect of science. That’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?

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