Who do we think we are?

I’m grateful for this glowing endorsement from TNTlog, and I’m impressed that it takes as few as two scientist bloggers to make a trend. But I’m embarrassed that Howard Lovy’s response seems to have taken the implied criticism so personally. I’ve always enjoyed reading NanoBot. I don’t always agree with Howard’s take on various issues, but he’s always got interesting things to say and his insistence on the importance of appreciating the interaction between nanotechnology and wider culture is spot-on.

But I think Howard’s pained sarcasm – “Scientists, go write about yourselves, and we in the public will read with wide-eyed wonder about the amazing work you’re doing and thank you for lowering yourselves to speak what you consider to be our language” – misses the mark. There are many ways in which scientists can contribute to this debate besides this crude and demeaning de haut en bas caricature, and many of them reflect real deficiencies in the ways in which mainstream journalists cover science.

To many journalists, science is marked by breakthroughs, which are conveniently announced by press releases from publicity hungry university or corporate press offices, or from the highly effective news offices of the scientific glamour magazines, Nature and Science. But scientists never read press releases, and they very rarely write them, because the culture of science doesn’t marry at all well with the event-driven mode of working of journalism. Very rarely, real breakthroughs really are made, though often their significance isn’t recognised at the time. But the usual pattern is of incremental advances, continuous progress and a mixture of cooperation and competition between labs across the world working in the same area. If scientists can write about science as it really is practised, with all its debates and uncertainties, unfiltered by press offices, that seems to me to be entirely positive. It’s also less likely, rather than more likely, to lead to the glorification and self-aggrandisement of scientists that Howard seems to think is our aim.

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