Book Review: Silencing Science, by Shaun Hendy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_silencing_scienceIn 2009, seismologist Yukinobu Okamura warned Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Science Agency that ‘a wall of water of the size that hit Fukushima Daiichi was quite possible during the lifetime of the plant’. This message never reached the public; the government dismissed it. The muzzling of science, in this instance, contributed to the world’s worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl.

Shaun Hendy’s engaging book Silencing Science, which is part of the fantastic BWB Texts series (short books on big subjects), opens with the potentially devastating consequences that misinformation or the malfunctioning of science communication can have. This instantly gives rise to the question: could this happen here? From the start we are warned not to become complacent because Professor Hendy, director of Te Punaha Matatini (a New Zealand centre for research excellence), underlines that there are ‘rifts between our scientists, our politicians, and the public that put members of society at risk’.

Effective communication of science obviously has great use for us as a society and is also vital to an informed public, which in turn is part of a functioning democracy and any notion of consent being attributed to decisions made by those governing. Hendy bolsters these seemingly self-evident concepts throughout the book by illuminating why we need to be aware and vigilant of how this communication is under threat in Aotearoa. Indeed we soon see that science in the public sphere is undermined in myriad ways.

The frictions and complexities of science’s relationship with society, the media and policy-makers include: conflicts of interests; transparency issues; the insufficient independence of current scientific advisors; and the domino effect where scientists are cautious about speaking to journalists, journalists then don’t have access to good science or know how to engage with it, all of which results in a diminished public sphere. There is a reciprocal lack of trust between scientists and the public; some scientists are afraid of speaking out when funding is contingent upon certain sets of data or when there is the foreshadowing of attack on the horizon.

New Zealand is small and the country’s contact surface area is great, so the implications for misinformation or character assassinations are writ large when you can reach so much of society. There is also, as Hendy points out, very little doubling-up of expertise in the scientific world. This places a lot of responsibility on that sole expert’s shoulders, who might not come forward to speak at all if there is the threat of personal attack. Through these two factors of reach and singleness, our size has particular impact on public scientific discourse.

Hendy gives the example of Doug Sellman, who researches the harmful impacts of alcohol. With a few quick strokes of the keyboard, he was painted as a mad puritan on the infamous Whale Oil blog. As Hendy notes, other scientists, not ready to face attack, hang back and this diminishes the public sphere twice over as it ‘makes it easier to paint the likes of . . . Sellman as lone voices, driven by ideology and opportunity . . . rather than spokespeople for the scientific community’.

Without robust discussion, the culture of debate and critique is reduced and false balance enters public discourse. The most nefarious, commonly occurring example of this – due to the agency involved – is when interest groups and lobbyists manufacture public concern. Good ol’ fashioned fear mongering.

An example: Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, recommended fortifying bread with folic acid, as a means of addressing serious birth defects. A campaign against such a move led to the National government rejecting the recommendation. This campaign exploited ‘a common misunderstanding of the way science works. Science is never certain, particularly so when investigating the very small risks of a range of possible harms’. Here those representing the food lobby groups (who were against the change) could pick and choose individual studies (and disregard wide range of studies and expert opinions that have formed some sort of consensus) that suited, thereby bolstering their interests and sewing doubt in the public, ‘even when the weight of evidence is against them’.

The variations in science’s pace in the book – from the sudden threat of an emergency such as the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima through to the subtler, slower builds of climate change, water quality and so on – take the reader through the vast network of elements that help or hinder science’s capacity to fulfil its function in the public interest. As Hendy says: scientific discovery ‘depends not on the brilliance of the individual’ but rather ‘on communication’. The dire consequences of muted scientific sphere are revealed and we are called on to both value the role of scientists as the ‘critic and conscience’ of society and safeguard it.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Silencing Science
by Shaun Hendy
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN 9780947492847

Auckland Writer’s Festival, Saturday 17 May

What an absolutely jam-packed and wonderful day this has been. Already, this morning seems an age ago. And there’s still a whole day to go!

We started with veteran homes_amnovelist A.M. Homes, who, I was intrigued to discover, is known as A.M. rather than a more standard first name. She was a pleasure to listen to: intelligent, candid, wry, unafraid. She was also very, very funny: “I’m up for adoption now too if anyone’s interested…I come with a child, pets and a very big life”. She spoke about her writing life and its constantly shifting mix of truth and fiction, darkness and humour: “everything is and isn’t a joke”.

One of the things I am particularly enjoying about this festival is the mix of the literary with the scientific. Homes − in common with the scientists I have heard speak − talked about how “the future for all of us is going to be not what you know but what you can imagine.” I was also struck by a comparison with yesterday’s session on the West’s characterisation of the East: Reza Aslan said that we always use the ‘other’ to define ourselves, it’s what we’re afraid of. Homes said she’s more interested in the ‘other’ than in herself, it’s what draws her to fiction and keeps her writing.

Dikotter, FrankNext up was historian Frank Dikotter on The Tragedy of Liberation, the fate of China under communism in the 1940s and 50s. In contrast to the previous sessions I’d attended, in which people sat on the stage in conversation, this one was a lecture delivered by Dikotter pacing up and down the stage, as though to express the thrust of his thoughts through motion.

Dikotter, who is based in Hong Kong, has been granted access to the Chinese archives, and what he has uncovered about the fate of the Chinese people under Mao is horrifying. The statistics of deaths and torture, of children as well as adults, are all recorded there, largely forgotten, and Dikotter has taken it upon himself to publish them to the world in a series of very successful books.

Although Dikotter’s delivery was measured, his argument carefully structured and his every assertion meticulously backed up by fact to the best academic standard, what really came across was his anger. I wasn’t the only one to notice: in audience question time, someone got up and complained that he was partisan and that this was not the way to have a constructive dialogue about the past. I was reminded of a book I read recently, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. (Cixi was the power behind the Chinese throne in the second half of the nineteenth century. I have reviewed the book here). This also is written by a passionate scholar determined to redress a perceived imbalance in history. I left the session interested to read Dikotter’s books and examine his bias for myself.

Al-Khalili, Jim (c) Furnace LtdThe next session was a definite high point for me: Jim Al-Khalili taking on Science and the Big Questions. I had seen him yesterday in A Question of Civilisations and had been struck by his obvious passion for science and the exploration of important ideas. His conversation with Shaun Hendy was pleasingly ambitious in its range: how the universe began and will end; the nature of time and space; the way mathematical laws could extend not just throughout our own universe, but through every conceivable variation of a universe in an almost infinite multiverse. Quite a lot to cover in an hour on the Aotea Centre stage at the Auckland Writers Festival.

paradox I enjoyed the session immensely, and it went really fast – and I now know that, while my subjective experience of time is largely irrelevant to the universe, time is not in fact the absolute constant that clocks would lead us to expect. Khalili managed the trick of appearing authoritative without being dogmatic or unapproachable; teaching without patronising; and inspiring creative thought and the desire to learn in his audience. The proof is in the purchase: I went straight out to buy his book and get him to sign it for me.

The really big event for today, though, was definitely An Evening with Sandi Toksvig. If you’ve never heard of her, I urge you to immediately download the free podcasts of The News Quiz from BBC Radio 4, plus as many of her episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and QI as you can get your hands on (actually, just watch the whole of QI, it’s reliably wonderful).

Toksvig initially came onstage by herself, Toksvig_Sandijust to tell us jokes (“I love that, in the English language, we can have the man who fell into the upholstery machine but is now fully recovered”) and generally chat to us. She was irresistibly funny, charming, and wise; and, while being obviously one of the smartest people in the room, made us believe there was nothing she’d rather be doing than talking to us. I was sorry when Sean Plunket came onstage to interview her – I felt he added nothing, and confined her to boring interview questions when I would much rather have heard her natter to us about whatever took her fancy. (I would also have loved to hear her speak more about her books). But it didn’t really matter: Toksvig’s ebullient charm filled the packed and enthusiastically applauding theatre.

Once again I have ended the day with a brain absolutely buzzing with a delicious mix of words, ideas, and exciting new discoveries of authors and thinkers. Bring it on!

Events reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage on behalf of Booksellers NZ