Brian Cox

What shall we do with Brian Cox? Selling science in the 21st century

Image Credit: @Doug88888 (via Flickr)

Image Credit: @Doug88888 (via Flickr)

A guest post by Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. 

Brian Cox represents a different breed of science communicator from that of Richard Dawkins. The difference goes beyond the images of a younger physicist and an older biologist featured on our television screens. Cox appears inclusive and exploratory, Dawkins assertive and dogmatic. From Dawkins one senses that science would add some necessary order to our minds and lives, whereas from Cox the message is more that we should all become scientists to expand our horizons. The shift in emphasis is significant – and many scientists would say in the right direction. After all, many fields of science are suffering from lack of suitable recruits – at least from the native British population. Indeed, Cox is credited with a spike in physics applications at his home institution, though the University of Manchester’s response suggests that he may not be attracting the most qualified people.

What to make of this situation?  First, Cox deserves full credit for being a mass populariser of science – he has a million followers on Twitter – who does not resort to the rhetoric of ‘science vs. non-science’ in his sales pitch. The problem rather lies in what exactly he is selling about science. Does he really want everyone to join in the grand scientific quests?  Would that even be in science’s best interests?  Doesn’t science really need more resources – both technical equipment and public indulgence – to carry on with its work? While undoubtedly a growth in the ranks of the scientifically competent is desirable, simply multiplying minds may only serve to expand the number of hypotheses worth testing without providing the means to do so. Arguably this frustrating state of affairs characterises Cox’s own field of physics today. In that case, his telegenic talents might be better spent on keeping the funds flowing for the time, space and materials needed to settle theoretical questions that are of major existential import to what it means to be human.

My larger point is that a truly proactive science policy requires a serious media strategy that focuses on recruiting people who will not themselves become scientists but are sufficiently enthusiastic about science to contribute materially to its advancement. By ‘contribution’ I mean a wide range of activities, ranging from outright donations for procuring relevant equipment, through active discussions of the implications of scientific ideas for everyday life, to a simple withholding of negative judgement about the curious directions that science invariably takes. Brian Cox would be brilliant at this job of building public confidence. Make no mistake: This is a ‘marketing’ job in the deepest sense. Cox would be manufacturing a need for science that most people do not yet think they have. But to say that the task involves artifice is not necessarily to say that it is underhand, if Cox believes that everyone should support science, even though they do not realize just how important science has always been for their lives.

The first lesson in a hypothetical course called ‘Selling Science’ would teach that science started to be sold more as a business than a religion once the costs of doing science – ranging from the human and material entry costs to more downstream effects on society and the environment – had got so high that science had greater need for investors and stakeholders than outright practitioners. I believe that this shift began in earnest – that is, across all fields of science – with the end of the Cold War. At that point, science was thrown open to an unprotected market environment, in which science’s ‘value for money’ could not be taken for granted. The Cold War was arguably the Golden Age for science policy because everyone on all sides were in agreement that science was necessary for the future of our survival – in terms of securing the physical spaces in which we conduct our lives. The threat of nuclear holocaust kept the global mind focused on the value of science. Once that threat was removed (allegedly), science has had to be sold to various constituencies, each on its own terms. Unsurprisingly, in the eyes of philosophers, the unified vision of physics has yielded to biology’s pluralism as science’s paradigmatic disciplinary formation.

The upshot is that science needs to devote an increased amount of its own resources to what might be called pro-marketing. It is the third of three phases in science-led initiatives relating to the ‘public understanding of science’. The original calls, which occurred as the Cold War was winding down, had been basically about scientists doing their own press releases of what they had achieved. The spirit of this enterprise continues in, say, London’s Science Media Centre, which has been also concerned with journalistic misrepresentations of scientific findings. A second wave of science’s public relations began a decade later, roughly at the dawn of the current century. It took a radically prospective turn and often goes by the name of ‘anticipatory governance’. The US National Science Foundation (and later the European Union) hired science and technology studies researchers to conduct market research on what people hoped and feared from what the NSF was promoting as an imminent ‘convergence’ of nano-, bio-, info- and cogno- sciences and technologies. The scenarios raised in the focus groups and wiki-media were speculative, but the responses provided valuable information about how to present such developments so as not to alienate the public. From a social psychological standpoint, these exercises also served to immunise the public against any ‘future shock’, given that discoveries tend to happen rather unexpectedly. Today’s science fiction scenario may turn out to be science fact tomorrow – and one would not wish a public backlash travelling under what George W. Bush’s bioethics tsar, Leon Kass, euphemistically called ‘the wisdom of repugnance’.

This brings us to the third phase: science pro-marketing. The object here is not merely to create receptive publics for new science and technology but, to put it bluntly, to make people want to have such innovations because they are seen as integral to their own self-development. The precedent for such proactive marketing comes from the great psychologist of self-actualisation, Abraham Maslow, who towards the end of his life in the late 1960s proposed ‘Theory Z’, which – again to put it bluntly – involved people coming to associate their individuality from, if not superiority to, others by consumption patterns based on a sophisticated knowledge of differences between goods that on their face may not seem so different. When people fuss over whether their food has been genetically modified or their clothes were manufactured in third world sweatshops, Theory Z is in effect. The consumption patterns of such people are, as Thorstein Veblen might say, ‘conspicuous’ – but in this case, not to show off how rich they are but how smart they are. (Maslow’s euphemism was ‘transcenders’.) Of course, in the long term, these people may be shown to have been fools for having paid more for goods based on a false vision of how the world works, but in the meanwhile their expenditure will have served to push that vision as far as it could go.

Science could do a lot with Theory Z but it would require a more active embrace of so-called New Age approaches to science, which identify themselves as pro-science but engage in what scientists in a given field would regard at best as ‘metaphorical’ extensions of their core concepts and findings. As a concrete proposal, I would suggest that Brian Cox team up with the San Diego-based best-selling physician Deepak Chopra, who promotes ‘quantum medicine’, in order to sell quantum physics as something in which members of the public should take an active interest. There is a profound historical precedent here. Astrology is largely responsible for our thinking that all of reality is unified under a common set of comprehensible laws. People were led to this way of thinking by imagining that things that happen in remote times and places might directly bear on who and what they are. Science as a long-term project of human enlightenment depends in keeping alive this sense of interconnectedness, and in the current era it will require some serious marketing.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. His most recent book is Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0 (Palgrave Macmillan).