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Sheffield 99 Tuesday, 14 September, 1999, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
Public distrust of science: who is to blame?
Scientists 300
Scientists seem to be distrusted by the public
As scientists debate the public's apprehension about science at this week's British Association conference our Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse asks who is to blame?

According to any recent straw poll the public fears science and distrusts scientists (except of course when they fall ill).

Scare stories

Festival of Science
One reason may be the fact that there are too many scare stories in the media (flesh-eating bacteria, falling sperm counts, CFCs, BSE, harmful GM foods etc.) without much in the way of facts - let alone the counterbalance of positive science stories.

Cow with BSE
BSE was used as an excuse to attack science
No wonder this is bringing about a climate of apprehension - a climate in which the ordinary person regards scientific developments with the underlying assumption that they are being put at risk by reckless scientists in their ivory towers.

All journalists know that scares make good stories. Such stories have a momentum of their own and frequently do not even require facts to keep them moving forward, witness the outcry about GM foods earlier this year.

Safety record

The onslaught against GM foods went far beyond a discussion of the scientific facts. To the extent that now opponents of these so-called 'Frankenfoods' will not allow scientists to even gather basic scientific data on which to base future discussions.

Actually GM foods have a strong safety record. But still the public feels uneasy and mistrustful of science.
Part of the problem is that good positive science is not as newsworthy as the latest scare story and of course science when it works is frequently transparent.

In praise of science

petrie dish
Science is behind everything you do
More than art, philosophy and even politics, science is behind almost everything you do. The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the detergent they are washed in, the transport that carries you, the radio and TV that entertains and informs you, the drugs that treat you and the power that keeps you warm - all have a scientific basis.

Do we blame science for these things? Do we praise science for them? Probably not.

But the fact is that without science you might well be cold and hungry, with a short life expectancy and plagued by horrible diseases.

Science misjudged

Yet it is not on this aspect of science that the public judges science and scientists. They judge it on BSE, nuclear power, GM foods, cloning and CFCs.

Let's get one thing straight about BSE, Science did not 'get it wrong'. What caused it was cost-cutting in the rendering industry.

Of course scientific research throws up dilemmas, fears, possibly a horrific, polluted genetic nightmare future. But is also offers untold good.

The problem is that in fearing one of these possible futures and looking around for someone or something to blame, we may lose the benefits of science.

All because the public today is so often misled about the difference between fact and fiction, dream and nightmare.

Links to more Sheffield 99 stories are at the foot of the page.


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