(The title is an important way of thinking about what science is all about, at least in part. It is one of the things mentioned and discussed in the lectures discussed below.)
The annual Reith Lectures at the BBC over in the UK are under way. This year, they are given by a giant of astrophysics, Sir Martin Rees. I strongly – very strongly – recommend listening to these lectures. There are four of them. Of the senior superstars of science who I’ve come to know a little, Martin Rees comes across as one of the most gentle and quietly thoughtful I can think of while at the same time being sharp and insightful on all sorts of aspects of science (not just the confines of his field). I mention these characteristics since they are of great value to me – I tend to be repulsed by the practitioners of the more arrogant style that is also common in prominent (and not so prominent) scientists, no matter how good their science might be. He’s the President of the Royal Society, the Astronomer Royal, and the Master of Trinity College (Cambridge), among other distinctions, and so naturally is called upon to express views on a range of topics about science, including how it intersects with society.
Indeed, the intersection between science and policy issues and society is the subject of the first of his lectures. The whole series is called “Scientific Horizons”. The first lecture, entitled “The Scientific Citizen”, was given today and is available on the BBC’s website, as will be the others in due course (one per week is the schedule). He speaks engagingly on all sorts of topics, including science/society debates, programs and controversies using recent (and not so recent) cases (Cancer research, MMR vaccines, alternative energy, mad cow disease, etc.) cases to illustrate his points. The whole issue of how we inform the public, what the public expects from science and scientists, what the public should expect from science and scientists, the crucial role of journalists and science popularizers, and other related ideas, is examined. The lecture itself is interesting, but stay for the questions and answers, which draws out the discussion interestingly in several directions, with a number of prominent journalists, science advisors, scientists, and other citizens in the audience.
I strongly recommend these lectures. Science is not just for scientists, remember, and so this conversation is for everyone to engage in.