Lists – Don’t they make you sick?

Lists start to appear in UK newspapers in December, rather like migrating swallows in spring.  Let’s take two examples from the Guardian.  On December 10, the Weekend Magazine published a list of people who have achieved success at a very young age (Overachievers:  what it takes to be a bright young thing.).  There were playwrights, designers, novelists, directors, DJs, entrepreneurs but no scientists or engineers.  On December 16, The Women of the Year 2011 list appeared in the G2 section of the paper.  Politicians, sportswomen, actors, singers were rightly celebrated but no scientists or engineers were featured. 

Science and engineering are two important parts of our creative culture.  I find such casual neglect of these disciplines increasingly tiresome and I wrote a short note for the Weekend Magazine pointing out the omission.  I can only think that very little time is spent in compiling these lists (see below) and it is likely that the journalists involved are not scientists.  It’s all the more surprising in the Women of the Year category as a female scientist has already been singled out elsewhere for awards.  This is Jenny Rohn of University College London, who received the Achiever of the Year Award for setting up Science is Vital leading to a change in government policy on science funding.

The journalistic bias exposed by these lists is just another example of the “Two Cultures” that continue to pervade society in the UK.   We see it in education where children must begin to express preferences for humanities versus sciences from the age of 14.  University degrees in humanities subjects make little or no reference to science and vice versa.  Few science graduates enter politics or the media with the result that governments exhibit little understanding of science and reporting of science in the media is poor and often incorrect.   The outcome of this may be serious for public health, for public policy and for general understanding of science.  Unjustified fear spread by some papers about the MMR vaccine lead to a drop in herd immunity leaving some children at risk of measles infection.    Repeated stories, usually incorrect, about the cancer promoting or protecting properties of food substances must leave people bemused and untrusting.  The paucity of science reporting in quality papers such as the Guardian continues to surprise me.

It’s no good just moaning, however,we need to propose solutions.  The education system could be altered to allow less specialisation.  For students at senior school the International Baccalaureate provides a broader alternative to A levels and some schools are now offering this qualification.    Degree courses in humanities could include discussion of current scientific issues so that the methods used by scientists are more widely understood.  For science students, cross cultural teaching could focus on understanding the place of science in society and examining portrayals of science in literature.  More generally, scientists need to come out of their labs to explain the importance of their work, illustrate its creativity and its importance for society.

Let’s finish on a lighter note.  The Independent on Sunday newspaper in the UK publishes an annual Pink List.  In 2010 Peter Tatchell was number 7 in the list whereas he was surprisingly absent from the list in 2011.  It seems that he was omitted from the main list deliberately as he had been selected for a special award as “national treasure” alongside Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig.  In the end Tatchell was missing completely from any category because the post-it note with his name was shuffled in to the wrong pile and no one noticed.  It shows just how much trouble is taken in compiling these lists.

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