Scientists habitually moan that the public doesn’t understand them. But they complain too much: public ignorance isn’t peculiar to science. It’s sad if some citizens can’t tell a proton from a protein. But it’s equally sad if they’re ignorant of their nation’s history, can’t speak a second language, or can’t find Venezuela or Syria on a map.
Indeed, I’m gratified and surprised that so many people are interested in dinosaurs, the Large Hadron Collider or alien life – all blazingly irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. We should be grateful to David Attenborough, Robert Winston, Brian Cox and other popular writers and television presenters for generating such interest. But it’s depressing that all too often this natural enthusiasm of the young has been stifled by the time they leave school.
That’s sad, because science is important for its own sake. It is a cultural deprivation not to appreciate the wonderful panorama offered by modern cosmology, DNA and Darwinian evolution. This common understanding should transcend all national differences – and all faiths, too. It should be part of global culture; but even in the UK a group of scientists including Attenborough has this week felt the need to reassert this.