Don’t believe the hype…

It’s hard not to like Jocelyn Bell Burnell. In fact, it’s hard not to love her. A devout Quaker devoted to social and spiritual issues as well as being bone fide genius, Bell Burnell missed out on winning a physics Nobel Prize for her discovery of pulsars (the Prize instead going to her supervisor), to which her response was: “I am not myself upset about it — after all, I am in good company, am I not!”

In addition to this, she was the first female President of the Institute of Physics, has just been named one of the Guardian’s top 100 inspiring women and has just won the Grote Reber Nedal Award for “lifetime innovative contributions to radio astronomy”, Professor Bell Burnell is a role model for us all.

Part of her social activities is her concern with public education, in particular the public understanding of science. Whilst the new coalition’s drive to push for more science-oriented education is couched in an air of philistinism, they are right to point out that youth interest in and knowledge of science is at an appalling low. The excellent lecture above is essentially an examination of the ideas that have been spreading in the last few years regarding the world ending in 2012, based on the prophecies of the ancient Mayans. Whilst the claims may seem superficially plausible, they very quickly fall apart upon closer examination: “In many instances there is a sound piece of science behind the scare”, she says, but the plausible core then erupts into a molten melange of far-flung speculation and sophisticated marketing techniques designed to score high on the emotional factor and aiming to reduce critical thought.

What distinguishes Bell Burnell’s analysis from the invective of some other science popularisers (naming no names) is her acute understanding that behind the fascination surrounding the 2012 end-of-the-world scenarios is a genuine hunger for knowledge, wonder and meaning. As a devout Quaker, Bell Burnell understands the need for meaning all too well and her gentle but penetrating analysis teaches people (not just young people) how to think, not what to think.

Bold Creative’s Digital Disruption project has also attempted to get to grips with a similar problem, that of the many pernicious propaganda videos furiously speeding down the information superhighway: We showed groups of young people a video, The Vampire Conspiracy, which pushed forward the notion of an upcoming rabies outbreak carried by an increasing number of rabid foxes, kept under wraps by a government that was bankrupt financially and morally. The video was chilling and effective, featured a series of academic experts and plundered the scientific literature to highlight the real nature of the threat. The young people who saw this were affected strongly to the extent that, when asked after the viewing the video whether foxhunting ought to be permitted, unanimously answered in the affirmative.

The problem is, the video is fake, a fabricated documentary created by us. Like the 2012 myths that Bell Burnell so elegantly dismantles, the video starts off with particles of truth: rabies exists – and though the symptoms we showed were exaggerated, they have their genesis in reality – ,vampire myths have often come from an explosion of attacks by rabid animals and all the scientific papers and news articles shown were real (the experts less so, one was our very own Lindsay Knight and the other a fashion designer).

As we found out whilst working on this project, all of the young people who took part and who believed the video to be genuine were very quickly able to understand the techniques that went behind its production and have since demonstrated the ability to critical assess – and reject – the morass of propaganda out there.

The key to empowering these young people was to treat them as the capable young people they are and to avoid ridiculing their ideas and beliefs. In this respect, Bell Burnell’s primary strength is that she understands that the exact same desire for knowledge and capacity for wonder that has sent a great deal of people running towards these apocalyptic prophecies are traits that have been present in every great scientist from Newton and Boyle to Darwin and Einstein and exist still in much of the country’s population including its youth (see the success of Brian Cox’s shows as just one example). Indeed, this wonder of the universe and the joy of its discovery is captured heart-stoppingly in one of my favourite quotes from the man some physicists would see as the greatest genius to have lived, with ample justification:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”.

The man in question was Sir Isaac Newton. The question, then, is how to redirect young people away from the misleading virtual with its superficial foundations of sand and towards the prettier shells and, ultimately, to help us discover more and more of the great ocean that lies just before them. The first step is to recognise that these are able, intelligent people. Once this is recognised it becomes obvious that what is needed to is to teach them how to think, not what to think.

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