13 September 2012

Let Them Eat Refrigerated Foods

Note: This is a guest post by Jack Stilgoe, a lecturer in the department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London, where he teaches science policy. Between 2008 and 2011 he was a senior policy adviser at the Royal Society. His blog is jackstilgoe.wordpress.com. He is on twitter @jackstilgoe

I used to work there, so I should watch my tongue. But I can’t help drawing attention to this press release from the Royal Society. The Royal Society is the UK’s national academy of sciences. It is the world’s longest-running national academy and remains one of our most esteemed scientific institutions. There is much that is amazing about the place and much that is utterly bizarre.

Following recent pronouncements on policy issues ranging from climate change, human population, geoengineering, food security and the value of science, the Society has seen fit to pronounce that the refrigeration is the best innovation in the history of food.

The list that the committee of fellows (“including a Nobel Prize Winner”!) came up with seems rather odd. It mixes innovations and inventions in a rather slapdash way. One can argue about the relative positioning of, say, the microwave and plough, or the absence of the Spork. But that’s not the point.

When I was working in the Royal Society’s policy outfit, we were acutely aware of the attention (some of it deserved) that the institution’s pronouncements would attract. We would occasionally smirk at the efforts of learned societies of one sort or another to draw attention to themselves. The Royal Society of Chemistry in particular was fond of stunts such as honouring dead, fictional detectives, identifying the nation’s cheapest lunch or inventing topically-convenient molecules. Those last two stories come from the Daily Mail, a mid-market right-wing British tabloid that would conventionally be uninterested in the musings of our scientific elite. And the Mail have swallowed the Royal Society’s latest offering as well. The press department will today be congratulating themselves on having spread the word to a normally disengaged audience.

So why does this sort of thing matter? Surely it’s fair game for any institution to draw attention to itself from time to time, even if the reason is to nakedly market its own events facilities? My argument, and the reason I agreed to write in public about this, is that it matters a very great deal when organisations that make claims to some sort of authority use that authority in opaque ways for shady purposes. When people or institutions speak in the name of science when there is no scientific foundation, we should be wary. PR companies are well aware that a scientific-looking conclusion or equation can grab the attention of lazy journalists in the less-discerning news organs.

The Royal Society does not have a democratic mandate. Its legitimacy (threatened as it is by these sorts of stunts) derives from claiming to represent the best that science has to offer. So when the Society states that a committee of its fellows (“including a Nobel Prize Winner”!) has decreed something, it expects the world’s attention. This sort of press release gives the impression that, like the Wizard of Oz, while there is a big booming voice, there may not be much going on behind the curtain.

6 comments:

Paul Matthews said...

This is another example of how the Royal Society has declined rapidly from a highly respected institution to a national embarrassment.

Other examples include their much criticised report on population, and their biased approach to climate change.

JBritt said...

I agree that organizations that have (claim seems to beg the question when speaking of the Royal Society) scientific authority shouldn't use that authority "in opaque ways for shady purposes." But I wonder whether this particular press release is such an abuse of authority. What we have here is pretty clearly an opinion poll, one in which even we non-Nobel Prize-winners are invited to participate. Is it a publicity stunt of sorts? Sure. Does it deserve to be labeled "shady" or "opaque" or compared to the Wizard of Oz? I guess if you're really invested in the knife and think that the Royal Society has permanently damaged its chances of being recognized as the best food-related invention of all time, then maybe. But I can't get too outraged about this. In fact, it is an illustration of the point that scientific authority has its limits. Personally, I find that comforting rather than threatening.

Jack Stilgoe said...

Hi Britt. My primary interest in this is as someone who thinks that the Royal Society is a great and important institution that can offer the world a great deal. So while I agree that, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter hugely (such things become tomorrow's chip wrappers), I think it dents the credibility of the RS.

The Right Wing Professor... said...

I won't argue about the silliness, but I think the proposition that refrigeration is the most important innovation in the history of food is defensible, and even convincing.

I was more annoyed by the Times' restaurant critic, Giles Coren, who wrote a snotty little column attacking the very idea, since refrigerators are where the despised middle-class put the cheap eats they buy in Tesco. Evidently one should go out and buy food fresh each day at one's local organic produce market, or something. Of course, that is something one can afford to do, if one's paying gig is to eat free meals at expensive restaurants and then bitch about them in print.

He also detests pasteurization. May he contract tuberculosis from the unpasteurized variety, preferably from a cow infected by an unculled badger.

eric144 said...

Professor Jonathon Jones (Physics – Oxford University)


The recent public statements by supposed leaders of UK science, declaring that hiding the decline is standard scientific practice are on a par with declarations that black is white and up is down.

I don’t know who they think they are speaking for, but they certainly aren’t speaking for me

Terrence Flendersen said...

Hi Britt. My primary interest in this is as someone who thinks that the Royal Society is a great and important institution that can offer the world a great deal. So while I agree that, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter hugely (such things become tomorrow's chip wrappers), I think it dents the credibility of the RS. commercial refrigeration toronto

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