The politics of science fascinates me – the more so because there are still some naifs who think that science is apolitical.  And like all politics, sometimes it gets nasty.  I was reminded of this rather starkly while reading an interview with Ben Goldacre this morning in the latest edition of Imperial College’s science magazine I, Science.

Ben – for those of you not into the UK science scene – is a British Doctor, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper, and a celebrated debunker of suspect science and science-related goings-on.  You can find his blog at Bad Science. In the Spring edition of I, Science (published this past week), Ben gives a candid interview with Ben Kolb, a Science Communication student at Imperial College in the UK.

The interview certainly has its moments – Alice Bell, Ben Kolb’s prof and a lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial, called the transcript “a bit bloody brilliant” on Twitter this morning.

But the transcript also reveals an uglier side of science communication when Ben Goldacre lays into Robert Winston – Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College.

Having just finished Winston’s latest book – “Bad ideas? An arresting history of our inventions” (more about this in later blogs), I was taken aback to read Goldacre’s description of him as “a man who I regard as laughable.”  The full conversation goes like this:

Kolb: So what’s next for you? Are you planning Bad Science II or Worse Science perhaps?

Goldacre: Hahaha, cool man, you should be in Marketing, that’s for sure. Well I don’t know. There are a lot of “Bad…” books now aren’t there? There’s ‘Bad Ideas’ by Robert Winston, a man who I regard as laughable.

Kolb: I don’t know if we’ll be allowed to print that. He’s Professor of Science and Society or something…he’s got a powerful position here at Imperial.

Goldacre: Yeah, he collects powerful positions and makes very, very boring TV shows and also personally endorsed a commercial product containing fish oil and appeared in all their adverts. Adverts which were subsequently banned by the Advertising Standards Authority because they breached their conditions on truthfulness and accuracy…

Robert Winston is a widely respected doctor, scientist and science communicator, as well as an active member of the British House of Lords.  He has introduced millions of TV viewers and readers over the years to science and the roles it plays in their lives.  And in my experience, he brings a thoughtful and humble perspective to working out the complex relationships between scientists and the rest of society.

So why on earth is Ben Goldacre accusing him of being “laughable” and “boring?”

Is it simply Goldacre trying to oust the old alpha male in the science communication hierarchy and squeeze himself into the spot (he’s previously referred to Winston and others as ‘the old guard of “public engagement in science”’)?  I hope not, because this type of ego-sparring can only harm efforts to engage people in science.  Yet the exchange above has all the hallmarks of making a personal point irrespective of the evidence – something Goldacre is usually helping expose rather than indulging in.

Deconstructing the exchange, Goldacre starts off labeling Winston as someone he finds “laughable” – a good tactic for denigrating your opponent without the need for evidence (Goldacre is the voice of authority in this interview, remember).

He then moves on to describing Winston as someone “who collects powerful positions.”  It’s true that Professor Winston holds a number of prestigious positions – he is a professor at Imperial College, Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, a member of the House of Lords, and Fellow of a whole string of professional organizations.  Given his achievements, I suspect that he has earned these positions, and is fully justified in holding them.  To describe the man as collecting “powerful positions” borders on implicit accusations that are distasteful to say the least – and hints at questionable practices with no evidence to back them up. (out of interest, I ran a Web of Science search on both Winston and Goldacre.  A search for peer reviewed articles authored by “Winston, RML” brings up 122 entries.  A similar search for “Goldacre, B*” brings up 2 entries – one of which isn’t associated with the Ben Goldacre as far as I can tell).

Then there is the accusation of Winston making “very, very boring TV shows.”  Well, I guess Dr. Goldacre is entitled to his opinion.  But I think that when it comes to communicating science, it is the opinion of those being communicated to that counts; and the fact that Winston is a regular figure on British TV and watched by millions – repeatedly – suggests that the “boring” accusation is not one upheld by the people that actually matter here.

Ending the exchange, Goldacre brings up the fish oil adverts.  I’m not going to comment on the rights and wrongs of these adverts as I don’t have all the information to hand – although you can read the Advertising Standards Authority assessment here.  What is more interesting is the way Ben combines multiple disconnected things to create the illusion of a suspect character – a tactic used widely by activist groups and less scrupulous journalists.  The reader is left with the impression that being laughable, collecting powerful positions and making boring TV programs are somehow linked to Winston’s participation in a questionable advertising campaign.  They are not of course – there is no substantive connection between Goldacre’s personal views of Winston and the ad campaign alluded to.  But the the impression the association leaves is a seductive one.  It’s exactly the tactic some activists and journalists use to make it appear that unconnected pieces of information can be joined together to support a predetermined position.

Political and personal maneuvering like this is ugly.  It gives science a bad name.  But it also undermines the efforts of many to reach out to people who aren’t that engaged with science.  The sad thing is that Goldacre is a talented communicator.  If only that talent could be focused more on building up science in society, rather than bringing down the pillars of science engagement and communication.