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'The play's the thing...'

Nicholas Russell, professor and director of the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London, discusses what scientists can learn from playwright Henrik Ibsen

By | July 21, 2006

Scientists do not always work in a vacuum, and many encounter trouble when they bring their scientific findings or perspective to the general public. One might not think to look for insight into 21st century public science policy in the works of the long-departed Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), but his drama A Public Enemy teaches some interesting lessons -- even if they are not necessarily the ones that Ibsen intended. This play, in which a scientist uncovers a public health crisis, demonstrates that science needs careful handling when applied in wider political and social contexts. Sometimes, it takes a story to make this clear. And scientists interested in engaging the public to effect policy changes -- such as those working on global warming or GM crops -- have much to learn from this fictional lesson. In A Public Enemy (1882), Ibsen's hero is Dr. Stockmann, the Medical Officer for the Municipal Baths at a small coastal resort. He is a misunderstood lone wolf, who uses science to uncover an uncomfortable truth: that the Baths are being contaminated by pollution from industry because the water intake system has been too cheaply built. He warns the citizens that they are poisoning the Baths, and their tourist trade is in jeopardy. Stockman believes his simple public health message will inevitably lead to improvements to the water system and a reform of the civic corruption that led to the problem in the first place. But the townspeople think otherwise. They are unwilling to foot the bill for the improvements, or to put up with the delay in reopening the Baths that major reconstruction would cause. They want a less painful solution than total closure, but Stockmann is unwilling to compromise. The usual reading of the play, supported by the historical context of its composition, is that the scientific idealist Stockmann is a 'hero' working against petty corrupt municipal officials and self-serving trade associations. But the text is subtler than that. While Stockmann certainly has courage and idealism, he is also naïve and foolish. His brother the Mayor, the newspapermen, and the local association leaders are selfish, manipulative, and hypocritical, but the essence of their protest against Stockmann's solution is justifiable -- how can the town survive the loss of reputation of its baths, the costs of re-structuring the water supply, and the two-year closure? But Stockmann will not negotiate on these issues. One interpretation of his stand is that it shows proper resistance to ignorant prejudice from one who understands the truth. But an alternative reading suggests that this type of steadfast confrontation is not the best option. To achieve a solution, Stockmann needs to help devise an economically and politically sensitive way of achieving the changes that are needed. Formulating a scientifically logical (but politically impractical) solution is not enough. Ultimately, Stockmann is branded a public enemy and dismissed from his job by popular demand. However, he vows to stay and practice medicine among the poor while continuing to try to persuade the townspeople where their best interests lie. In taking this line, Stockmann shows heroic determination -- but also strong anti-democratic tendencies, by making himself into something of a scientific despot. He takes the view that people are too stupid and corrupt to see the benefits of his insight. But they are probably not; they are simply objecting to his naïve solution. To help produce a solution, Stockmann needs to work with -- rather than against -- the vested interests. These interests may be ignorant and short-sighted (after all, a real disease outbreak would be far more devastating than Stockmann's unpleasant solutions to the problem), but he needs to develop more subtle techniques to convince the townspeople to compromise. His clear moral duty is not just to expose the problem, but to work realistically and co-operatively to try and solve it. Scientists whose work gets people's attention need skills beyond those usually developed through scientific training. In the case of global warming, science suggests that human action is responsible, implying in turn that humans must change their behavior to solve the problem. In such cases, scientists are often asked to do more than simply analyze a problem and suggest scientific (but often necessarily abstract) solutions, and it is here that scientists need a range of social and political skills -- in particular, the ability to see things from external points of view. Nicholas Russell is a professor and director of the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London. Nicholas Russell Nrussell@the-scientist.com Links within this article: I Ganguli, "Extinction linked to global warming," The Scientist, March 1, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/23163/ A Scott, "Dramatic reduction in GM crop trials," The Scientist, April 17, 2003. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/21269/ Nick Russell http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/people/nick.russell

Comments

July 22, 2006

Though we are seeing Dr. Stockmann in light of 21st century scientific and political scenario, what the author has missed is that such "heros" do exist today in the scientific field, albeit under a disguise. We write grant proposals trying to highlight some form of public health concern that will be addressed by our work. Though these scientists are not oppurtunists in the real sense, they have already sensed that their careers in the field of biological sciences will survive only if there are enough biological threats propagated among the public. Very few studies are done for pure scientific interests, even fewer grant proposals are accepted on these grounds. So it is inevitable that such scientific despots will keep popping up. \n\nThough I haven't read the play, I am sure there was always good in the heart of Dr. Stockmann and he was never planning to wait for a public health emergency to actually occur so he could stand justified. A real despot would have accelerated the process by tampering with the system to his own advantage, thereby gaining in popularity and stature. Even if we would like to condemn his naive nature, such heroes are the driving force behind the science that results in the benefit of one and all. The "public" face of a scientist drives science only by bringing in the grants, an important but not always necessary aspect of a scientific pursuit.

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