In defence of the middle ground

2016 has been a year of excesses. Maybe I’ve just spent more time on the Internet, but it seems to me that opinions, on just about everything, are extreme.

It is often said that we reinforce our opinions by seeking ideologically aligned friends, news sources and Internet feeds. But finding like-minded people is not that easy. Each person’s beliefs are varied, qualified and complicated in a strictly individual way. We can’t surround ourselves with others with whom we agree with on everything. It is easier to rally around the extreme opinions, which are often the most vocal.

I’ve started to see online attempts to escape the confirmation bubble by, say, following opposed activists on Twitter. I would commend this effort, but for the polarising way in which it usually plays out. We should expose ourselves to a variety of opinions to learn from their interface—instead we draw on dissimilar opinions that will legitimise our own.

The opposite, vocal and extreme position is a convenient target for our ridicule. We find it and parade it with donkey ears, drowning out the reasonable opposition which requires more effort to criticise. Worse still, we create extreme antagonism by exalting moderate dissent into caricatured straw men, which we can safely drag into the social space of our peers to destroy.

I’m not saying we should loose our passion, our conviction and our sense of righteousness. God knows we will certainly be needing those in 2017 and the years to come. I’m saying we should celebrate and encourage moderation: not moderation in the strength of our beliefs, but the right to hold moderate beliefs firmly.

Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines

A couple of months ago I started working as an intern with the communications team of Imperial College London. I write articles for the news site on research carried out by Imperial scientists. Naturally this involves simplifying technical detail for a lay audience. At Imperial I am surrounded by people who spend a great deal of time discussing science communication. We think long and hard about how best to make science accessible and entertaining without compromising accuracy. We also spend a fair bit of time worrying over what counts as ‘accurate’ and ranting about how most journalists don’t share science communicators’ qualms. Still, one wishfully thinks that their professional training and values must count for something. One is wrong. One was recently shocked by just how mercenary science journalism can be.

My first article covered experiments on the use of large structures, inspired by metamaterials, to protect buildings from earthquakes. Imperial is well-known for its metamaterial research because of Sir John Pendry, the father of ‘invisibility cloaks’. That term is not a media gimmick. Physicists themselves write of invisibility cloaks in their research papers, nodding to Harry Potter in an unprecedented display of PR savviness. Continue reading “Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines”