By James Dacey
It’s a tactic you learn in the playground when you are being subjected to childish, baseless insults. Rather than try to engage your aggressor, defending yourself against their insults, you ridicule them by repeating what they say using a silly voice.
This is the tactic that British physicist Jon Butterworth has taken in response to a journalist’s scathing attack on science, scientists and its advocates in the media.
Butterworth was responding to an article written by Guardian columnist, Simon Jenkins, who – despite having no background in science – writes regular rants about the time and resources wasted on scientific research and its popularization in the media.
In his latest attack, published last Thursday, Jenkins attacked the astrophysicist and president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, whom Jenkins describes as “shameless” in his pursuit of extra funds for science. Jenkins had become incensed after hearing Rees talk about all the things that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider can give back to society.
“Rees stuck to the party line that forbids him to say that £7bn and ‘thousands of scientists’ buried under a Swiss mountain might have been better employed on energy research,” he wrote. “Politicians must show a sense of ‘priorities and perspectives’, he said, but scientists do not do priorities. They just want money.”
Now, rather than pick apart Jenkins’ criticisms one by one, Butterworth – who holds a day job as a particle physicist at University College London – has retaliated by writing a spoof article, which mimics Jenkins’ style.
It opens with the following: “You know, there’s so much science on TV and in the papers these days. I mean, I share in the glory of science every bit as much as people who actually work at it. I certainly know much more than they do, after all, I used to edit the London Evening Standard.”
Buterworth explained his motives in a related opinion piece on the Guardian website. “The trouble is, Jenkins’ meanderings are such obvious nonsense that they unify the science community”.
“This is bad, because we either assume the flaws are obvious to everyone (they aren’t), or we respond with howls of outrage, which, however justified, can appear to bolster his claims that we think science should be above criticism.”
Butterworth comes to conclude that writing the spoof article was the best line of defence to show up how “vacuous” Jenkins’ attacks are.