To inspire and stimulate a science sense

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EJ Brady claimed Hugh Cleland McKay as one of his ‘intellectual “finds”’. McKay was ‘a modest genius’ who made a ‘brilliant’ contribution to Brady’s short-lived journal, the Native Companion. 1 He was an iconoclast and inventor, a critic of contemporary poetry, and a passionate devotee of science. McKay was also one of Australia’s first specialist science journalists.

Unlike many of his bohemian contemporaries, McKay found inspiration more in science than art. Science fuelled his rebellion against the shallow certainties of bourgeois existence. It gave him the confidence to reject religion, and roused him against the mystic anthropocentrism that dominated Australian verse. 2 He called on poets to look ‘not upon the Universe through the eyes of Man, but upon Man through the eyes of the Universe’. 3 ‘Science’, he wrote in the Lone Hand, ‘has created a new heaven and a new earth which still await a singer’. 4 The challenge was not easily met. McKay struggled to publish his serious verse, though his humorous ditties and speculative fiction found a regular audience. At times he supplemented the meagre earnings of a literary life by working as a pharmacist, but he always returned to writing. In the 1920s he became the science writer for Smith’s Weekly, and began delivering a stream of witty, informative and often insightful articles. Thirty years later, nearing the age of eighty, he was still reporting on the latest scientific discoveries for readers of the Daily Telegraph.

Recent decades have seen the rise of ‘science communication’ as both a profession and an academic discipline. The pace and complexity of modern science, its dramatic effects on the fabric of daily life, and its implications for future social and economic development have all brought added emphasis upon the ‘public awareness of science’. Research institutions now trumpet ‘breakthroughs’ by the score in an unyielding barrage of publicity bites; consultants advise on ‘sexy’ science, reeducating practitioners in the ways of the media savvy; festivals and exhibitions celebrate the nation’s scientific maturity in a boisterous cavalcade of self-promotion and triviality. Science, it seems, is more concerned than ever before to make itself know to the ordinary punter.

In all the commotion it is easy to lose sight of the modest efforts of Hugh McKay. It is easy to forget that for a hundred years AAAS/ANZAAS struggled to bring science to the attention of a fickle public, or that organisations like the WEA and the AASW developed educational programs to package science for the people. Those who believe science communication began with Robyn Williams overlook the immense popularity of Crosbie Morrison, whose musings on science and natural history reached a huge audience in print and on radio. 5 And what of the horde of public-spirited scientists, people like Edgeworth David, WA Osborne, and Kerr Grant who contributed regularly to public debate. ‘We want to make science popular’, JH Maiden, an AAAS stalwart, told the Argus in 1921, ‘and in a way to teach them what they owe to it’. 6 And yet governments now fund initiatives to ‘promote an understanding of what science and technology can do for us’ with nary a backward glance.

Scientists have long been troubled by the public’s obsession with meaningless diversions. At the 1904 AAAS congress, Edgeworth David called for a frontal assault against the shallow enthusiasms of popular opinion. ‘It should’, he declared, ‘be one of the aims of this Association to discover and destroy the microbe of sporting mania’. Sport itself promoted health and exercise, but Australia’s ‘worship’ of ‘the wood and the leather’ was evidence of a culture out of balance, David maintained, a nation whose values had gone awry. 7 The scientist laboured without support or recognition in the service of humanity, noted the Lord Mayor of Sydney in his toast to ‘science’ at the 1932 congress, ‘yet a man could come along, sing a funny song and make a funny face, and earn immeasurably greater pecuniary rewards and greater fame’. 8 Such complaints ring familiar, repeated many times across the years. Even Prime Minister John Howard, a self-confessed ‘cricket tragic’, called upon Australians in 2001 to ‘exhibit the same passion for scientific performance, scientific achievement, and scientific excellence that we exhibit in relation to our sporting achievements’. 9

The nation was afflicted with a dangerous imbalance that could only be remedied, David argued, by the ‘creation of a healthier state of public opinion’. 10 The people of Australia did not understand that science was the engine of industry, the safeguard of health; they had not been exposed to the power and wonder of scientific inquiry. To be restored to well-being, the public mind had to be dosed with a liberal application of the ‘scientific spirit’. The Australasian Manufacturer offered a similar diagnosis, pressing for the cultivation of ‘a general scientific atmosphere’ that would surely nudge public opinion ‘in favour of the generous endowment of scientific research’. 11 While at the 1928 AAAS congress, RH Cambage reasserted the association’s desire ‘to inspire and stimulate a science sense in the public mind’. 12 The Australian people, R Greig-Smith proclaimed before the Royal Society of NSW, had to be ‘trained to acknowledge that we are working not only for the scientific but also for the common good’. 13 But how?

‘The love and appreciation of science cannot be produced in a day’, noted the Australasian Manufacturer, ‘it must be evolved, and the evolution must commence at the school’. 14 A comprehensive system of science education was essential in bringing about ‘the scientific enlightenment of the nation’. Greig-Smith looked with admiration upon the churches’ ability to indoctrinate the young, suggesting that ‘principles of science’ should be absorbed by the nation’s youth ‘after the manner of a faith’. 15 But education was a slow business, and action was needed immediately to counter Australia’s dangerous neglect. The Australasian Manufacturer suggested that a series of ‘popular scientific lectures’ in all the towns and suburbs of Australia would encourage people to develop ‘as keen an appreciation of the importance of scientific culture as they now have of the importance of reading and writing’. 16

Whatever the solution, it was clear that scientists themselves must take a leading role. ‘We scientists must endeavour to alter our ways, Greig-Smith urged, ‘It will not do to follow the methods of the past and be contented with the publication of our work in the scientific journals of our societies’. 17 Mark Oliphant reached a similar conclusion after the ‘Science and Australia’ symposium in 1951, commenting that while it was not easy ‘to express the results of scientific research in simple language’, it was ‘essential to dispel the feeling…that scientists belong to some masonic clique’. 18 Scientists had to ‘get into the limelight’, to demonstrate the value of their labours, to raise science in the esteem and affection of all Australians. 19

Scientists also had to learn to use the power of the press to their advantage. As early as 1916, Greig-Smith was outlining the characteristics of the ‘scientific journalist’ to serve as intermediary between science and the people. The learned proceedings of scientific bodies should be ‘done up for public consumption’, he argued, but this was difficult for a man of science, who was ‘too scientific and exact’ for the task. The ‘scientific journalist’ offered a ‘happy medium’, combining the accuracy of the scientist with the popular touch of the conventional journalist. ‘I should like to see a short scientific article, so attractively written’, Greig-Smith mused, ‘that when placed in the daily papers beside the report of a football match or of a prize fight, the public would read it first’. 20

A few years later, the changing relationship between science and the press was examined in Science and Industry, the newly established journal of the Institute of Science and Industry. Until recently, it noted, there was some doubt as to whether ‘any merely popular intermediary between the scientific investigator and the public was even desireable’. But as science moved from the laboratory to the factory, it became clear that the press had an important role to play in ‘imbuing the people with that scientific spirit without which no nation can achieve eminence or success’. The application of science to the purposes of national progress could only succeed if the ‘aloofness’ that separated the scientist from the public was broken down. The scientist, ‘even at the cost of some repugnant self exploitation’, had to ‘make himself understood and respected by the Democracy’. While the public had to look beyond familiar stereotypes that portrayed the scientist as an ‘an impractical dreamer, lacking in those qualities which go to make the successful businessman’. The scientist and the public could learn to understand each other through the pages of daily press. ‘If science…is to stand firm and strong’, the article concluded, ‘it is necessary that the publicity side should be developed equally with the other phases’. 21

Buffeted by criticism in parliament and the press, the Institute endeavoured to put its principles to work. Hoping ‘to permeate the community with a higher appreciation of the value of scientific direction in industry’, the Executive Committee initiated a scheme to supply leading newspapers with ‘semi-popular’ articles detailing a range of ‘scientific industrial problems’. 22 From prickly pear to power alcohol, the people of Australia would discover the obstacles in the path of progress, and learn of science’s brave efforts to surmount them. ‘We cannot fail to reach the conclusion’, noted one article surveying the challenges of the postwar world, ‘that our lack of appreciation of all that science…could have conferred upon us lies at the root of many present difficulties’. 23

The planned reintroduction of the Institute’s bill in 1920 prompted further action. A ‘Propaganda Committee’ was established to mobilise public and political support. Detailed statements on the work of the Institute were prepared and disseminated through Parliament and the press. 24 Members of the State Advisory committees were dragooned to lobby their local newspapers, though as Professor Rennie in Adelaide forlornly noted, ‘it is somewhat difficult to get newspapers to publish anything not connected with sport’. 25 The Propaganda Committee’s statements would, it was suggested, ‘fully inform’ people of the ‘true state of affairs’. They would ‘enable the community to form some idea’ of the enormous need for scientific research, and would cause ‘thoughtful men to reflect upon the enormous advantages which a permanent research organisation… could confer upon the community’. Truth would clear the way of ‘ignorant and unscrupulous criticism’. 26

Science had ‘taught men to be fearless in the pursuit of truth’, declared Edgeworth David at the 1904 AAAS congress; it drew to itself ‘men of every shade of thought who love the truth’. 27 As scientists pondered the most effective means of communicating with the unenlightened masses, they were comforted at least by the knowledge that truth was on their side. Their task was not to manipulate, or cajole, but to educate and inform. ‘Scientific spirit’ was not to be found in a mere expression of favouritism; it was not like following a sporting team, or swearing allegiance to a political party. The aim of the scientific journalist, the science teacher, or the learned science professor addressing a public gathering, was not to add to the clamour of modern life, or compete with the noisy distractions of popular entertainment. Their aim was to instill a more rigorous sense of value, to light a path through the trivialities and diversions, to set their audience upon a quest for truth.

A little knowledge, it seemed, could work a miraculous transformation. Cooked up in a suitably tasty form, science could awaken the public’s sense of responsibility and meaning. It could enrich their understanding, restore their balance. It could complete them. The neglect of science which so threatened the nation’s future was not deliberate or malicious, it reflected a lack of understanding, an intellectual immaturity, an inability to grasp the truth. The suspicions and stereotypes manifest in debate surrounding the Institute of Science and Industry were likewise a product of ignorance, rather than avowal. It was ignorance that hindered the development of science, ignorance that stood in the path of national achievement. But ignorance could be cured. For what was progress if not the steady conquest of ignorance by enlightenment?

The Australasian Manufacturer observed opposition to the Institute of Science and Industry with mounting anger and dismay. It criticised the Age’s ‘wretched drivel’ and despaired at the ‘childish character’ of parliamentary debate. An ‘utterly inadequate appreciation of science’ within the community had, it argued, ‘given us legislators who regard scientific investigation as a subject for inane jocularity’. 28 But for all the bluster and innuendo, it was not science itself that was under attack. As one senator noted, ‘every one of the opponents of this bill has prefaced his remarks by a declaration that he is not opposed to science’. 29 Arthur Rodgers, the member for Wannon, had spoken strongly in support of the Bureau of Agriculture, but was concerned by the lack of practical advice in framing the new Institute’s program. He was saddened also that Groom seemed to regard ‘everybody who speaks against the Bill’ as ‘opposed to the blessings of science’. It was duty, he claimed, that compelled him to speak, not ignorance or objection. 30

Likewise the Age imagined itself in the role of faithful defender, protecting the ‘sacred name’ of science against those who would debase it for their own grubby ends. 31 ‘Neither Parliament nor the public needs to regaled with trite and wearisome homilies on the value of scientific research’, the newspaper complained, ‘that much may be taken for granted’. However, supporters of the Institute were seeking to portray legitimate critics as ‘enemies of science and education, who prefer barbaric darkness to enlightened progress’. That was nothing but a ‘political fudge’, it claimed, unjustified and unworthy. 32

So did the Age mask its ignorance with feigned indignation? The newspaper’s editor, Frederick Schuler was a well-read, thoughtful man, who counted eminent scientists such as Baldwin Spencer and William Sutherland amongst his friends. 33 But how could one who had imbibed of the scientific spirit foster attacks upon the character and credentials of well-respected men of science? The principles of scientific enlightenment, of progress itself, seemed to allow no such complexity—ignorance would yield to knowledge, suspicion would be dispelled by truth.

But the ‘ignorant’ mind is never as empty as it seems, and truth is rarely as pure as we imagine. 34 Debate on the Institute of Science and Industry swept beyond the bounds of political recrimination to ponder the nature of science. It was not philosophy perhaps, nor even science policy, but the questions were profound enough: questions about the control of research, about the role of individual creativity, about the way knowledge itself is created. The arguments on both sides were often crude and opportunistic, drawing on stereotypes and simplifications. But what language was there to argue the implications of science that did not resolve itself into a battle between ignorance and enlightenment, darkness and light?

Whether through disappointment, disillusion, or a life of heavy drinking, Hugh McKay became increasingly withdrawn, hiding behind ‘an almost impenetrable armour of sardonic nihilism’. 35 One Smith’s Weekly colleague remembered that he ‘sometimes wearied of everything and everybody and retired into a beery twilight from which his harsh voice might be heard addressing humanity as ‘Insects! All insects! Insects all!’ 36 Through the eyes of the universe, man was insignificant. What of ambition? What of hope? McKay was a pioneer of science journalism, but he failed as a ‘singer’ of revelation and discovery. He was a ‘modest genius’ who ‘disparaged himself’ even as he introduced an unsuspecting audience to some of the myriad possibilities of science. ‘His name is not in Who’s Who in Australia’, Brady remarked, perhaps by way of an epitaph. 37

The romantic allure of ‘scientific spirit’ may have given way to instrumental appeals for ‘awareness’ and ‘understanding’, but attempts to reach a sceptical, disillusioned or disinterested public continue. The Australian people, it seems, are still reluctant to pay science its rightful dues. And so the quest continues on, an endless campaign to breach the walls of public ignorance, to find a crack, a flaw, that will yield to the pressure of truth. Might we find a ‘singer’ yet, a voice to be heard above the noise of battle?



Notes:

  1. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (continued)’, Southerly, vol. 16, no. 2, 1955, p. 108.
  2. Peter Kirkpatrick, ‘“His name is not in Who’s Who in Australia”: the life and some of the opinions of “a modest genius”, Hugh McKay’, Southerly, no. 2, June 1990, pp. 222-239; David Walker, Dream and disillusion: a search for Australian cultural identity, ANU Press, Canberra, 1976, pp. 22-3.
  3. Hugh Cleland McKay, ‘The forgotten universe’, Native Companion, vol. 2, no. 3, 1 October 1907, p. 164.
  4. Quoted in Kirkpatrick, ‘“His name is not in Who’s Who in Australia”‘, p. 234.
  5. For more on Morrison, see Graham Pizzey, Crosbie Morrison: voice of nature, Victoria Press, Melbourne, 1992.
  6. Argus, 12 January 1921, p. 8.
  7. TW Edgeworth David, ‘The aims and ideals of Australasian science’, Report of the 10th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,  Dunedin, 1904, p. 40.
  8. Argus, 18 August 1932, p. 8
  9. ‘Transcript of the Prime Minister, the Hon John Howard MP, Prime Minister’s Award for Science’, 25 September 2001, <http://www.pm.gov.au/news/speeches/2001/speech1268.htm>.
  10. David, ‘The aims and ideals of Australasian science’, p. 42.
  11. ‘Science for the people – a suggestion’, Australasian Manufacturer, 26 January 1918, p. 7.
  12. RH Cambage, ‘Presidential address’, Report of the 19th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,  Hobart, 1928, p. 7.
  13. R Greig-Smith, ‘Presidential address’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of NSW, vol. 50, 1916, p. 10.
  14. ‘Science for the people – a suggestion’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 2, no. 95, 26 January 1918, p. 7.
  15. Greig-Smith, ‘Presidential address’, p. 15.
  16. ‘Science for the people – a suggestion’.
  17. Greig-Smith, ‘Presidential address’, p. 10.
  18. MLE Oliphant (ed.), Science in Australia, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1952, p. xxvi.
  19. Greig-Smith, ‘Presidential address’, p. 10.
  20. ibid., pp. 14-17.
  21. GL (Gerald Lightfoot), ‘Science, the press, and the public’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 7, November 1919, pp. 385-8.
  22. Letter from Executive Committee, Advisory Council of Science and Industry, to publishers, 2 November 1917, NAA: A8510/1, item 80/2.
  23. ‘The promotion of scientific and industrial research – post-war developments in Australia and other countries’, December 1917, NAA: A8510/1, item 80/2.
  24. For examples and correspondence see NAA: A8510/1, item 3/5/4.
  25. Letter from EH Rennie to (?) EN Robertson, no date (June 1920), NAA: A8510/1, item 3/5/4
  26. Letter from Acting- Secretary, Executive Committee, Advisory Council of Science and Industry, to Professor EH Rennie, 9 June 1920, NAA: A8510/1, item 3/5/4.
  27. David, ‘The aims and ideals of Australasian science’, p. 43.
  28. ‘A shallow critic’, Australasian Manufacturer, .vol. 3, no. 132, 12 October 1918, p. 9; ‘Democracy and science’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 3, no. 133, 19 October 1918, p. 9.
  29. CPD, vol. 86, 17 October 1918, p. 7009.
  30. CPD, vol. 89, 20 August 1919, p. 11747.
  31. Age, 15 August 1919, p. 6.
  32. Age, 8 August 1919, p. 6.
  33. John Hurst, ‘Schuler, Gottlieb Federich Henry (1854-1926)’, in Geoffrey Serle (ed.), Australian dictionary of biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988, pp. 539-40.
  34. The constructed nature of ‘ignorance’ in interactions between science and the ‘public’ is receiving some attention from sociologists, see, for example, the papers in Alan Irwin, and Brian Wynne (eds), Misunderstanding science?: the public reconstruction of science and technology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.
  35. Quoted in Kirkpatrick, ‘“His name is not in Who’s Who in Australia”‘, p. 235.
  36. ibid., p. 238.
  37. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (continued)’, Southerly, vol. 16, no. 2, 1955, p. 108.

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