I talk about science at parties. Now, I know what you’re thinking – scientists don’t go to parties. Well, sometimes people invite us, and we try to behave ourselves as well as anyone else. The thing is, I often end up discussing evolution or genetics or any other aspect of science when I’m out in company. I don’t go out with an agenda to Spread the Word, but sometimes it just happens.
It can start in the most innocuous ways. Like the time I was in the garden of a friend’s house, and a guy, for some reason that must be related to a lull in conversation, said “Could my jacket be more red?”, to which two of us instantly replied, “Your jacket is orange”. I suppose in most circumstances the conversation would end there and we’d move on to something more entertaining. But that would be a different party. Now, I still maintain that the jacket is orange, and given my friend’s confident initial declaration, I doubt that he has changed his mind either. The interesting, and even exciting thing here is thinking about why we had distinctly different experiences of the same jacket. There’s only one jacket, so who is right? Is it red or is it orange? It turns out that that is a much more subjective question than you might initially think. Sure, the jacket reflects a particular wavelength of light which is unambiguously measurable, but the name we give to that colour depends on our genes.
An extreme and familiar example of this is colour-blindness, where an individual is missing one colour receptor gene, so that everything that falls broadly in the red-green part of the spectrum looks the same and gets just one name instead of two (or perhaps both names are used, but differently from the majority of people). But there are much less extreme examples of differences in colour perception that probably go unnoticed by most people most of the time.
Genes frequently vary but by quite small degrees – small changes that result in differences much less obvious than colour-blindness. We detect colour because proteins made by our colour vision genes react to particular wavelengths of light. We have three types of these proteins each sensitive to red, green or blue wavelengths. If your “red” gene is sensitive to a slightly different wavelength from mine (which is actually a quite common occurrence), then the colour that you perceive as pure red will be different from the one I perceive as pure red. It is differences like these that lead to two people disagreeing on the colour of the same jacket, not to mention the differences between the sexes in their genetic capacity to distinguish colours (women have more, but you knew that already), and all the neurogenetic differences that can lead to different processing of that same visual information by the brain.
It’s fascinating. And I hope the others at the party agreed, because they ended up listening to all that.
So, should I feel ashamed of myself for nerding-up my friends’ parties? Well, I think not. Not only is it actually interesting to talk about these things on occasion, but I believe that it is also important that there is a stronger culture of scientific reasoning and critical thinking.
If you disagree with me, then think of the MMR scandal. Some shoddy science led to a safety scare regarding MMR vaccines. The initial scare was widely reported, and fear is a very powerful emotion – many people stopped vaccinating their children. The vaccine uptake rates continued to drop even after subsequent research revealed the flaws in the initial study. The general public was ill-equipped to digest the scientific information, especially because it was, and still is, usually phrased in terms of probabilities and risk factors – these can sound frighteningly insecure. However, the real fright came from the outbreak of measles in populations that now had lower than necessary numbers of vaccinated individuals, and ultimately the first deaths of children from measles in Ireland and in the UK for over a decade.
The power of scientific knowledge often rests upon the understanding and acceptance of that knowledge by the wider public.
It’s good to talk.