Sofia Science Festival 2017: “Religion and Science” with Malcolm Love

Written by on April 30, 2017 in People - Comments Off on Sofia Science Festival 2017: “Religion and Science” with Malcolm Love

One of the presenters of this year’s Sofia Science Festival is the British science communication and public engagement specialist Malcolm Love. He hosts his own radio show entitled “Love and Science”. He also advises CEOs, politicians, academics and campaigners, travels the world and works as a freelance producer for the BBC. During his early career, Love worked as a pastor in London (Battersea). Today he describes himself as a “devout sceptic”. Some two weeks before his event in Sofia, entitled “Religion and Science – Mapping the Conflict Zone”, we interviewed Malcolm Love.

The Sofia Globe (TSG): You will be giving a speech on one of the most interesting topics of the Science Festival: Science and religion. Obviously the Dawkins approach is not yours. So, how can religion, which works entirely without proof, coexist with science?

Malcolm Love:  Wow – to answer that I’d have to give you my entire talk!  But I can say a few things about it.  Firstly, I am simply going to try and clarify the ‘state of play’ and try to define key positions in the current ‘debate’ between religious and scientific world-views.  Despite appearances religion and science have co-existed quite happily for most of their history (including recent history).  We are familiar with a few high profile spats – Galileo being forced by the inquisition to recant his view that the earth orbits the Sun in the 1600s; The Huxley and Wilberforce ‘debate’ in 1860 (around Darwin’s theory of evolution) and the ‘Scopes Monkey trial’ (where a teacher was prosecuted in Tennessee in 1925, for teaching Dawinian evolution, as contrary to the Bible).  These events would make you think that their relationship was pure conflict, but actually, science and religion have rarely been at war.  As we speak Pope Francis has just declared his view that Big Bang theory and Evolution theory are true theories and that God “should not be regarded as a magician with a magic wand”.  The story does get more complicated however because it depends on what you think passes for religion and what you take to be solid scientific rationalism.  For the rest you’ll have to come to the talk!

TSG: You advise scientists on communication. How accurate is that cliché about the tight-lipped scientist, who hides in a lab in some university basement while doing research and has no clue how to bring his message across? And how do you help him or her?

Malcolm Love:  Well, a few scientists would rather self-select to talk to computers rather than people.  That’s true.  But it’s because those particular people are very gifted at focusing down on mathematical and technical detail.  We really need people like that, and sometimes the trade off for them is with sociability.  But the vast majority of scientists though are just regular people struggling with the fact that science requires a special language – mathematics and technical terminology – and this makes it hard to translate.  So essentially I try to inspire them by showing them some of the brilliant ‘role model’ examples of science communicators you can find all over the place now (including at the Sofia Science Festival). I point out that science communication primarily attempts to enthuse its audience with bite-sized information and inspires with the stories of science rather than engages in a programme of science education.  Science communication is also diverse – so it has a place for writers, designers, event producers, TV and radio presenters, scientists who can give talks or put on shows of various kinds and so on.  In my work I often run workshops and seminars to help people develop public communication skills for working with or talking to live audiences or interacting with mass media etc.  It’s important to give scientists both self confidence to communicate as well as the know how.

TSG: What are the topics you cover in your popular show “Love and Science”? What kind of feedback to you get? Is it possible to make science more interesting for everyone? How? What should happen in schools, in this regard?

Malcolm Love:  Yes, ‘Love and Science’ might sound like a dubious show about sexual relationships!  But actually we look at science in the news and behind the news.  It’s a show based in Bristol (West coast of UK) on a station called BCfm.  Which is a fabulous station full of diverse programmes and amazingly committed radio and community enthusiasts.  (It’s also broadcast on the internet and can be streamed at bcfmradio.com).  I present it with my friend and colleague Andrew Glester.  Andrew is also our resident astronomer.  In our show we cover as many of the current science stories as we can.  We do sometimes end up majoring on one thing – such as what Trump means for American science.  But that’s not usual.  The idea is that the listener is sitting having a tea or a coffee (or driving in their car) in the company of a small group of friends who are having accessible and interesting chats around science stuff.   It’s very conversational.  We have guests in the studio and on the ‘phone and wherever possible (because it’s a locally based station) we try first to get local comment.  So if a new dinosaur fossil is found for example – we would try first to get a paleontologist from Bristol University to tell us about it.  But we’ve had some high profile TV presenters on the show and have even spoken to people on NASA’s Curiosity team – after it landed on Mars and started roaming about.  (I remember their work shifts were following Martian days not earth days).

To answer you other question – science IS interesting.  It just needs liberating from real and perceived barriers.  Science education invites people to a vocation.  It is a long hard route that requires commitment and demanding work.  We need plenty of people to go that route.  But science communication tries to reach everyone.  It tries to fill people with enthusiasm and the pleasure of understanding a little science.  It tries to show people that although they are not experts – they can discuss science and have views on science in the same way that non artists can appreciate art and have art in their home and talk about art with others.  As for schools – I say the same applies.  Science has to be taught well and imaginatively to potential scientists.  But most kids won’t become scientists.  However, they can still know that having some science in their lives could be an enriching and rewarding experience.  I am aware this necessitates some kind of teaching revolution but, hey, why not?

Malcolm Love

TSG: You were a freelance correspondent in Central America, including El Salvador and Nicaragua. This must have been about the revolution by the Sandinistas, who later failed, when they were in power. What do you remember about the Somoza tines and the revolution?

Malcolm Love:  The Sandinistas did an astonishing thing with unbelievable intelligence and courage when they overthrew the Somoza regime.  The Somozas were an incredibly cruel and oppressive family of dictators.  A favourite trick was to drop ‘dissisdents’ live into an active volcano by helicopter.  The Sandinista revolution was before my time.  When I eventually got there, Ronald Reagan had already formed and funded the ‘Contra’.  This was a band of ex Somoza National Guard and various bandit mercenaries who harassed the Nicaraguan borders.  They were extremely unpleasant people and although I had a few near misses, managed to avoid them.  The Contra effectively formed a blockade and nothing worked.  Most of the vehicles were un-roadworthy.  If you went to a food shop or a bar or a restaurant – the question was not “what do you want to eat?” – you just asked “que hay?” – what do you have to eat?  Somehow there was always chicken!  And I remember that butter and cheese were incredibly rare – which seemed to me a great privation.  People were just tired and weary.  The main intention (certainly for young people) was to get out.  If you were a ‘gringo’ (possibly American or Brit) you became amazingly attractive!   I remember being struck by the fact that Americans (in the US) insisted on talking about the Sandinistas and their leader, Daniel Ortega, as ‘communist atheists’.  They refused to talk to them.  The fact was that Ortega’s administration was full of priests – like the artist and poet, Fr Ernesto Cardenal – minister for culture.  These ‘worker priests’ believed that radical politics were the only way to be ‘Christian’ in that terrible time, in that terrible place.  These people in my mind are heroes.  But I don’t blame Nicaraguans for eventually turning away from the Sandinistas – they had been the revolutionary solution to an awful problem.  But Reagan then punished the country for their revolution and just simply wore them out.  So a new government had to come along.  Such is the way of things, but at least Somoza and his appalling thugs were gone.

El Salvador was a different ball game.  There the government and army was intent on crushing any sign of opposition.  It was still a time when people were shot on the spot for not having correct ID papers on them.  Salvador was a ‘neo-feudal’ society where it was said just fourteen families (La Catorce) owned absolutely everything.  It was at that time one of most dangerous places on earth and I still find it difficult to talk about some of things I saw there.

TSG: You seem to be travelling like crazy. Within three weeks, you have been to Portugal, Brazil and Uganda. In Uganda, tensions, corruption, poverty, rigged elections and other problems have affected the population for decades. What is your take on the situation there?

Malcolm Love:  Ha!  You missed out Azerbaijan!  Well this time of the year I travel a lot for Famelab – a science communication competition that encourages early career scientists to be better communicators.  Their challenge is to wow a non-specialist audience with a talk about science in just 3 minutes.   The wonderful British Council has promoted the event worldwide – so we are now in up to thirty-three countries on all continents except Antarctica (and I note they happen to have a research station!!).  Part of Famelab is to run a 2 day communication skills training event for the country finalists. That’s where I come in.

As for Uganda – I really am no expert.  It is still a very poor country with a weak infrastructure.  So without that it’s hard for them to get things done.  I know Museveni is regarded by many as a dictator, but by most measures people seem better off than they were.  That’s certainly not me endorsing authoritarianism – I’m just saying things are generally getting better not worse, at least as far as I can tell.  This is the guy who helped get rid of Idi Amin, for goodness sake, who was an out of control, homicidal, delusional psychopath.  Like most places I was met in Uganda with nothing but kindness, goodwill and generosity.

TSG: Do you have a connection to Bulgaria? Have you worked here?

Malcolm Love:  Yes, I have indeed worked in Bulgaria.  And the main connection is my friend, the amazing Lyubov Kostova.   Lyubov is now the country director of the British Council in Bulgaria.  She is a force of nature and the person who had a big vision for Famelab that made it international in scope.  Now thousands of people all over the world can be grateful to her because they have been part of Famelab – the competition that tends to change people’s lives.  She is also behind the Sofia Science Festival.  Lyubov is definitely on the short list of the most inspiring people I have ever met.

TSG: Thank you, Mr. Love.

There is, of course, much more on the crowded programme of the 2017 Sofia Science Festival, including the numerous presentations in Bulgarian. For further details of the programme, and on how to buy tickets or reserve free seats, please visit the Festival’s website.

The Sofia Globe and Bulgaria Now are media partners of the 2017 Sofia Science Festival.

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About the Author

Imanuel Marcus is Associate Editor of The Sofia Globe. He is German and lives in Sofia. Contact: imanuelmarcus (at) gmail.com