Science Versus Theatre

Modern societies waste billions on protective measures whose real aim is to reassure rather than to reduce risk. Those of us who work in security engineering refer to this as "security theatre", and there are examples all around us. We're searched going into buildings that no terrorist would attack. Social network operators create the pretence of a small intimate group of "friends" in order to inveigle users into disclosing personal information that can be sold to advertisers; the users don't get privacy but privacy theatre. Environmental policy is a third example: cutting carbon emissions would cost lots of money and votes, so governments go for gesture policies that are highly visible even if their effect is negligible. Specialists know that most of the actions that governments claim will protect the security of the planet are just theatre.

Theatre thrives on uncertainty. Wherever risks are hard to measure, or their consequences hard to predict, appearance can be easier to manage than reality. Reducing uncertainty and exposing gaps between appearance and reality are among the main missions of science.

Our traditional approach was the painstaking accumulation of knowledge that enables people to understand risks, options and consequences. But theatre is a deliberate construct rather than just an accidental side-effect of ignorance, so perhaps we need to become more sophisticated about theatrical mechanisms too. Science communicators need to become adept at disrupting the show, illuminating the dark corners of the stage and making the masks visible for what they are.