Laelaps

The other day I had a little chat with Scicurious.

We talked about the usual things; the latest academic frustration, weekend plans, &c., but sooner or later we got onto the topic of science popularization. We both work hard to not only make science accessible, but to make it interesting, yet our daily pageviews our abysmally low compared to the stats of political, sports, or gossip blogs. We are trying as hard as we can to be good popularizers yet relatively few people are interested. Why?

This question has been made all the more frustrating by a handful of books published this year that admonish researchers to stop being “such scientists.” This was the central theme of Unscientific America and no doubt it is a major part of Don’t Be Such a Scientist (though I have not read it yet; I’m told a review copy is on the way). Over and over again we are told that scientists need to drop the technical jargon and make an effort to be “cool”, but focusing on scientists alone blinds us to other important factors that influence how science is understood by the public.

Even though it would be fantastic to see more scientists polish their popularization skills, all-too-often we neglect to mention those researchers who are doing excellent work on this front. Neil Shubin, Sean B. Carroll, and Robert Sapolsky come most immediately to my mind. Even beyond these superstars of science popularization there are many, many scientists who write accessible popular science books every year. My library is stocked with but a small collection of these tomes. It cannot be said that scientists are not making an effort to reach the public.

Yet even the most popular science writer’s sales pale in comparison to what pulp-fiction-type authors like Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer. Science just doesn’t seem to be as exciting as plots to blow up the Vatican and sparklepires. Is this truly the fault of scientists, or is there more at play here?

As I mentioned in my review of Unscientific America simply tweaking how scientists broadcast their work to the public will not solve the much-feared “scientific illiteracy” problem. Religious beliefs, educational background, political ideals, and even business interests shape (in some cases some might say “distort”) the way science is received. You could be the most deft and dexterous science communicator in history but it would still be nearly impossible to get hard-boiled fundamentalist Christians to stop believing that Noah brought dinosaurs aboard the Ark. More than just the message is involved, and in a world where we can increasingly choose which sources of information best fit our pre-existing opinions and interests I think it is foolish to believe that scientists alone are responsible for the persistent threat of scientific illiteracy.

Even though I don’t see eye-to-eye about science communication with some of the authors who are being paid to write about it in popular books, I do value the volumes they produce for another reason. They have made me think about the way popular science media is produced and received. The unfortunate thing is that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has written a book with the kind of perspective needed to fully understand the problem. We have been bickering over “framing” (or the same idea by any other name) for years now and all it has shown is the inability of framing advocates to effectively market that idea to scientists.

(I suggested to Scicurious that we collaborate on the kind of book that we would like to see, which could be called Maybe They’re Just Not That Into Science).

Perhaps my view is too pessimistic, but I think one of the most important things to do is to keep encouraging our peers, colleagues, and mentors to reach out to the public. (Even if doing so can be risky.) We need to keep talking. It has always been a struggle to get the public to understand science, and I have no doubt that this struggle will continue.

There is a kind of change that I think we should push for, though. Everyone knows that many (if not most) people trained as scientists never make it in academia. There are lots of people out there with scientific training but that are not actively participating in science right now. Such people, maybe with a little bit of training, might be able to get jobs in the mass media and drastically improve science coverage. One of the biggest obstacles science communication faces is the horrible science coverage put out by many news corporations. Contrary to the protestations of journalists there are people trained in science who do not walk around speaking in incomprehensible technical terms, and I would like to see more skilled science writers take the place of journalists who have to write about topics that they do not understand.

(Unfortunately, however, science sections are dwindling in our current economic slump. It is difficult to bring science to the attention of the public if there is no visible forum to do it in!)

Even so, there are many good science popularizers working today. This is something often ignored by those who insist that the blame for the public’s lack of understanding about evolution and global climate change rests squarely with dull scientists. In fact, by hammering this point it may be that the authors of books like Unscientific America and Don’t Be Such a Scientist are perpetuating the caricature of scientists as nerdy, boring, and socially-inept that they spend so much time railing against. If we are really serious about improving the public’s understanding of science we are going to have to move beyond the endless debates over how to make scientists seem more “sexy.”

[Many thanks to Scicurious for encouraging me to share my thoughts on this matter.]

Comments

  1. #1 Anida Adler
    September 21, 2009

    I suppose as a complete lay person who always considered herself not to be into science at all, it might be relevant to explain what an erotica writer is doing reading a science blog.

    I was a fundamental charismatic Christian until about two years ago. What we were taught was to avoid reading books offering different opinions from what we already believed, as these were Satan’s tools for weakening your faith.

    The problem for me was that I’m not stupid. I had questions that wouldn’t go away. The first huge blow to my Christianity came when I read a book about the Codex Sinaiticus, and discovered that the bible, contrary to what I’d been taught, was changed and edited over years. Yes, that’s right, I was told one of the ways we know the bible is the word of god was because it was written by a score of different people but even so was remarkably consistent, and that over all the years of copying no mistakes ever crept in.

    The next big blow came when I defended the ‘teach the controversy’ issue on a web forum. It was a feeding frenzy, with me as the bait, and I was duly ripped to shreds. But the atheists I argued with realised I was genuinely interested in the truth, and directed me to excellent sites such as TalkOrigins.

    Looking back, I’m ashamed at the mental contortions I did to retain my faith and my belief in creationism. My husband was less willing to delude himself, and eventually got a hold of Karen Armstrong’s “The Bible – a Biography”. Though it is by no means her intention, I’m sure, this book was the last nail in the coffin for us, exposing Christianity as an evolving (haha) philosophy and many things we had been taught were timeless truths were in fact relatively recent interpretations of the bible.

    I know your post above is not an attack on religion, but for me my interest in science went hand in hand with my journey away from Christianity.

    The more I learned how flawed the creationist viewpoint was, the more I wanted to know the alternatives suggested by scientific method (I hope to hell I’m not making a complete idiot of myself with the terminology here). It was a horrible struggle for me, as I find science very difficult to understand, but I persevered and slowly got my head around such simple concepts as what a theory really means in science (as opposed to the popular misconception that evolution is ‘just a theory’), the difference between evolution and abiogenesis (as I understand it, the latter is in fact what religious people have a problem with) and so forth.

    At my husband’s behest, I read Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, and that brought more understanding for me. I started following PZ Myers’ blog, and watched probably more than a hundred debates between scientists and creationists on YouTube. I’m still learning, trying to master concepts which for you are probably easy but for me are truly difficult to understand. I recently read Stephen Hawking’s “A Briefer History of Time” (a condensed version of the classic), and was delighted to finally understand what the Doppler effect is, and to have more insight into theories on the origin of the universe.

    The overall impression, though, was: “I’d better stick to writing sex scenes, as I can’t retain even this simplified explanation of stuff.” That said, though the reading was hard work, I found it an excellent simplification and very idiot-friendly explanation of complex subjects (I should know, because where science is concerned I would be the first to admit I’m an idiot).

    I saw a link to one of your posts at the top of the page when I visited Pharyngula one day, and found it interesting enough to bookmark. And here I am.

    My 2c worth that is actually relevant, is that I think one of your biggest challenges is that Christians (at the very least) see science as a threat to their faith, as I mentioned above. They actively discourage the reading of books on science which are not written with a view to supporting Christianity.

    In the words of my pastor’s wife: “The mind is Satan’s battleground.” She said this after I confessed the deep doubts brought about by my debate with a couple of atheists on a forum, as described above.

    Promoting scientific understanding, however much you are not interested in undermining faith, is unfortunately always going to become bogged down by and be opposed by religion, because understanding science is a notoriously common reason given by atheists for abandoning their beliefs. And religion is a very powerful thing to take on.

    Hope this was relevant and interesting.

  2. #2 Jason R
    September 21, 2009

    science sections are dwindling

    That right there is the nut for me. Not that the section is dwindling but that science is balkanized at all. It is viewed as a topic with its own discrete boundaries instead of diffused throughout all areas of discourse. If you really interested in popularizing science, I say write a series of romance novels that are infused with science instead of trying to write a science “tome” absent of all romance.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2009

    (I suggested to Scicurious that we collaborate on the kind of book that we would like to see, which could be called Maybe They’re Just Not That Into Science).

    LOL, rather bitterly.

    In fact, by hammering this point it may be that the authors of books like Unscientific America and Don’t Be Such a Scientist are perpetuating the caricature of scientists as nerdy, boring, and socially-inept that they spend so much time railing against.

    I’ve argued elsewhere that “Don’t Be Such a Scientist” is a horrible title for essentially that reason. It magnifies the “nerd” idea at the expense of the positive ideals of the profession: be willing to change your mind based on new evidence, look complexity in the eye, bend over backwards to find how you might be wrong, etc. A Science Communicator(TM) shouldn’t abandon these ideals when they set aside the technical jargon.

    Olson’s title makes it sound like a posse of scientists drove over his cat. If he wants to sell his book to scientists — who, presumably, make up most of his target audience — it was a terrible marketing decision.

    We’re not going to fix the state of national science literacy by adding a few glitzier books to the “science” shelf, there at the back of the Barnes-and-Borders-A-Million. Ultimately, we have to get the school system working right. Books can help us energize and equip parents to help with this, but they’re only part of the solution.

  4. #4 Mickey Schafer
    September 21, 2009

    Books are not the only answer, but they are part of it — especially books for kids — Interesting Nonfiction for Kids is a great place to start http://www.inkrethink.blogspot.com/.

    Citizen Science projects are another great place for people to feed the scientist within. In fact, that idea, “the scientist within” is one missing from a lot of science discourse. And this is one area where faith has done a better marketing job. When I was growing up, science explained the natural world; religion took care of the soul. If science did a poor job of explaining how to deal with evil, religion did a lousy job of explaining photosynthesis. Both aspects of existence had their own method and approach. But religion has done a better job of making people feel connected, especially with a general message of “we all have the divine spark.” Science is less welcoming from the outset — which is odd given how cool most kids find science-y stuff.

    We’ve made some progress in establishing a scientific vocabulary as part of general culture (a science teacher pointed this out on an NPR interview — it’s especially evident in taxonomy, “X is a kind of Y”). My kids are studying “matter” as the first science subject of the year, and are full of basic definitions for “matter,” “volume” and for concepts such as melting point, boiling point, and freezing point. They like this kind of stuff because it gives them a way of understanding, hence controlling, their relationship to the natural world. I try to imbue learning this stuff with a sort of moral urgency: we have a responsibility to understand the world around us so that we can made the best decisions possible. My hope is that adding emotive content keeps them interested and involved.

  5. #5 Scicurious
    September 21, 2009

    I love how we had the same conversation and got SUCH different things out of it. :)

    Science outreach is totally important (especially to get what scientists actually DO into the public eye), but I think in order to really get this out there we’re going to have to incentivize it in some way. Right now, many scientists in biomed in particular are “punished” (or at least, not benefited) by every single hour they are not spending at the bench or writing grants. And service is merely committee work. Including outreach in service, and promoting outreach with incentives, would be a good start. Of course, then you have to get the other scientists to APPRECIATE it…

  6. #6 Laelaps
    September 21, 2009

    Thanks for all the detailed and thoughtful comments.

    Just to make one point clear, though, I wasn’t considering pop-sci books as the whole of what science communication should be. I picked them to be an example of the triumphs and problems of science communication and to drive home the point that scientists are not just being idle when it comes to reaching out to the public.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2009

    Laelaps:

    Just to make one point clear, though, I wasn’t considering pop-sci books as the whole of what science communication should be.

    Oh, indeed — I’m sorry if I gave the impression that you’d given me that impression!

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    September 21, 2009

    I left a comment on this and sci’s post over at sci’s.

    I think this is an excellent discussion and I agree with much of what Brian has said. I will add, though (and this is for you too, Blake) that READING the book before you criticize it will add significant credibility to your critique after you’ve read it. Or, more exactly, by telling us that Randy’s got it wrong before you read the book, any review you produce later might be thought of by some as not worth reading.

    Or, putting it still another way, drawing conclusions prior to the experiment is not the usual way of the scientist…. (String theorists excepted?)

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    September 21, 2009

    Oh, and Laelaps, you are making a very important point when you say that there are many excellent communicators among scientists. I was at an event the other day in one of the larger research buildings at the U of M and this reminded me that there are a couple of thousand scientists workig there. Of them, only a few have written books popularizing science. So it is a tiny percentage. But that tiny percentage has a HUGE impact. This is an important point that should not be forgotten, and thanks for making it.

  10. #10 Laelaps
    September 21, 2009

    Greg; All I say in this post is that Olson’s book is one of several published this year about how scientists should interact with the public. I take issue with the phrase/concept “Don’t be such a scientist”, not the book itself (at least not yet), and as I said in this post I will review the book when I have the chance to read it.

    I did not draw any “conclusions prior to the experiment.” All I offer here, if anything, is a hypothesis based upon what Olson has done before (i.e. Sizzle) and the way the book has been marketed. (Contrary to the old aphorism, you can tell something about a book by its cover.) The “test” of my hypothesis will involve reading Olson’s book and if the results are contrary to what I have expected I will discuss them in detail. Your criticism about this post not fitting into the “way of the scientist” does not hold up.

  11. #11 bill;www.wildramblings.com
    September 21, 2009

    I am a ecologist, and as such I often feel technical details and concepts that can easily be explained in nontechnical jargon.

    From my point of view it is much more important to inform people, especially given present impacts on our ecological systems by climate change and other issues. If I can communicate an idea in a way that is easily understood by everyone than that is more important, to me.

    It’s not always easy, and I’m not always successful but I do always try (not that what I have to say is anymore important than anyone else).

    One more point, and I believe this is of the utmost importance. No matter where you stand on an issue it is critical that you make your case in a civil and respectful answer. Not only will people be more apt to listen but you will be more receptive to the ideas of others and be less apt to get “stuck” on a thought that is either incorrect or has a dead end.

    Just my opinion and thank you very much for the thoughtful post.

    bill;www.wildramblings.com

  12. #12 Raymond Minton
    September 21, 2009

    Since the passing of Sagan and Gould, there simply aren’t that many good communicators who make science fun (Neil Tyson on PBS is one who comes to mind.) They should keep trying though, because the “product” they’re peddling is a fascinating one, as visceral as it is cerebral. I hope they manage to find good spokespeople who can appeal to that child-like sense of wonder in all of us.

  13. #13 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2009

    Greg Laden,

    What Laelaps said. Normally, I don’t care that much about how books are titled; however, so much emphasis has been placed on the need to “market” science that in this case I think it’s fair to consider the poor marketing of that message itself. As Brian noted in the original post:

    We have been bickering over “framing” (or the same idea by any other name) for years now and all it has shown is the inability of framing advocates to effectively market that idea to scientists.

    The people who insist they know how to convince an audience have had a remarkably poor track record of convincing the scientists they actually need to reach. The “experts” who insist on civility turn out to be civil towards everyone except those vitally necessary for the project of improving science literacy.

    I chose to make my career in science. In a very real sense, I’ve dedicated my life to it. I’m sure I could think of a title less likely to make me buy a book than Don’t Be Such a Scientist!, but that one is still an excellent demotivator. If the content of the book is good, then that’s fine, and working scientists who discover it via reviews would still be likely to buy it, but the title is still terrible marketing.

  14. #14 Loree Griffin Burns
    September 21, 2009

    Interesting post.

    There are slews of accurate, relevant, and highly readable books about science published every year … they just happen to be published for children. A good many of these books are suitable for adult reading and could (in my humble but not unbiased opinion; I write some of these books!), go a long way toward helping the layperson understand scientific concepts. Lynne Cherry’s HOW WE KNOW WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT OUR CHANGING CLIMATE, for example, is written for 8-14 year olds, but I’d guess it would give a lot of adults who need it a firmer sense of what climate change is, how we record it, and what we can do about it; not bad for a book they can read in its entirety over lunch.

    I guess what I am saying is that kids books are not just for kids, and that the struggle to popularize science is happening in many, many forums.

    Keep up the good work!

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    September 21, 2009

    OK, guys, fine, but I don’t think that is how one best reads a book. Honestly, I really think that if you write a review that says the book sucks, the comments above in retrospect will look like something indicating a bias, even if it is not. That’s the only point I’m making here. Telling me that my argument falls apart is merely confirming the strength of your bias to any observer who is unsure of your approach.

    Don’t be such scientists, guys!!!

    Oh, and don’t be so defensive!

    Oh, and take it down a notch!

    And don’t be so bloggy all the time!!! And wipe your feet before you come in the house!

  16. #16 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2009

    You forgot, “And get off my lawn!”

  17. #17 ~L.K.
    September 21, 2009

    I never really had a problem with scientific jargon, although I’m actually interested in science). It’s not that hard, but merely looking up or realizing what it means. Maybe there’s some sort of defeatist, pessimistic look on long words out there, I don’t know. (Of course, walking around my college, I’ve heard plenty of people complain how an 8 letter word is “Too big”.)

    As someone mentioned, there are great books out there for kids, but not adults, and no adult wants to be caught reading a book for an 8-yr old. It’s a pride thing.

    What I hate is when I read an article about a new scientific discovery and they dumb down the subject matter in order for the non-scientists to understand. However, they muddle the actual story because, apparently, simple astronomy, for example, is too difficult for the common person. It’s often counter-intuitive. Instead, people get a false understanding and never learn simple jargon to understand anything at a higher level.

  18. #18 Mickey Schafer
    September 21, 2009

    Scicurious — I’m not up on biomed funding, but have often wondered if there is room in grant writing for including something like a “publicist” or “communications consultant”, etc? Law schools hire editors to help their students/profs write…these editors are often grad students, who, in turn, get terrific experience and $$ for food/shelter/beer — why not develop similar inter-departmental relationships where grad students (or adjuncts, lecturers, visiting profs — there are lots of possibilities here) help bench scientists communicate? Oh, and before the “ghost writing” screaming starts, I’m not suggesting penning a dissertation on someone’s behalf. But Outreach is a different kind of communication skill — and if someone were hired to actually plan it, to do the write-ups and phone calls, to twitter dates/events, to drive bench-weary scientist to twinkling-eyed citizen — it might be an easier sell.

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2009

    ~L.K. wrote:

    Maybe there’s some sort of defeatist, pessimistic look on long words out there, I don’t know. (Of course, walking around my college, I’ve heard plenty of people complain how an 8 letter word is “Too big”.)

    I bumped into somebody on the Interwebs the other day who was complaining about the highbrow, elitist, self-congratulatory language being wielded in a blog post. As far as I could make out, the language in question was the word “morphological”. In an uncharacteristic display of courtesy, I refrained from breaking out Let Me Google(TM) That For You. I mean, what’s more arrogant: using a bit of technical vocabulary, or expecting that everything you read will be written with your half-forgotten high-school education in mind? Grumble, grumble. Let me just get out my cane to shake at these people for a moment. . . .

    As someone mentioned, there are great books out there for kids, but not adults, and no adult wants to be caught reading a book for an 8-yr old. It’s a pride thing.

    It would be unfortunate if an adult passed up the chance to read one of Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guides under the impression that it was a “kids’ book”. The first volume of his Cartoon History of the Universe could stand a bit of rewriting now, what with palaeontological discoveries since 1978 and all, but the genetics, physics, chemistry and statistics Guides are pretty darn awesome.

    What I hate is when I read an article about a new scientific discovery and they dumb down the subject matter in order for the non-scientists to understand. However, they muddle the actual story because, apparently, simple astronomy, for example, is too difficult for the common person.

    I remember finding two sets of stories, published a couple years apart: one said that black holes promoted star formation, and the other that they inhibited it. Naturally, the stories which were published later had no indication about the ones put out earlier, and none of them had enough details to let the reader understand the different circumstances they were talking about, and why the seeming contradiction wasn’t really.

    And that’s when the publications in question aren’t actively promoting nonsense and finding excuses for pseudoscience just because it sells. . . .

  20. #20 Loree Griffin Burns
    September 21, 2009

    L.K. said: “As someone mentioned, there are great books out there for kids, but not adults, and no adult wants to be caught reading a book for an 8-yr old. It’s a pride thing.”

    Some of the nonfiction (NF) books written for today’s teens are pretty hard to distinguish from adult books, actually. The most obvious “tell” is that they are usually illustrated (photographs, graphics, or other art) which, aside from outing adult readers as “juvenile” (!), are part of the reason these books for young people are so good at communicating difficult concepts to a lay audience in the first place.

    Look at a book like WRITTEN IN BONE, by Sally M. Walker … it’s written for older teens and contains in its pages a comprehensive look at the fields of forensic anthropology and archaeology. Almost any English-speaking adult could read this book, follow the science, and come away with a firmer understanding of how archaeologists understand and document human history.

    I’m just sayin’ …

  21. #21 Whomever1
    September 21, 2009

    Books are all very well–I read a lot of them myself–but they are not the medium of choice for most people. I’d like to see a fictional TV series (say) where the hero made it through the day by testing hypotheses and being overtly “Scientific”. “Bones” and “Monk” both touch on this a little.

  22. #22 Dave C
    September 21, 2009

    I am a 26-year-old undergraduate Biology major who hopes to somebody get his PhD and pursue biological research (we’ll see how that goes) as a career. Until around the age of 20, I had essentially no interest in science. Maybe it was because I had (mostly) awful and incompetent science teachers in junior high and high school, maybe not. It wasn’t until I lost my faith and started becoming more interested in systems of thought built primarily on evidence that I started becoming more interested in science. At first, all I did was read evo/creo debates on the internet; then I started reading science blogs (Pharyngula was my first); then I moved on to pop-science books by people like Sagan, Dawkins, Gould and Greene; then I started reading more technical stuff, and after realizing that I was not capable of teaching myself everything I wanted to learn, I went back to school.

    All of that is to say. . .I’m not sure what. You never really know what’s going to be a person’s “gateway” into science, but there are a lot of potential gateways out there. I do think, though, that it’s definitely important for kids to have good scientific resources and encouragement at a young age–I know I wish now that I had been one of those kids who collected bugs or had a home chemistry set–but I guess that’s true of education in general.

    You guys really are providing a service that is important to a lot of us. I hope you realize that.

  23. #23 DNLee
    September 22, 2009

    This is a valuable topic and if you think science communication is in need of a jumpstart for the general public, then it needs and emergency overhaul in communities of color.

    I like the idea of making science cool, to a degree. I would definitely like to see science become more accessible and less ‘other worldly’ to these under-represented groups.

  24. #24 Jim Thomerson
    September 22, 2009

    A very large proportion of the population takes science courses in high school and as part of university general education requirements. Doing these courses better, with the goal of producing students who think science is both interesting and important, would be a really good thing. There has been some thinking about this in the academic community. For example, at my university, general education biology classes are now limited in size, but major classes are not. (I used to teach them 186 at a whack.) This is one area where we have a somewhat captive audience and scientists who should be able to do the job. There is a need for shift in emphasis, reward, and methodology compared to what it has been in the past.

    I don’t think writing books is going to do it, simply because the book reading audience is not that large a percentage of the population. Incidentally, at one time, James Watson’s “The Double Helix” was the most successful popular science book ever written. It went through lots of printings. I’ve used it several times as an outside reading, and students have liked it.

  25. #25 ~L.K.
    September 22, 2009

    @Black Stacey
    What’s sad is that some professors here do not bother to explain some of their material. I’ve heard on multiple accounts (mostly from other students–all of my professors have been relatively good) to just “Google it!” when they don’t know the answer. (Thankfully, my professors have tended to go for the “I don’t know the answer, so I’ll get back to you on that one” approach.)

    @Loree Griffin Burns
    I think people would be embarrassed to head into the teen or kids section of a store. This in no way means they’re bad of course! You mentioned Written in Bone, which I may go take a look at it (once my book pile dwindles a little). I volunteered to help clean and sift for a local archeologist growing up, and never really learned much behind the science.

  26. #26 ~L.K.
    September 22, 2009

    @Whomever1
    The nice thing about Bones is that Kathy Reichs remains on-board as a forensic consultant to try and keep the science at least somewhat pure. (Of course, that doesn’t mean everything is, especially Angela’s 3D holographic computer, or clearing up mall security camera photos!)

  27. #27 NickyN
    September 22, 2009

    for Scienceblogs WEBMASTER:

    FYI: This AM I tried to email the URL of this page to a friend whose ISP is q.com. I got a strange message that appeared to come from the q.com postal system saying that my friend had blocked MY ISP (Verizon).

    By some experimenting I have now determined that q.com in fact had a problem of some sort with the URL of this page.

    This may be happening with others. Perhaps this is something you can investigate.

    My apologies to all for sending this message this way, I did not know how to send it in a better (narrower) way.

  28. #28 windy
    September 23, 2009

    Anida Adler:

    Promoting scientific understanding, however much you are not interested in undermining faith, is unfortunately always going to become bogged down by and be opposed by religion, because understanding science is a notoriously common reason given by atheists for abandoning their beliefs. And religion is a very powerful thing to take on.
    Hope this was relevant and interesting.

    It was, thank you. Are you familiar with Greta Christina’s blog? She writes about atheism, science and sex, so you might find it interesting.

  29. #29 IanW
    September 23, 2009

    What scientists need to be doing is going into schools on ad-hoc visits with fun things they’ve done or learned or are investigating, and hold demonstrations of the important, fun, and cool side of science. In this way the students will grow fond of science and they will carry this fondness into adult life.

    If there’s no interest to begin with, it makes no difference how wonderful a science communicator you are, people aren’t going to pay attention, especially when there are other, more powerful distractions

    I note that you used the phrase “My library is stocked with but a small collection of these tomes” when describing your science books. The word “tomes” completely turns off any thrall I might have for those “tomes” – and I adore science!

    Just a thought! I don’t expect you to write “these thrilling page turners” (although there are science books like that) but something a little more appealing would be a better way of communicating.

    If you’re not willing to “get ‘em whilst they’re young” and you still really want to engage the adult public, then write science stories as fiction à la Michael Crichton or even after the fashion of Dan Brown (but without the inherent idiocy those two seem addicted to). Make ‘em fascinating and thrilling but keep the science real and instructive.

    Anything else has proven to be a waste of time, hasn’t it? It doesn’t reach those people who most need to understand how great science is; it reaches only those who already have an interest – just as sports reaches only those who already have an interest – but there are a lot more who develop an enthusiastic interest in sports in schools than there are who develop such an interest in science at that venue. We _can_ change this.

  30. #30 IanW
    September 23, 2009

    @17:
    “…no adult wants to be caught reading a book for an 8-yr old. It’s a pride thing.”

    Try telling that to the adults who read the Harry Potter novels and who see the movies! Really engaging fiction draws everyone in.

  31. #31 Lyn C
    September 23, 2009

    If science did a poor job of explaining how to deal with evil, religion did a lousy job of explaining photosynthesis. Both aspects of existence had their own method and approach. But religion has done a better job of making people feel connected, especially with a general message of “we all have the divine spark.”

    Thanks, Mickey, you make great points. Feeling spiritually connected and feeling scientifically curious are, for me, aspects that support each other.

    I also liked Scicurious’s point about incentivizing outreach. Lighting a fire in someone’s mind about scientific process, unlocking the gates with scientific vocabulary, connecting on a human level, and explaining how science shows we’re all connected … these are some ways to get people excited about science. The content is cool, too, but I think exciting content isn’t enough to help people overcome their fears.

    For those of us who are religious and also enthusiastic about rigorous science, we have a responsibility to show how science relates to our values. Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd (http://www.thegreatstory.org/) travel the country visiting liberal congregations, engaging people in a discussion about how evolutionary science gives us a meaningful way to understand ourselves as part of the larger body of life. The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, just to name two, have communicated clearly that science and faith support each other. Personally, I think reversing the damage from climate change is just one moral imperative that demands a response both religiously and scientifically. What I’m saying here is that there are ways to do science outreach with some people of faith, and I would hate to have science-friendly spiritual communities get overlooked as venues because of the anti-science behavior of the conservative religious fringe.

  32. #32 Bob Gregory
    September 24, 2009

    Re Mickey Shafer’s comment on a role like “publicist” or “communications consultant”, etc? to help bench scientists communicate?

    That’s my role here at the Center for Manufacturing, though it includes mainly editing and “translating” rather than public events. It can be put into grant budgets for NSF usually since they often demand “dissemination” and/or outreach and student recruiting. We’re pondering ways to clone me for other departments. I can describe what I do at more length if anyone is interested.

  33. #33 Caryn
    September 25, 2009

    Bob, that’s what I do on a volunteer basis for a nonprofit. I must say it would be nice to be paid to do it for someone. Can you elucidate?

  34. #34 alison
    September 30, 2009

    Hopefully not too far off topic – but we’ve just launched a new science blog collective in NZ: http://sciblogs.co.nz/

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