Pharyngula

The image of scientists

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Carl Zimmer reviews A Flock of Dodos, and also brings up that worrisome issue, the image of scientists in this country. Cosmic Variance is talking about image, too. Scientists get called “inarticulate”, “high-handed”, “stiff” and “arrogant”. “Arrogant” is terribly unfair as a criticism—a bit of arrogance is a virtue, and is exactly what you need in someone who is going to stick his neck out…and the creationists from Gish to Behe have possessed a superabundance of arrogance themselves.

As for inarticulate, that’s not quite right either. Listen to a talk by a scientist, and while there are many who are wooden, there are also many who are enthusiastic and passionate and funny. I’ve heard Gould and Crick and JZ Young and Ted Bullock and Dawkins and Mike Land talk, and they were terrific; a good science talk is a good story with it’s own rhythms and rules. The problem is that if you put those same speakers in front of a lay audience, the listeners don’t know the language, and the speaker is deprived of a large chunk of their vocabulary. They can charge ahead and speak over the audience and get accused of arrogance, or try to gear down and struggle to explain basic words and concepts that they usually invoke simply by naming, and then they get accused of being inarticulate. Teaching undergraduates is helpful practice, but the majority of our hot, well-known scientists are famous for their research, and typically have light teaching loads. Those of us who do invest a lot of time in explaining things to freshman don’t often have the research clout to warrant the popular speaking invitations.

I sure don’t know where the answer lies. I do know that being a good communicator to people other than your peers or students has just about zero influence on promotion and tenure for scientists. Zimmer mentions the blank stare he got from scientists when ID was brought up, and there’s a good reason for that: it just isn’t an important focus for most of us.

Comments

  1. #1 kyle
    February 14, 2006

    It’s often funny to me how quickly scientists of different stripes see the folly in ID and dismiss it. Even physicists (my clan) quickly see the argument from ignorance, false dichotomy, and dead end approach (god lives in the things we don’t understand, so don’t go finding out new things or you’ll kill him).

  2. #2 Gerardo Camilo
    February 14, 2006

    I was involved in a round table on global warming and globalization at our university’s business school two years ago. I presented some data about recent rates of CO2 accumulation as well as historical data on the correlation between temperature and CO2. After my presentation a student asked about the “other side” of the argument. I proceeded to indicate that scientifically, there was no “other side”. I came across as a arrogant and intolerant individual according to the students’ assessment. Part of the issue is that in most other disciplines, there are not just other side, but multiple sides, and all opinions are respected and listen too. Sorry, but science doesn’t work that way.

  3. #3 Jim Harrison
    February 14, 2006

    I think a lot of scientists find it very difficult to realize just how little even educated lay people know about nature. A friend of mine participated in a series of seminars on college teaching during which biologists and physicists made presentations on their research to history and literature profs. The social scientists and liberal arts Ph.D.s uniformly reported that the lectures sailed way over their heads.

    Heuristic principle: you can’t make it simple enough. Assume nothing.

  4. #4 MissPrism
    February 14, 2006

    A Kansas City Star review of Flock of Dodos (linked to from PT) quotes Olsen on scientists:

    “They’re rotten at communication because they’re so detached. Many of them don’t even have TV sets.”

    Those of us who are rotten at comunication are more likely so because we’re not trained in it, we’re given no time to devote to it, we’ve no budget for it, and we’d get no recognition for it if we did it. As for being ‘detached’… is it really fair to condemn scientists for being intellectuals, or for being absorbed in their work?

    Looked at like this, it’s amazing that so many scientists do manage to be excellent communicators. Keep up the good work PZ!

  5. #5 Greg Peterson
    February 14, 2006

    Part of the solution is someone like Carl Zimmer, and like Chris Mooney. Folks who are well-versed in science and specialized in communications. As one of my editors once told me, when I was having to write on geotechnical fabrics (wha?!), “I’d rather try to teach a good writer the ins and outs of erosion control media than try to teach an erosion engineer how to write.” Uh. You get the point. There are talented communicators who can help fill in the gap. Science does have its superb communicators–certainly Dawkins and Brian Greene and Carl Sagan and Gould and, yes, Myers, among them. But some of the best service done to science literacy has come and will come from the person who is a communicator first, and has learned how to report on science issues in a way that appeals to laypersons. Scientists don’t have to be in it alone.

  6. #6 Johnny Vector
    February 14, 2006

    I haven’t heard most of the people you mention, but I did attent a seminar for laypeople given by Gould, and it was spellbinding. He understood how to use narrative to keep people’s attention and get a point across. A rare combination.

    Sigh.

  7. #7 Mark Paris
    February 14, 2006

    Scientsts are rotten at communication like I am rotten at communication in Greek. Scientists communicate with a different vocabulary, as PZ notes. Now you’re asking them to communicate not only without a good deal of their vocabulary, but also using a different vocabulary that does not even have words for some of the concepts. If a scientist says,” Integrate this,” how is he supposed to explain that to a layman who does not know what integration is? Does he simply and say something like, “We peform some mathematical operations on this,” or does he try to explain the concept? And how long will a layman listen to that? The problem is not so much that scientists cannot communicate but that they are being forced to communicate to an ignorant audience by a bunch of ignorant politicians, businessmen and religious/political fanataics who want the science to say what they want, not what it actually says.

  8. #8 Carl Buell(OGeorge)
    February 14, 2006

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here, it’s not simply the fault of the scientists. It’s just the way it is. Most people are not equipped to understand. I’m considered the smart one in my family, and I’m a long way from the brightest light on the chandelier of humanity. I’m willing to bet that every commenter on this post has a better educational background and is most likely is just flat-out brighter than I am. I only get some of what most of my friends understand. The details of PZ’s work fascinate me, but I’d be lying to say I understood it all. What I HAVE come to understand is the process science proceeds by. Any individual scientist can be dead wrong about a certain hypothesis, but it stands or falls by the evidence. Time and peer-review and others looking at a problem and more peer-review and replication will eventually bring about a consensus. And even that can change with more evidence. There is no democratic vote. Opinions don’t count like they do in a vote. The evidence trumps all.

    All my relatives have opinions, but most are not valid and I’ve learned that it’s not good for family peace to show them why. People don’t like to be told by others that their beliefs aren’t rational or supported by facts. Or worse, they don’t (or refuse to) understand the evidence against their point of view. It’s just the way it is that children are still under the control of the parents when most learn the way they will think for the rest of their lives. That certainly isn’t always true; I’m living proof, but science will always be a hard sell. My family is living proof.

  9. #9 Dennis Lynch
    February 14, 2006

    I do both science/engineering and writing. The secret is to eliminate jargon and get to the results of the work – we performed petrological testing on igneous rocks and found the percentage of silicates to volatiles to be yada yada – has no meaning. Tests on the lava indicate water was present at the time of the eruption, water is one cause of explosive eruptions – says more to a lay person. Scientists love their data, live by their methodology, but the uninitiated don’t understand any of that.

  10. #10 Eric Wallace
    February 14, 2006

    The communication gap is hardly unique to scientists. Ask your average economist, or engineer, to communicate a complex idea to a lay audience and you’ll see all the same problems. People are just bad at it. Or, to put it positively, it’s a real skill to be able to communicate well.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but one problem I’ve noticed is that there seems to be some friction between “workaday” scientists and the few that actually are good at communicating with the public. Carl Sagan took a lot of flak from scientists for trying to talk about science with a lay audience. I saw not long ago, on this very blog, some quote from some scientist dismissing Dawkins as not an “important scientist”.

    So, maybe one thing some scientists can do is cultivate a better attitude toward those scientists and science journalists who are already doing this job.

  11. #11 CanuckRob
    February 14, 2006

    I think OlduvaiGeorge has said it well, it’s more than the vocabulary, it is a failure to understand how science works which is different than most other areas of human endeavour. Outside of science opinions count because there is often no hard and fast evidence to support one over another. If we spent time teaching more people (from elementarty school onwards) about how science works, how to think critically (Sagan’s BS detector approach) and the fascinating (and very human) history of science I think most lay people would be much better equipped to understand what is happening in science without having to know all the vocabulary, maths etc. At least they would be less credulous about the claims of pseudoscience.

    I am not in science (I am a financial planner) but have always been interested in science as the way to understand the universe in which we live. I got started by reading science fiction (yeah the usual Asimov and Heinlien juveniles starting at about age 6). I took many science courses in school and college but frankly I rely on poplularizers (and now blogs) to keep me somewhat current on what is happeneing. People like John Gribben, Simon Singh, Carl Sagan, Brian Greene and even Terry Pratchett make science exciting and fairly accessible to anyone that can read at a Grade 10 level. Does it mean I have expert knowledge like PZ or Sean Carroll (either the physicist or the evo-devo one:))? Of course not but at least I can read soemthing in the paper without being overly credulous and I can have an intelligent conversation about many sceintific topics with other lay persons and even soem professionals.

    It can be done and should be done. However it is my perception that many popularizers are treated poorly by “real” scientists instead of being treated as valued allies.

    I don’t know what to do either PZ but I support what you and others like you are doing.

    PS Since when it is a crime not to have a television? I have one but it is only turned on for hockey:)

  12. #12 Greg Peterson
    February 14, 2006

    I think some scientists are (understandably) afraid of analogies, which are always going to be imperfect, but they sure help me understand things better. The pseudoscientist ID clan gets this, with their Mount Rushmore and mousetrap. Just because it’s possible–even easy–to lie with analogies doesn’t mean that they should not be judiciously employed.

    Zimmer does something else skillfully: Puts on a freak show. Everyone loves a freak show. Pull’em in with zombie cockroaches, and you can tell a thrilling evolutionary story.

    Myers uses sharp rhetoric. EXPLOSIVE rhetoric. Backed up by difficult-to-dispute facts. This can be effective, too. Sometimes I listen to far-right talk radio, just to feel the outrage, and damned if sometimes I don’t have to admit they have a point about something or another. Pissing people off can sometimes have a salutary educational benefit.

    And people like Dawkins and Gould are just wonderful writers. People who might not care too much for science as science might be very willing to read something just for its entertaining, clear prose. They also bring that “Crocodile Hunter” gee-whiz, isn’t-she-a-beaut sense of wonder to their subject matter, which can be highly infectious.

    And finally, some people, like Chris Mooney, help to show that these are not purely academic matters–that the real-world consequences of getting the information right can hit our pocketbooks, impact our children’s health, or influence whether we have a fulfilled life.

    Things are far from hopeless. Between the matter and the art, there are multiple opportunities to engage and enlighten even the hardheaded. Different bait might attract different fish, but there’s some way to get everyone on board. I think we just have to recognize how critical it is to do so.

  13. #13 guthrie
    February 14, 2006

    From my point of view, its a cimplex problem. Scientists communicate their science bst in the technical language we spend years learning. Most people do not, and cannot learn that language, because it takes years to learn.

    Of course, not everyone is interested in learning, but a surprising number of people are, especially when what you are trying to explain to them intersects their everyday life.
    I work in a factory where only 4 of us actually have university degrees, out of about 82 staff. Many of the rest left school at 16. But you can explain scientific things to them as long as you relate concepts to what they know already, and dont use too technical terms.

    A simple example is explaining to one bloke what would happen when a filter was full up. In trying to get across that it would suddenly let lots of contaminants through, I explained it was like a bath filling up and overflowing. One minute, nothing is coming over, next, water is cascading over the side. I think it a reasonable enough analogy, and it got the concept over.

  14. #14 decrepitoldfool
    February 14, 2006

    When people ask what they believe to be a simple question and the answer turns out to be more complicated than they expected, they’re faced with two possibilities. 1: they have ‘misunderestimated’ the problem, or 2: the other person is trying to snow them. Combine distrust with impatience and you’ll always come up with 2:

  15. #15 Troutnut
    February 14, 2006

    I saw Flock of Dodos this Sunday when the filmmaker showed it at Cornell as part of our Darwin Day celebration. It’s the best documentary I’ve ever seen. And it drew thunderous applause and great discussion from an audience of mostly scientists here at Cornell.

    It works pretty well on two distinct levels. It does a pretty good job speaking to the general public and explaining that ID is a marketing phenomenon rather than a scientific one. It’s witty, simple, and identifiable. At the same time, it really shines as a warning to scientists that ID and its ilk are a new kind of threat and we should take seriously the need to play the PR game against anti-intellectuals of all stripes. The information age has changed the way public opinion is influenced, and I don’t just mean that they get more news from the Internet — the key point is that attention spans are shrinking and the importance of sound bites and image marketing is growing.

    So it’s no longer enough to have the facts on our side, or even to be eloquent in explaining those facts. Scientists need to start learning about the non-trivial psychological aspects of public relations and image management. To many people, a cowboy hat is a better credential than a PhD, and these people are showing up on school boards and in other decision-making roles around the country.

    Also, this is not just about coherent communication. That’s part of the problem, but this is about public relations in general, including infrastructure. The Discovery Institute has a $5 million budget to drive their anti-intellectualism, which dwarfs the budget of any comparable institution on the pro-science side. PR organizations favoring science tend to be slow-acting government bureaucracies that can’t keep up with nimble private PR think tanks in a battle of timely sound bites.

    I’ve had most of these thoughts for a long time, but Flock of Dodos really helped me fit things together. Leaving it I felt like I just had a huge eye-opener even though I can’t think of any specific point I didn’t already know. Everything just fits now. It’s inspiring and I recommend it to anyone.

  16. #16 Caledonian
    February 14, 2006

    Why must scientists learn marketing and 21st-century communication strategies? Why should they fight in this war at all?

  17. #17 Left_Wing_Fox
    February 14, 2006

    Oh come on CanuckRob, what about David Suzuki, The Nature of Things, and Quirks and Quarks?

    Sure, some scientists are too wrapped up in the terminology to be able to come across accurately to the laymen, but there are certainly translators in our society who do a great job at converting obscure concepts into understanable ideas.

    Quirks and Quarks is the weekly science program on CBC radio. Originally hosted by David Suzuki, it’s currently hosted by Bob Macdonald, a reporter with an interest in science. He does a great job of engaging scientists with some of the interesting research being done today, and asks the sort of everyday questions folks might have about these discoveries, and does a pretty good job of simplifying the uissues.

    I’m a fan of the show, can you tell? 😉 They also have a podcast: http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/

    I think the big difference is that there really isn’t much in the way of a national platform for science “evangelism”. Cosmos was great for that, since PBS is available free in many of the areas that cable or network tv stations are unavailable. These days, outside of NOVA and the science of flashy disasters on Discovery, there’s not a lot out there to bring science to the masses.

  18. #18 Troutnut
    February 14, 2006

    Why must scientists learn marketing and 21st-century communication strategies? Why should they fight in this war at all?

    That’s another thing I picked up from Flock of Dodos, though more from the discussion after the screening than from the film itself.

    First, learning these communication strategies and investing in a PR infrastructure is going to be necessary to soundly defeat ID and other well-marketed pseudoscience. I don’t think that’s in dispute. The question becomes: is that really necessary? What harm does it do if the average Joe doesn’t believe in evolution? Why should scientists be concerned by non-scientific culture?

    The Flock of Dodos discussion helped clarify exactly why this is so important, especially on the ID issue. The reason is that evolution is the first time in a child’s science education where it’s socially okay to say, “I don’t believe this.” They learn that they can oppose obvious scientific fact and still be respected by their peers, not ridiculed. And when they learn early on that it’s okay to disagree with such a fundamental tenet of science, they have no internal conflict over rejecting scientific fact whenever it suits them.

    This carries over from evolution into obvious places like global warming and stem cell research. But it’s much more broadspread than that. The general public is beginning to widely respect well-marketed challenges to the scientific consensus on all kinds of issues. For instance, in northern Wisconsin a group of retired fishing guides has created a heated political fight against the consensus of trained fishery scientists about which strain of muskellunge (a popular sport fish) will grow best in area lakes. It parallels the ID issue in many ways.

    Most members of the public have lost their respect for science; they’re more likely to listen to somebody they’d enjoy having a beer with than somebody with the scientific training to know his armpit from his elbow. This problem is causing big headaches for scientists across the nation on a small scale as well as worldwide issues like global warming. And seems to start with the early social approval of ignoring evolution.

  19. #19 Jeff Lewis
    February 14, 2006

    Hm. So.. your reaction to being called ‘arrogant’ and ‘inarticulate’.. is to argue why it’s good to be arrogant and completely miss the point of the ‘inarticulate’ comment.

    I think I see the problem. 🙂

    First off, you confuse ‘arrogant’ with ‘confident’. Arrogance is not just confident – it’s brazen, often unjustified confidence. It’s what the IDers have. They KNOW they’re right and so feel superiour.

    Second, you’re missing the point with ‘inarticulate’. It doesn’t means ‘bad speaker’ (ie: wooden or boring) – it mean ‘poor at making oneself understood,’ in this case, to the common folk.

    That is, indeed, a chronic problem of scientists who like to use obscure language that while understood by their colleagues, is lost on the average person.

    Before you come back with ‘why should we?’ or ‘who has time?’ – fair enough. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain when people don’t understand you and find you distant and arrogant, and then refuse to put any effort into fixing the problem.

    It’s like wanting to be able to bench press 200lbs, but not want to exercise, and so sit around sighing about wanting to be able to lift heavy weights – it’s infantile.

    Finally, as people in the arts industry eventually learn: it’s never the audience’s fault if they don’t appreciate you… it’s yours for not playing to the audience.

    Some scientists – like Carl Sagan and Richard Feynmann got this – they knew how to make what they do sound exciting to the public – EVEN WHEN THE PUBLIC DIDN’T UNDERSTAND. Most scientists decry this (Sagan in particular was the subject of much derision as a ‘popular scientist”) but then complain when they’re not appreciated by the average person.

    Sorry, your entry shows me you just don’t get it.

    And one last comment: “Zimmer mentions the blank stare he got from scientists when ID was brought up, and there’s a good reason for that: it just isn’t an important focus for most of us.”

    Really? How much time has gone into this one subject on this site alone and all the people who read and comment on it? How will scientists feel as their funding dries up because twits like Bush manage to restructure education and research so they have no funding at all?

    Don’t kid yourself, if you aren’t watching the oncoming headlights – you’ll be the first run over. That alone is a good reason to make it important.

    It’s basic evolution: if you don’t adapt to changes in the environment – your species dies off.

    Won’t that be ironic?

  20. #20 Pattanowski
    February 14, 2006

    For years I have wondered why it is normal for people to talk about very complex matters involving automobile engines, lawnmowers, accounting, football, computers, etc…etc…; but to try to think about a paleoenvironment (one that perhaps even occurred right where the people are standing!) is like pulling teeth!
    Most folks live on planet earth and are animals themselves; why is there such a lack of interest about nature?
    Actually, when traveling in Europe some years ago I found that this generalization did not really apply. I think many of the young are quite connected to reality.
    For southern Illinoisans however, the only nature lovers are hippies. (No problem with hippies, of course)
    Well, then again there are those people who have deer and bald eagle panoramas all over their Ford F-450’s. They must really love the earth!

  21. #21 Jackie @ Element List
    February 14, 2006

    I think you answered your own question here:

    “I sure don’t know where the answer lies. I do know that being a good communicator to people other than your peers or students has just about zero influence on promotion and tenure for scientists.”

    Universities should encourage their faculty and research staff to communicate with the public by considering public talks, books, and popular science publications, in addition to teaching and peer-reviewed work, in their promotion and tenure decisions.

    Getting their names out into the popular media will attract more students and funding. Unfortunately, I think ivory tower snobbery tends to hold a lot of universities back from attempting to communicate with “ordinary folks.”

  22. #22 Ian B Gibson
    February 14, 2006

    When ID’ers talk about arrogance, what they really mean is ‘not meeting us halfway’. That is, when scientists hold their ground (according to the science) and refrain from making unjustified concessions, they are accused of arrogance. That’s all it is, pure & simple. So yes, be arrogant!

  23. #23 Lars
    February 14, 2006

    For instance, in northern Wisconsin a group of retired fishing guides has created a heated political fight against the consensus of trained fishery scientists about which strain of muskellunge (a popular sport fish) will grow best in area lakes…

    Troutnut, OT I realize, but do you have any links for that controversy?

    Cheers – Lars

  24. #24 Paul W.
    February 14, 2006

    Jackie: Universities should encourage their faculty and research staff to communicate with the public by considering public talks, books, and popular science publications, in addition to teaching and peer-reviewed work, in their promotion and tenure decisions.

    Troutnut: Also, this is not just about coherent communication. That’s part of the problem, but this is about public relations in general, including infrastructure. The Discovery Institute has a $5 million budget to drive their anti-intellectualism, which dwarfs the budget of any comparable institution on the pro-science side.

    One huge problem with this is that scientists rely largely on public funding, and if they engage in “clearly political” speech on the public dime, there will be a huge backlash.

    For example, my environmental science friends do work with a lot of policy implications, and are generally quite opposed to Republican environmental policies; they and I believe that the science is firmly on their “side.” But if they used universities’ tax money to hire a PR firm to tell the truth about climate science, they would be accused of spending public money on partisan politics.

    Likewise, my philosopher friends are overwhelmingly atheists, and with good reasons. But if they engaged in a program of evangelizing the results of their research—cogent criticisms of religion and religious morality—there would be Hell to pay. Philosophy as done in Philosophy departments would become a huge political football, if departments granted credit toward tenure for spreading the word about atheism. (Even if it was only those professors’ salaries at stake, not spending money on PR firms.)

    Unfortunately, even if this sort of activity is right and proper on a first-order analysis—because the facts are facts, and it’s important to get them out to people who need to know—there is likely to be an appearance of impropriety if scientists go around pushing their “political” views on people too hard.

    (Notice how Deutsch defended putting Republican agenda pressure on NASA scientists—by accusing climate scientists of having “political” agendas and connections to the Democratic party. Personally, I’m pretty sure that’s because Democrats will listen to climate scientists, and Republicans won’t, and the fault lies with the Republicans. Unfortunately, for anybody who doesn’t understand that reality, it sounds like climate scientists are “partisan” in an illegitimate sense.)

    For the most part, it can’t be the role of scientists to evangelize politically-loaded science, or of universities to fund or staff major public relations efforts. We need to find other interested people—preferably people with large sums of money—who are motivated to do the PR per se. Unfortunately, that’s hard.

  25. #25 Carlo DiPietro
    February 14, 2006

    I think one of the big problems with this issue is that scientists have a burden that practitioners in other technical fields really don’t have; they have the responsibility of accurately conveying complex and often highly esoteric subject matter to a lay audience. Most people don’t need to know much about computer graphics, but I can easily imagine your average layperson falling under serious confusion if we used the jargon that we used amongst ourselves to communicate to them (storing geometric data in the class structures of Object-Oriented languages such as C++ allows flexibility in programmatic expression but contributes a lot of implementation overhead, blah blah…).

    One way to communicate to laypeople is through entertainment. Conservative political ideologues figured this out long ago. To scientists and scientifically minded people, programs on NOVA and SciAm Frontiers are certainly interesting, but to most people they’re about as stimulating as waiting at the DMV to get your license renewed. What we need to do is fuse information and entertainment like every other field has done.

  26. #26 BlueIndependent
    February 14, 2006

    Intellectual complacency is a sad by-product of the wnt-everything-now culture, of one that thinks because things are made easier, they must automatically be better. Case in point: the corporate news. People eat up rolling tickers and “up-to-the-minute” coverage because it feels better than waiting 12 hours or a day for a real story. Drudge has made his name off of abusing this. I know people that watch his site like it was NPR or something. It’s a sad day when Drudge is seen as a reliable source for anything, his motives and all.

    I’ll admit that I’ve been roped in by some of these things myself. I just have the wherewithal to know I’m ignorant about a lot of stuff, and let other people that actually know the material say their piece.

    Unchecked wealth has a big hand in this too. Unchallenged monopolies lead to a dearth of innovation like any communist system would. It is a perfect explanation for where we’re headed…

    And it’s a “trickle-down” effect, if you will. You could call it “supply-side intellect”. Commonly-marketed themes get air play, and the stuff that’s too hard to explain in 10-20 words gets dumped. And notice how much more visual everything is. There’s a reason why my parents taught me books with pictures are geared for little children. Who’d have thought we subconciously judged our own brains and eyes too slow for processing information?

  27. #27 James Gambrell
    February 14, 2006

    I think scientists do need to work on their personality. Many science students I know disdain learning anything outside their discipline, especially non-science. I think this hurts them later on when they need to interact with people who, while they may be intelligent and knowledgeable about things like history and politics, know nothing about science.

    One poster above wondered why people can be so interested and display so much energy about things like football, cars, etc, yet be totally disinterested in nature. People live in vastly different worlds, and its largely determined simply by what they interact with on a daily basis, and what kind of people they interact with. I think this whole issue is a cultural thing. There are just these huge culture gaps in the U.S. And culture can change really fast, like if we had another sputnik-style space race, or a serious world war that demanded technology and REAL results, you would see a new respect for and interest in science virtually OVERNIGHT.

    I think what we are seeing happening to our culture is just the lazy ease of luxury and surplus. Who cares about the facts when you’re rich? We can just spend and spend and cut taxes and reduce the deficit all at the same time!

    Once china and india develop and begin kicking our butts, hopefully our attitude toward science will change. If not we will decline like Europe has.

  28. #28 Janne
    February 14, 2006

    One basic problem is that as scientists, we are interested in science (wait – go with me here). What I mean is, the people that become scientists do so because they are both intensely fascinated by some aspect of the natural world, and have the talents to be able to study it in depth. Sure, you need a lot of skills as well, but you’ll have a hard time learning those skills without any talent, and you won’t have the patience and drive to slog through the training without a deep interest.

    The same goes for other fields, of course; a successful artist is an artist because they find their art compelling to do, and they’re successful because they’re good at it. Likewise economy, surgery, fine carpentry – and communication. To be a good communicator too, you need to have an interest in it, and have a talent for it.

    Having both a keen interest in and a good talent for something is not all that common, however. And having it in two rather separate areas with little overlap is rarer still. On one hand you have people happily spending months deep in the Amazon hunting leeches by sticking their own unprotected limbs in the water; or spends weeks engrossed in sorting fossilised bone fragments; or sits nights and weekends working on a computer simulation of neuronal pathways. On the other, you have people intensely interested in _people_, that want to talk with them, interact with them, reach across to them. These are not naturally overlapping skillsets.

    I think many people have met, or know about, scientists that are perfectly competent, even great, in their field, but that are an absolute disaster to let in front of any kind of hapless audience. You sit and watch the lecture unfold like a slow-motion car wreck, not knowing whether the defenseless undergraduates or panic-stricken lecturer is suffering the most. This is not strange, or weird; it is only natural that only a few people in a given field are really good communicators; most will be indifferent to bad, and an unlucky few will be a disaster looking for a place to happen.

    It is not realistic to expect scientists in general to be good at – or interested in – communicating. We do not require it of most other professions, and we should not do so here either. Every inept, bumbling performance by a good scientist that is a lousy communicator cancels the good work the likes of Zimmer and Dawkins do so well. Instead we should do what other fields do: leave it to those in the field who do have an interest and ability; and delegate it to professional communicators (journalists, writers) by making sure they do understand the issues and can make a good case.

  29. #29 Caledonian
    February 15, 2006

    “I think one of the big problems with this issue is that scientists have a burden that practitioners in other technical fields really don’t have; they have the responsibility of accurately conveying complex and often highly esoteric subject matter to a lay audience.”

    But that’s just it, Carlo: they don’t have that responsibility.

    Ultimately, all people are responsible for thinking critically. No one can do that for them, much less should do that for them.

  30. #30 chris
    February 15, 2006

    PS Since when it is a crime not to have a television?

    Damn near in Britain. You are officially classified as a deprived household if you don’t have one, and if you don’t have a license there is a presumption of guilt that you’re running one illegally.

    I think people in this thread generally underestimate how threatening many people find those of us who are in one way or another out of the mainstream. If you’re weird you’re bad.

  31. #31 Inoculated Mind
    February 15, 2006

    We need several things. There is a diverse array of people out there. There’s no decision to be made between a Dawkins and a Miller, nor should we decide between a journalist dabbling in science and a scientist dabbling in journalism. Granted, your typical scientist may not be able to communicate to the general public very well, nor could the typical journalist tackle scientific issues very well.
    I’ll wager that there are just as many scientists who can communicate well as there are good communicators by trade who can write about science. We need Zimmers to paint graceful pictures with his typing fingers, but he’s only relating the discoveries of others. We also need scientists who can express their passion for science. I dunno, it seems to me that when you’ve got some old scientist raving about the life of Darwin and his perspective on evolution from his research, you know his mind has been there and you want to come along, too.
    People respond to different approaches. Some people need to make light of discoveries and joke about them to get interested, and some people may also crave the details of discoveries, and we need that too.

  32. #32 G. Tingey
    February 15, 2006

    The bit about … “there is no “other side” to an argument, because the ignorant/prejudiced/stupid/arrogamt/ religious ( pick any combination of the above ) case just is not a case.
    Sometimes, (often?) people are flat wrong. But popular journalism or social conditioning cannot see this.

    Furthermore, science is not conducted by a popular vote of the ignorant and uninformed.
    And experimental results trum everything – oops, but that’s the way it is.

  33. #33 spencer
    February 15, 2006

    You are officially classified as a deprived household if you don’t have one, and if you don’t have a license there is a presumption of guilt that you’re running one illegally.

    Wait wait wait – you need to have a license to own a TV in Britain? Or am I reading your post wrong?

  34. #34 MissPrism
    February 15, 2006

    Spencer – yes, the TV license fee pays for the BBC, explaining why the BBC has no adverts (and, to me, why its programmes are good – they’re a public service and not a commercial operation). However, the license does cost about a hundred pounds a year, and using a TV without one is treated as a much more serious offence than you might imagine.

    If you don’t have a TV, you don’t have to pay the license, but you get letters every month or so asking you why not and reminding you of the dire consequences of license dodging. I speak from experience, being one of those detached and arrogant non-TV-watchers!

  35. #35 Troutnut
    February 15, 2006

    Lars, if you want some links relating to the fishery controversy I mentioned, send me an email at jrn7@cornell.edu. Any national attention (good or bad) for the pseudo-science side would boost them at this point, so I won’t post the links here. Here are the non-specific details relating to this discussion:

    The controversy is not a case of extremely PR-savvy people attacking science, but still they have a few things going for them in the court of public opinion. 1.) They’re “good ol’ boys” who’ve been in the area all their lives, opposed to scientists who were born elsewhere and moved to the area because they loved it. 2.) The local press, just like the national media, tries to give both sides equal time rather than weighting coverage by credibility. 3.) They are rightfully the underdogs, and people root for underdogs.

    Just like ID proponents, they accuse scientists of being “arrogant” and “closed-minded” for refusing to meet the pseudo-scientific fringe half-way. And compared to ID, this pseudo-science movement is fairly inept, but they’ve still gained too much momentum because the public is so predisposed to accept “armchair quarterbacking” of scientific policy. I suspect that this distrust of mainstream applied science begins with distrust of evolution in most people. That’s why it’s so important to achieve resounding victory in the Evo/ID fight.

    I’m sure other readers, especially those practicing applied science outside academia, have similar stories of local-scale headaches caused by the resurgence of pseudo-science. It would be interesting to see them.

  36. #36 Chris Clarke
    February 15, 2006

    I’m willing to bet that every commenter on this post has a better educational background and is most likely is just flat-out brighter than I am.

    Yeah, I’m just gonna go ahead and call “bullshit” on that one, Carl. Most people in this thread probably don’t have any idea how the fins were attached on a Chalicothere, but you can rattle off the arrangement of the fin feathers and whether they grew in a clockwise or counterclockwise Fibonacci spiral. You daunt me on a regular basis, and I know I’m not the only one here.

    But that’s just it, Carlo: [scientists] don’t have that responsibility. Ultimately, all people are responsible for thinking critically. No one can do that for them, much less should do that for them.

    Now that’s arrogance.

    So where does the old-time resentment of “popularizers” fit in here? Is that something that no longer exists?

  37. #37 Sastra
    February 15, 2006

    I suspect a good part of the problem is that science, unlike pseudoscience, fails to reinforce the view that “everything happens for a reason” — you. Astronomy vs. Astrology. Physics vs. chi energy. Evolution vs. Special Creation in the Image of God.

    As far as I can tell virtually every pseudoscience eventually reduces to some sort of evidence that we are special. They’re forms of flattery. Nature cares, and physical laws bend under those higher cosmic laws which reflect and satisfy our endless need for comfort.

    In a self-absorbed culture, it’s hard to get people to care about facts which don’t directly relate to people’s lives. If these facts counteract beliefs which reassure, it’s bound to be tougher.

  38. #38 Roy Stogner
    February 15, 2006

    I do know that being a good communicator to people other than your peers or students has just about zero influence on promotion and tenure for scientists.

    It has negative influence, if being a good communicator takes time away from your research. That’s basically why Isaac Asimov left Boston U: because he had given up being a mediocre researcher to become a great lecturer and writer, and was told “This school cannot afford to pay a science writer.”

    The lesson for future scientists in academia hasn’t changed: either be so clear a communicator and so confident that you can quit your job and make a living writing for laymen, or give up altogether on writing anything but journal papers and college textbooks. The former doesn’t happen, so many science news articles and grade school science textbooks don’t get written by scientists, and the problem for the next generation gets worse.

  39. #39 Judith in Ottawa
    February 15, 2006

    So far we have discussed blogs, books, radio, television and lectures (as well as Public Relations firms!) May I suggest another opportunity, close to my heart?

    Scientists: Contact your nearest science museum! Offer to speak in their lecture series, or participate in children’s programs. We are currently developing programming for a completely renovated natural history museum with all new galleries and related materials (school programs, web info, etc.) A perfect opportunity to help make sure that the newest science is on display.

    People who bring their children to museums are making an investment in time and brains that should not be underestimated. Museums hire people who are good at explaining a field of study to a varied span of age groups. We try to accomodate a wide range of expectations from an even wider pool of knowledge. We could use all the help we can get, and we can help you, too.

  40. #40 Frumious B.
    February 15, 2006

    This ties right in to an interview with Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics and member of the UT Austin faculty, which was on the radio this morning in connection with a talk which he is giving tonight. He does stuff which seems pretty esoteric to non-physicists – zero point energy and it’s relevance to gravitation. The interviewer asked him whether there was relevance to philosophy and religion, and he said “No.” He said a lot of other stuff, too, but he started with a flat out “No.” I cheered, but he totally dropped the ball when she said, “At least religion is comprehensible to people, whereas physics and biology are not.” He basically said, “you’re right.” which I felt was a true cop out answer. In the first place, it is not true. however, neither he, nor any scientist, should not be reduced to saying “We are too understandable!” So religion has good spin doctors; does that make it somehow superior to science? It’s a red herring, and I thought the interviewer was making some kind of valiant attempt to salvage religion after Weinberg trashed it. The correct answer should have been, “so what?”

    Listen to the interview here:

    http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/kut/news.newsmain?action=article&ARTICLE_ID=878611

  41. #41 Steve LaBonne
    February 15, 2006

    Sastra nailed it. Most people simply won’t hear communication of even the highest quality if it doesn’t flatter them or promise to help them live longer, because with regard to anything else they have stuck their fingers in their ears and are humming as loudly as they can. Is that a counsel of despair? Yes, because I have not the foggiest idea what can be done about it.

  42. #42 SteveF
    February 15, 2006

    In my experience (in the UK), many scientists still aren’t appreciative of the threat. I was recently speaking to a friend who is fairly high up in NERC (a major UK funding body for Natural Sciences). He informed me that one of his colleagues in NERC is a creationist (of unspecified variety). I was somewhat shocked and concerned. He seemed to think it was amusing.

    If its taken a long time for American scientists to acknowledge the problem, we are lagging behind over here. People need to realise that creationists aren’t simply ignorant inbreds. Rather they employ sophisticated propoganda and engage in ‘research’ that has a veneer of legitimacy to the uninformed.

  43. #43 poke
    February 15, 2006

    There’s an interesting comment on Zimmer’s blog from someone with a friend who believes in astrology:

    There seems to be two things he talks about. One is that the things that astrology talks about are not so much facts, but issues to contemplate. The other is that the goal of a performing a reading is to provide long term healing in the life of the subject.

    I think one of the reason people’s irrational beliefs may be so difficult to dislodge is that those beliefs are a great deal more sophisticated than we suppose. The problem is that, like scientists steeped in their own research, people steeped in their own lives are usually unable to articulate that sophistication. Take religion for example. I’m sure there are as many theories of religion as there are religious believers. Most religious believers wouldn’t dream of articulating their particular theory because: (a) they don’t consider it their place because they’re not experts; and (b) they don’t have the skills to articulate it well. None of this, however, stops them believing it. Nor does it stop them from becoming frustrated when their beliefs are challenged and declaring that the challenger simply does not understand. It may be the case that the challenger genuinely does not understand and that the facts they are presenting are unrelated to the person’s belief.

    None of this is to say that people’s personal theories are correct, of course, or even that we should treat them with special care. But it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking people with irrational beliefs have those beliefs for the reasons they may (appear to) publically assent to. I suspect that even people who sit on the couch watching television all day have very sophisticated theories and imaginings concerning their favourite television shows. People have sophisticated fantasy lives that encompass all sorts of things, including theoretical matters; that’s just what the brain does. Nonsense like Deepak Chopra and What the Bleep Do We Know!?, where ideas are justified using a melange of poorly understood snippets of science seemingly pulled from programmes watched late night on the Discovery Channel, are probably as popular as they are because they mesh quite well with these kinds of idiosyncratic theories.

  44. #44 Keith Douglas
    February 15, 2006

    Pardon me for tooting my own horn, but there’s another way (complementary to, not instead of, the other ways). This is through the work of good science oriented philosophers. I’m not a terribly good public speaker, but I’d like to think I’m good at drawing together strands of “human interest” from various sources. Of course, most people don’t understand what philosophers do either, but there they have us to blame, since we don’t agree as much as people in other fields about what we do.

  45. #45 Inoculated Mind
    February 15, 2006

    The mathematician, finished with presenting the proof of her theorem, and a lecture hall full of Ph.D.s respond with thunderous applause. Another longstanding mystery in mathematics is solved.
    But one audience member sits unimpressed. When the clapping dies down, he stands up and asks, “Very nice, but what about the other side?

    D’oh. Who invited Bill Dembski?

  46. #46 Caledonian
    February 15, 2006

    “Is that a counsel of despair? Yes, because I have not the foggiest idea what can be done about it.”

    http://www.giantitp.com/cgi-bin/GiantITP/ootscript?SK=135

    How do you respond to people making very, very dumb mistakes? First, you try to correct them. Then, if they’re too stupid to comprehend the problem, you let them die. Literally or figuratively, it doesn’t really matter.

    If American society has become so degraded that most of its members don’t wish to think, let it die. (Ayn Rand would be chuckling in her grave, if she wasn’t a dedicated atheist.)

  47. #47 Caledonian
    February 15, 2006

    “Now that’s arrogance.”

    It’s arrogance to insist that people have the responsibility to think for themselves?!

    No wonder American intellectual culture is withering like a grape left out in the sun.

    It doesn’t matter how much you try to popularize science – it doesn’t matter how many Asimovs and Sagans you have – if hoi polloi doesn’t want to listen, doesn’t want to learn. People in other countries by and large do not have this problem of anti-intellectualism. This has nothing to do with science not reaching out to the common man – it’s about the common man rejecting science, rationality, and thought itself.

  48. #48 Jay
    February 15, 2006

    Caledonian,

    Ayn Rand and Objectivism are generally viewed by serious philosophers with the same contempt that biologists feel towards creationists. That you would reference her in a thread bemoaning Americans’ inability to distinguish between real science and pseudo-science struck me rather ironic.

  49. #49 Chris Clarke
    February 15, 2006

    It’s arrogance to insist that people have the responsibility to think for themselves?!

    I used to work with a non-profit membership director who though it wasn’t her responsibility to work to recruit new members for the organization. She was perfectly happy to process the new memberships and maintain membership lists and such, but got indignant when it was suggested that she take active steps to solicit people to join.

    “We’re doing such good work,” she told me once. “People should just join because they ought to. It’s not my fault if they don’t care enough.”

    It was such a stupid argument I was sure I’d never hear it again.

    No wonder American intellectual culture is withering like a grape left out in the sun.

    Mmm, raisins.

  50. #50 Janne
    February 15, 2006

    I do know that being a good communicator to people other than your peers or students has just about zero influence on promotion and tenure for scientists.

    It has negative influence, if being a good communicator takes time away from your research. That’s basically why Isaac Asimov left Boston U: because he had given up being a mediocre researcher to become a great lecturer and writer, and was told “This school cannot afford to pay a science writer.”

    Well, they did hire a scientist, not a writer.

    When you need a plumber, do you choose a mediocre one who happily and engagedly tells you all about your sewage system, or a great one who doesn’t utter a word?

    The idea that scientists – in contrast to almost every other profession out there – need to be great communicators just isn’t true. There are good, engaged communicators with ascience background out there; we call them “teachers”. Let scientists do what they do well, and let teachers do what they do well. And if science teaching does not live up to expectations, then that’s where changes should be happening.

  51. #51 James Gambrell
    February 15, 2006

    I don’t like this kind of attributivist attitude in some of the posts here that people who don’t care about science should just “die off”. That its “their own fault” for not being interested in science. That its not the scientists responsibility to promote science or make science interesting to anyone. And then, at the same time, to claim that science is really very interesting!

    This is the attitude that some professors take toward their students. “It’s their job to be interested, its not my job to make it interesting” But that’s just now how the human brain works. In fact a bad lecturer can make any topic seem incredibly boring, as I’m sure most of you know.

    Therefore, if science is in fact very interesting, and the public being bored by it, then what must be happening? The only answer is, someone is making it boring. The boring scientist, with his utter lack of public speaking skills, somehow manages to turn something that is actually very interesting, into snoozeville.

    I would argue that, just like in every other profession, the promotion of science rests with scientists, not with science journalists or anyone else. Science is about knowledge-creation, but as we all know, knowledge is worthless if you keep it to yourself. Science and communication should go hand in hand. Discovery purely for your own benefit and your own interest is in fact selfish.

    I also don’t think every human needs to be born a scientist, or made into one. Just looking at IQ data alone, it is clear that humans exibit a huge amount of intellectual diversity. I can only assume that that diversity is either adaptive in some way, or unavoidable given the way brains form. So it is simply unrealistic, and perhaps not even desireable to want everyone to think like a scientist.

  52. #52 Janne
    February 15, 2006

    James, you’re confounding “scientist” and “lecturer” (ie. teacher). They really are two separate professions, with separate skill sets. And one reason you see so many mediocre lecturers is because too often people who are good at science are forced to teach, even though they are naturally abysmal at it. And there are plenty of brilliant lecturers out there wasting part of their time sweating out mediocre papers not because they want to, but only because it’s a prerequisite to continue doing what they know and love.

  53. #53 James Gambrell
    February 15, 2006

    Janne,

    Well I don’t know about that. First of all, a lot of universities think that a good teacher needs to be an active researcher in their field. And secondly, it has always been part of the tradition of practicing science that one trains ones successor.

    But that is all kind of beside the point. I was trying to say that I think scientists SHOULD be effective communicators, and not just in print either, but in person. Even pure research, non-teaching scientists give conference talks, interviews, testimonies. Communication skills are important for these things.

    It is counterintuitive to a lot of people, I know, but the reality is that science needs to become more mainstream. Thats the only way to get the majority of americans to see things our way on issues like stem cell research, global warming, etc. Many scientists resist this idea because of the possiblity of polluting scientific values, like what we saw in Korea with Hwang Woo Suk, but I think that is just the future. When things get mainstream and powerful, they get polluted to some degree. That is the price we have to pay if we want to live in a science-dominated country.

    A corollary to this is that, in order to main science more mainstream, scientists need to make themselves more “hip”. Kind of like what Jon Stewart has done for news, or what project runway has done for fashion design. I think we need an extremely popular science-based reality show.

    I know many of you will be pretty repulsed by these ideas, but I’m afraid that repulsion, that refusal to engage with the larger culture, is a big part of the problem. This is honestly where I see science going in the next 100 years if it continues to expand.

  54. #54 Anonymous
    February 15, 2006

    “Ayn Rand and Objectivism are generally viewed by serious philosophers with the same contempt that biologists feel towards creationists.”

    What a remarkable coincidence. I view the vast majority of “serious philosophers” with the same contempt that biologists feel towards creationists.

    There is much about Ms. Rand’s writing style that’s worthy of condemnation, and some ideas within her writing that are worth thinking about.

    Ultimately the source is irrelevant. It wouldn’t matter if Darwin, Newton, and Sagan were somehow resurrected and proclaimed that ID is valuable and scientific: it isn’t, and it’s not. The reasons why this is the case are not subjective. Same for Rand.

  55. #55 Caledonian
    February 15, 2006

    “I used to work with a non-profit membership director who though it wasn’t her responsibility to work to recruit new members for the organization. She was perfectly happy to process the new memberships and maintain membership lists and such, but got indignant when it was suggested that she take active steps to solicit people to join.”

    Ahem: “membership director”. Recruiting new people for the organization is part and parcel of the job description. Furthermore, gaining new people is almost necessarily one of the goals of such an organization.

    It’s in the interests of everyone who lives in a society, or who is interested in the good of that society for whatever reason, that there be a sufficient supply of people who can learn about and work with reality: scientists and engineers. It is not part of the job description of those people to recruit replacements for themselves.

    There is more than enough readily-available science for people to seek out easily in this culture. Americans aren’t rejecting it because it’s not being handed to them effectively enough — they’re simply not interested.

    Considering that the scientific method is nothing more than systematic honesty in inquiry, people who don’t want to at least expose themselves to a smidgen of science must not actually want to learn how the world works.

    Humans must never submit to animals.

  56. #56 MpM
    February 15, 2006

    I do not think the problem is that science is too hard or too detailed for the masses. (C’mon… that IS a bit arrogant now isn’t it?)
    The problem is that science is not to be found outside of a few select venues.
    The Discovery Channel does a so-so job. Nova is more detailed but distribution sparse.

    Understanding any principle, scientific, sociological, or technological is work. I think more people would do the work if they were exposed to quality information. Where is the weekly TV show about how computer networks communicate, or how hybrid cars operate – or the latest in string theory?

    Is the print media much better? I could argue that it has been declining in quality for a generation. The Times Science section is a joke.

    What is the average pre-teen left with? What will provide that spark that leads to a life long curiosity regarding how the world works? Schools? With notable exceptions, most elemetary school science is taught by liberal arts majors. My daughter’s high school biology teacher warned a group of parents about how “tedious and boring” the subject matter would be. Huh? I approached her after the other parents filed out, only to realize, the subject was tedious and boring to her, a two year teaching veteran with a math major.

    Our society practically SHIELDS itself from the thrill of discovery and learning. Science and technology need spokespersons who can break through that shield. Perhaps it is a simple minded notion, but hearing that most Americans think that Adam and Eve miraculously appeared one day and started the human race, I can only dream.

  57. #57 Michael Ralston
    February 16, 2006

    Humans must never submit to animals.

    Um.

    Wow.

    So people who just don’t see what’s interesting about science are “animals”? Because that’s what I’m getting from your post, Caledonian. Maybe you want to rethink what you’re saying here?

    Scientists do not, necessarily, need to be promoting science – but science needs to be promoted. As several people have pointed out, it’s easy to make an interesting topic (especially a “hard” one, like science or math) very very dull.

    Science needs promoters – and scientists are the people who are best-placed to do that. Maybe all we need is for a very few scientists (who are also good communicators – as has been noted, the skillsets do not often correlate, unfortunately) to promote science to the promoters – journalists and the like.

    After all, I’m sure everyone here knows how neat science is; don’t you think it’s possible to share that neatness with everyone else?

  58. #58 Caledonian
    February 16, 2006

    “So people who just don’t see what’s interesting about science are “animals”? Because that’s what I’m getting from your post, Caledonian.”

    I could explain the origin of that quote, and its meaning in the context of the discussion at hand. But why should I bother? Given your demonstrated reading comprehension, I’d just have to explain the explanation — and that way lies madness.

  59. #59 Judith in Ottawa
    February 16, 2006

    Just another comment to respond to Caledonian’s questions, “What is the average pre-teen left with? What will provide that spark that leads to a life long curiosity regarding how the world works?”

    ‘Mythbusters’, my teenage son loves it. This TV show’s science is mostly physics, but it sneaks in a lot of the principles of forming a hypothesis, experimental design, analysis of results, and retestability (they often revisit a myth to validate their results.) Now that’s fun science!

  60. #60 Caledonian
    February 16, 2006

    I concur: Mythbusters is a great show. Now if only the other shows the “Discovery” Channel hosted were as educational and entertaining. (What in the name of Frink does building motorcycles have to do with science?)

    I should note that those questions weren’t posted by me, however.

  61. #61 Janne
    February 16, 2006

    Well I don’t know about that. First of all, a lot of universities think that a good teacher needs to be an active researcher in their field. And secondly, it has always been part of the tradition of practicing science that one trains ones successor.

    When it comes to teaching undergraduate classes, this idea really is false – you do not need to be an active researcher to teach these courses well. You do need to be in touch with current research of course, and one would think that being on the faculty, following the research being done would suffice. Requiring a great teacher to actually do mediocre research just to teach is, I think, a mistake.

    And when we get to graduate teaching – to training one’s successor, that is much more of an apprentice, or on-the-job kind of trainging. The trainee/PhD candidate already knows a lot about the subject, and is already fascinated by it. It is no longer about reaching out to people outside the field but of communicating with one’s peers.

    But that is all kind of beside the point. I was trying to say that I think scientists SHOULD be effective communicators, and not just in print either, but in person. Even pure research, non-teaching scientists give conference talks, interviews, testimonies. Communication skills are important for these things.

    Everybody should, in a good world, be effective communicators. Not just scientists. But many people are not; they do not have the talents to be more than so-so, and not the interest to develop what skills they have more fully.

    But you can be a great plumber, a speed demon on a race track, an effective, hard-working offset printer, a safe and conscientious bus driver without also being a “great communicator”. You can even be a great novelist or amazing photographer and still be instantly hated by a room the moment you open your mouth. We should let people do what they are good at, and let those of their profession that can open their mouth without having a foot inserted do the communicating. And scientists are no different.

  62. #62 Michael Ralston
    February 17, 2006

    Well, Caledonian, maybe I am utterly insane and incapable of reading comprehension. I mean, how dare I miss that you’re referring to Dune, which I haven’t read in approximately a decade? Obviously that changes EVERYTHING.

    … except, no, it doesn’t.

    You’re saying that everyone who doesn’t go out and try to learn science on their own “doesn’t want to know how the world works” – when there’s quite a lot of alternative explanations, not least of which being they may never have had an opportunity to figure out HOW to learn about science, or were raised by people of the sort who support ID and thus were simply told science is useless and lies…
    … or, hell, maybe they had shitty-ass science teachers in high-school who made the class nothing but rote memorization of meaningless unconnected facts? (I had some of that – I STILL have no meaningful grasp on chemistry).

    But no – obviously they made the fully informed choice to be ignorant, right?

    What you are saying remains bigotry, but of a most pernicious sort because there is a tiny grain of truth – it’s just that the majority of the claim is full of shit.
    And if it were true, would mean the Enlightenment is pretty well doomed, to boot.

    It’s in the interests of everyone who lives in a society, or who is interested in the good of that society for whatever reason, that there be a sufficient supply of people who can learn about and work with reality: scientists and engineers.

    This is TRUE.
    The problem is that not everybody knows that. People act against their best interests because they don’t know better.

    Or do you think everyone always acts in perfect concordance with the outcomes they desire?

  63. #63 Michael Ralston
    February 17, 2006

    (And yes, Caledonian, I’m aware you didn’t actually call me insane. I’m just a little sensitive about even implications thereof.)

  64. #64 Caledonian
    February 17, 2006

    And if it were true, would mean the Enlightenment is pretty well doomed, to boot.

    Argument from consequences, my favorite fallacy.

    Congratulations, Michael Ralston. You’ve just failed your gom jabbar.

  65. #65 Michael "Sotek" Ralston
    February 17, 2006

    Argumentam ad consequam may be a fallacy – but is still very relevant.

    After all, if it’s true, then the entire discussion is pointless, no?

  66. #66 Caledonian
    February 17, 2006

    After all, if it’s true, then the entire discussion is pointless, no?

    Do you have any idea what ‘fallacy’ means?

    Don’t bother responding – we can see for ourselves.

  67. #67 Molly
    February 18, 2006

    Give us a chance! We want to help!

    I have absolutely no college-level scientific training, and neither the time nor the wherewithal to go back to school for a graduate degree in science. But I’m a freelance writer and editor and a voracious reader of all books, magazines and blogs scientific, and I would consider it an honor to someday be involved in helping to bring *real* science to the masses via TV scripts, magazine articles, whatever.

    And I’m sure I’m not alone. There are plenty of us “creative types” –writers, directors, probably even actors, though they seem sort of a generally knuckleheaded bunch–out there who, though we may not be personally involved in research or undergrad education, have a deep latent love of science and freethought and would jump at the chance to use our talents to communicate the wonder of science and discovery. Outsource it to us! Let our strengths complement yours!

    I’m just saying.

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