Over at Backreaction, Bee has a long and thoughtful post (they don’t do any other kind) about the interaction between science and the popular imagination. She says a lot of interesting things, but I think she comes to the wrong conclusion at the end, when she writes:
However, despite this general trend, what worries me specifically about popular science reporting is how much our community seems to pay attention to it. This is a very unhealthy development. The opinion making process in science should not be affected by popular opinions. It should not be relevant whether somebody makes for a good story in the media, or whether he or she neglects advertising himself. What concerns me is not so much the media re-re-repeating fabulous sentences, but how many physicists get upset about it. This clearly indicates that they think this public discussion is relevant, and this should not be the case.
This strikes me as almost exactly backwards, and the sort of thing that will lead to a vicious cycle. If scientists reject and ignore popular discussion because it does a bad job with the science, it’s not going to improve the quality of public discussion, it’s only going to make things worse, leading to more rejection, and still lower quality discussion. And this stuff does end up affecting the future course of science, both through public funding decisions and also through recruitment– public discussions of science are one of the things that draw students into science, and if the public discussions are all utter crap, you end up with students who are coming into the field with their heads stuffed with terrible misconceptions.
The proper response to bad public discussions of science is not withdrawal from the discussion or seething contempt for any discussion not requiring LaTeX (see Angry Physics for more on Distler’s regrettable tone), but working to get better discussion. This could involve active engagement with the media, writing your own popular articles for blogs and magazines, or just encouraging and publicizing people who do a good job of discussing science.
The problem is that the current culture in science regards people who try to reach out to the public with something between pity and contempt. Writing popular books and articles is seen as tangential at best to the professional activity of science– it’s something done by people who are past their prime, or who don’t have the chops to make it in the first place. Serious scientists don’t write for a popular audience.
The inevitable result of this is, well, the physics blogosphere that Jacques Distler denounces as an “intellectual wasteland.” There are a handful of smart and serious people doing good work to publicize real science (Bee and Stefan, the Cosmic Variance crowd, most of the physics blogs in the left sidebar), and then there are a whole bunch of kooks and cranks and screaming jackasses. The situation isn’t a whole lot better in the world of popular magazines and books– every time I’ve posted about popular discussions of the string theory wars, I get comments saying “Kaku is a flake,” or “nobody really believes what Susskind says,” and so on. But they’re the ones who are out there writing books for a popular audience– if the only people who write general articles about the field are flakes, is it really surprising that public discussion of the field is flaky?
If we want to see better public discussion of science, we need to provide better public discussion of science. That means treating public outreach with respect, or at least not contempt. That means actually doing some work to reach out to the blogosphere and the media and the larger culture, so that people get the chance to see a responsible treatment of real science, and not just hype and wackiness.
(Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to stop ranting about the lack of respect for popularization of science, and get back to work writing my popular book on quantum mechanics…)