What to Do About Science and the Public

In comments to last week’s rant about the low esteem in which science is held, taffe writes:

Ok then, what should scientists be doing, individually or as a community? Maybe the masses just plain find political info more interesting. I mean hell, you had to use dog fans as a hook for your popular book, right?

One of the maddening things about blogging as a medium is the way its ephemerality leads to repetition. I feel like I’ve written this before, but it’s unreasonable for me to be peeved about it, because there’s no reason why anybody commenting last week would’ve seen the earlier post. So, let’s take another whack at it.

In the talk I gave back in September (slides, video, live-(micro)blogging), I had a slide (#21, for those following on SlideShare) titled “What to Do” listing a bunch of things that professional scientists, particularly academic scientists, can do to help improve public interest in and understanding of science. These can all be lumped together under the heading “Support the people who bring science to the general public.”

Improving the standing of science in the public mind does not require every working scientist to become Bill Nye the Science Guy. That would be a disaster– some people just don’t have the skills that would be needed to get a lay audience excited about science. Even if you can’t do it yourself, though, there are things you can do to support those who do have the skills and the desire to bring science to the broadest possible audience.

One thing to do is to support and demand science in the media. Make and effort to buy and read books about science, and recommend the good ones to other people (by, say, writing reviews of them on web sites or in print). When you run across a general-audience book in your field, try not to get hung up on the way that it glosses over fiddly details, and look at the bigger picture. Ask yourself whether it would be a good book for someone who is just curious, and not trying to be an expert– too many book reviews by scientists spend most of their time harping on minutiae (“This book would’ve been good, but it fails to acknowledge the seminal contribution made by my thesis research in 1973…”), and give an unfairly negative impression to people who might actually enjoy and benefit from the book.

When the media fails to do right by science, demand better. When the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, and let them know that you’re disappointed by the absence of science books in their best-of lists. Write to CNN and let them know that you think dropping their science coverage is a terrible idea. Scientists and fans of science have every bit as much right to control tv programming as people who get off on humiliation comedies, but you have to speak up if you want to be heard.

In the education arena, support science education across the board. This means more than just turning up to vote or protest over attempts to insert religion into the biology curriculum. That’s important, but teaching biology correctly doesn’t mean squat if the schools aren’t teaching math and chemistry and physics correctly.

If you’ve got kids, get involved in their schools. Find out what they’re learning in science class, and offer to help if you know something relevant. If you don’t have kids, offer to help whatever local schools you can. This can take lots of forms, everything from organizing professional development workshops for local teachers and students, to volunteering to speak to classes or judge science fairs, to donating old equipment to be used for demonstrations and labs.

If you’ve got teaching responsibilities, take them seriously. Don’t sleepwalk your way through the classes with the minimum possible effort, so as to save everything for research. Some of the students you’re boring to tears could be great potential scientists, if an effort is made to reach them. Better yet, some of them could be great science teachers.

If you’re in a position to advise students, encourage them to go into education. Or, at the very least, don’t discourage them from going into education, if they would be good at it. A big part of the image problem of science stems from bad experiences people have with bad science teachers, and the way to fix that problem is to get better people into the field.

For that matter, if you have students who are interested in careers other than the “traditional” Ph.D. to postdoc to tenure track faculty position route, encourage them to pursue their interests. There are very few career fields that wouldn’t benefit from more people with a scientific mindset. We should get rid of the stigma of leaving academic science– somebody who gets a degree in physics and then goes to law school or business school is not a loser because they decided not to chase a tenure-track faculty job. Encourage them to do what they want, rather than forcing them onto a career path that will make them miserable, and give other people a bad impression of science.

Finally, if you don’t have the skills or temperment to do public outreach yourself, support and encourage those who do. When you run across a student who is a gifted communicator, encourage them in that. Don’t just order them to “get back in the lab and do some real work”– give them encouragement and opportunities to talk to the public. Hell, tell them to start blogging as a hobby. After all, the public they’re going to talk to is ultimately going to be voting on the funding for your research grants. It’s in your interest to have them be interested in science, and interested in funding science.

And if you’re in a position to evaluate candidates for hiring or promotion, don’t punish outreach, reward it. Scientists, particularly in academia, all too often regard time spent doing public outreach as wasted time– if you’re not spending every waking hour in the lab, you’re obviously not serious enough about science to deserve tenure. That’s nonsense– again, the funding that makes modern science possible ultimately comes from the public. It’s important for the general public to know about science, and why it’s improtant.

When you see outreach activities listed on a job application or in a tenure file, count those as a positive factor, not a negative. That’s a valid professional activity, and it should be rewarded as such. If other faculty members on the committee give you grief about that, stick to your guns. And, if you really want to get radical, start trying to treat a lack of outreach activity as a negative factor.

You may or may not have the skills needed to speak effectively to a broad audience about science. If you do, I hope you’ll do it, because, as the song says, what we need more of is science. If you can’t do it yourself, I hope you’ll at least recognize that this is important work, and support the people who can do it, and not try to force them into some more conventional mode.

They’re out there, in your labs and classes, in high schools public and private, writing books that appear in your local bookstore, and making programs that turn up in your tv listings. They need your support and encouragement, to help them do what they want to do. And what they can do will ultimately benefit everyone, far more than yet another beaten-down lab drone will.

Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    December 8, 2008

    “One of the maddening things about blogging as a medium is the way its ephemerality leads to repetition. I feel like I’ve written this before, but it’s unreasonable for me to be peeved about it, because there’s no reason why anybody commenting last week would’ve seen the earlier post”

    Off topic, but as a blog reader, this medium reminds me of a band doing concerts. From my concertgoer point of view where I am seeing 1 or 2 performances in a year by a group, repetition is good. I want to hear new things but I like the same songs again, and hearing how they have changed. For the musicians, I guess the good ones must look at it professionally – they have to put their effort in every concert, sick or well, and try to get their songs across.

    Welcome to the stage Chad! Hone these posts and maybe even give them versions! You may have to repeat them once a year or so! I never quite understood why it was bad etiquette to not just hoist an entire post with comments (or a few of the comments) adding a quick reason why you are reposting. If this happens a dozen times for a post, something is going on.

    Note that youtube and such seems to be changing the way the hardcore fan looks at music, because nowadays you can see some of almost every concert that even a medium popular group does!

  2. #2 mikec
    December 8, 2008

    I don’t disagree with anything you say, but I don’t think any of this is likely to have much effect. Here is what actually would have an effect: do science in public. The reason science is off-putting to most people is that all they get to see are polished, sanitized presentations of successful results, accomplished by a high priesthood of seemingly omnipotent geniuses. It’s as if sports were presented to the public only through box scores and books about past seasons. Would anyone care? Not many.

    Use all the tools you have to open up the actual process of doing science. Use blogs. Use twitter. Write about mistakes and dead ends. Let people in on the process, not just the final results.

  3. #3 JThompson
    December 8, 2008

    @mikec:
    I’m not sure showing how much trial and error is involved would help all that much either.
    What it would probably do is give the people that hate science ammunition.
    I can almost hear the stupid bumperstickeresque slogans they’d trot out.
    “What do you call someone that’s wrong 99% of the time but still gets paid? A scientist!”
    Simply because they don’t understand that in science you have to admit you’re wrong when new evidence is presented rather than simply screaming that evidence doesn’t exist.
    Of course I’m a jaded pessimist, but more often than not we turn out to be the realists.

  4. #4 scicurious
    December 8, 2008

    “If you’re in a position to advise students, encourage them to go into education. Or, at the very least, don’t discourage them from going into education, if they would be good at it.”

    THANK YOU. The number of times I’ve been told to get the heck back in the lab…I know it’s hard for advisors to do this, after all, their reputation isn’t enhanced unless their advisee goes on to do research. But educators can make a big impact on the future of science.

  5. #5 mikec
    December 8, 2008

    @JThompson:

    I don’t much care about science haters. They’re going to find ways to hate it regardless.

    I do care about people (kids, especially) who think Myth Busters is really cool and would love to have Adam’s or Jamie’s job, but don’t have any interest in “science” — because they see no relationship between them.

    Also, I think a little more skepticism about scientific pronouncements would be a healthy thing. One of the really bad things about the current regime is that people only get conclusions (“Butter is bad: use margarine”) and don’t see the conflicting evidence and uncertainty behind the press-releases.

  6. #6 Rob Jase
    December 8, 2008

    Sorry, but I don’t think we can’t beat the exposure the general public has to ‘science’. Sci fi & horror movies & books as well as good ol’ religion have spent decades teaching them that scientists are all mad or at least dangerous to life & thought. And the media is at least as ignorant as the public so we can’t expect any help from them.

    We may as well put on our lab coats, pick up some test tubes & get back to cackling so we can live up to our image.

  7. #7 estetik
    December 9, 2008

    The reason science is off-putting to most people is that all they get to see are polished, sanitized presentations of successful results, accomplished by a high priesthood of seemingly omnipotent geniuses. It’s as if sports were presented to the public only through box scores and books about past seasons.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 9, 2008

    One of my 11th grade science students, Brytney, actually asked in class: “Why do we need this science stuff anyway? Why can’t we just be born, live, and die like in the old days? And who cares who owns what?”

    The last part is because I’d discussed Chandrayyan 1 putting a flag of India on the Moon, and why the Moon, like Antarctica, is not subject to ordinary property law.

    I put off answering her first question, which articulates a disinterest in and unawareness of the benefits of Science. Other than asking if she wanted to die of something like a toothache, but we all knew that Medicine is not idenitical to Science.

    It was an attempt to lure me away from the lesson plan, but the student in that class who gives the me the most interruptions (cellphone, talking, etc.) but who scored highest on the midterm exam.

    “Who owns your home?” I asked.

    “My family.”

    “Are you sure?” I followed up. “I suspect that the mortgage bank owns the house, and if you miss three payments, they’ll take it back.”\\”No,” she argued. “My grandmother paid off the mortgage.”

    “So,” I said, “The answer to your question ‘who cares who owns what?’ is “my own family.”

    Several other students “oooo”ed appreciatively. I’d “won” but in a sneaky way, without addressing her core complaint.

    I’m not going to give the standard “Science is good” lecture. At least not now. We have a lot of material to cover. But should I assign her an extra credit essay on why science is essential and beneficial, and have her present it to the class? Or what?

    How should I, an experienced Science teacher, confront explicit Science hating in my own classroom? This is separate from the problem I’d been focusing on — teaching Evolution to the roughly a third to a half of students from Creationist households. All exacerbated by endemic poverty (which damages children’s brains akin to stroke) and their weakness with decimals that has made the review of Scientific Notation a headache.

    And the constant struggle in Classroom Management is to get kids to sit down, stop fighting, shut up, and start each class with a 1-point “Do Now” assignment: write a couple of sentences about a page of science news that I hand out, from New Scientist or ScienceDaily.com. Many don’t do enough homework, or well enough, to earn a decent grade, and then are angry when they don’t get the grade that they feel entitles to. And almost none of the parents will come in to speak with me.

    It’s not just indifference to science, or hating science. It’s such a struggle to teach, even though I am a good Science teacher, and an actual science. On the plus side, at least once per class I tell them something, or lead them to it by Socratic dialogue, that someone admits is cool. But they are not actively seeking the cool, the way Science Fiction fans would.

  9. #9 Philip H.
    December 9, 2008

    Jonathan,
    I’m not sure what you encountered was Science Hating, so much as it was a general rejection of education. Sadly, in this day and age, too many families do not make the education of their kids a family priority, which leads to many of the other challenges you mentioned (Including the homework thing).

    That said, I think you missed a teachable moment by not countering your student. I think the answer could have been “Well, Sally, science is all around us. Have you ever flown on a plane for vacation – thank a physicist. If you’ve ever stayed healthy because you had a vaccine – thank an epidemiologist. If you have ever watched TV – thank another physicist.” The list could be endless.

    You see, if we look at many of the technological and medical innovations around us, and then drill down a step or two, we find scientists (or at least professionals in allied fields using science). That link has been lost – and perhaps restoring it vividly will help restore an understanding of why science is important.

  10. #10 Johan Larson
    December 9, 2008

    JvP@8: “… the problem I’d been focusing on — teaching Evolution to the roughly a third to a half of students from Creationist households.”

    Would it help to somehow make it clear that accepting most of the standard story on evolution does not require tossing out the whole idea of God? The Catholics seem to do just fine with a notion of guided evolution; perhaps that’s the direction to point students from notably pious backgrounds.

  11. #11 Monado in Toronto
    December 9, 2008

    Might I suggest that you, a science professionals might do multiply your influence by starting reaching out to community leaders. Can you invite teachers, youth group leaders, sports coaches, and the people in your town who run community centres, etc., and invite them to come and see what you do? Maybe have an open house for your lab once a year? Or a lunch, or a presentation, or a round-table discussion… Then perhaps they’ll spread the word.

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    December 9, 2008

    Might I suggest that you, a science professionals might do multiply your influence by starting reaching out to community leaders. Can you invite teachers, youth group leaders, sports coaches, and the people in your town who run community centres, etc., and invite them to come and see what you do?

    We do some of this already– as mentioned earlier, we run workshops for local teachers, though not as regularly as we might.

    This list is not meant to be a comprehensive list of everything that can be done. It’s aimed primarily at research scientists who have other things to do with their time, and meant to be a list of things that they could do immediately, with relatively little extra effort. People who have a passion for public outreach will do more, but this post isn’t intended to be telling them what to do.

  13. #13 Monado
    December 9, 2008

    Sorry about the incoherence — that comes from recasting a sentence with half a mind while making supper.

  14. #14 Monado
    December 9, 2008

    Quite right – and it’s only an idea for those who would like that sort of thing. I’ll butt out now.

  15. #15 Chad Orzel
    December 9, 2008

    Quite right – and it’s only an idea for those who would like that sort of thing. I’ll butt out now.

    It’s a very good idea, in fact. I didn’t mean to be snippy at you– it’s been an annoying day for unrelated reasons.

  16. #16 andy.s
    December 10, 2008

    OK, so, just suppose, hypothetically, that you have a 50 year old programmer with a BA in Math and has had some physics. If he were to say, get a Masters in Physics, what career options would be open?

    I’ve always assumed there would not be any, as any research options require a PhD (+youth) and non-research work, such as programming, would be done by grad-student labor.

    Uh… I’m not asking for me, it’s for a friend.

  17. #17 konteyner
    June 7, 2009

    If you’re in a position to advise students, encourage them to go into education. Or, at the very least, don’t discourage them from going into education, if they would be good at it.”

    THANK YOU. The number of times I’ve been told to get the heck back in the lab…I know it’s hard for advisors to do this, after all, their reputation isn’t enhanced unless their advisee goes on to do research. But educators can make a big impact on the future of science.

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