This Is My Job

I got a weirdly hostile comment to my popularization post last night:

You have some chutzpah. You are being paid, probably quite well, to do research! Journalists are paid, not nearly so well, to popularize research. It takes some nerve to take an extra year’s salary, and to take time away from your real job—and then to complain about not being well-enough rewarded. If you want something to complain about, become a science journalist and see how well you are rewarded then. I’m sure you think that is beneath you, and that you do so much better a job—but the general audience you aim to address can’t tell the difference.

We need fewer scientists doing committee work/writing reports/giving TV interviews/blogging/”popularizing”/writing the thousandth general audience book on quantum mechanics. We need more scientists doing their jobs.

In a perverse sort of way, I’m actually kind of glad to see this comment. “Jon” here couldn’t be a better example of the sort of counterproductive attitude that has gotten us into the predicament described in Unscientific America. The notion that there is no responsibility to communicate natural laws to a broad public is something that should have been buried with the last of the alchemists. It ought to have no place in science.

Even leaving aside the point that my day job is as a professor of physics, and thus includes an obligation to educate people, the job of a scientist includes communication. As I’ve said many times before, science is a four-step process:

  1. Observe an interesting phenomenon in the world.
  2. Invent a theory that might explain said phenomenon.
  3. Test your theory with experiments and further observations.
  4. Tell everyone the results of your tests.

Step #4 took the longest to get nailed down– scientists were still hiding their findings in cryptic anagrams well into the 1600’s– but the explosion of progress that led to modern science didn’t take off until it was. That fourth step is what separates science from alchemy– alchemists tried to ferret out the secrets of the natural world, and hoarded that knowledge for themselves; scientists try to find the secrets of the natural world, and then share them with the rest of humanity.

The dissemination of knowledge is the crucial step that makes rapid scientific progress possible. Scientific data are like pieces of some gigantic and esoteric jigsaw puzzle, and your only chance to put the whole thing together is to get all the pieces together. If a scientist in England has three or four pieces, one in France two more, half a dozen in China, and five in the US, no progress is possible. Only by sharing the pieces among themselves can the scientists in all of those countries make progress.

The problem is, in the last hundred-odd years, we’ve begun to lose the idea of wide dissemination of knowledge. Scientific publication has become increasingly specialized and technical, and scientists are now rewarded for producing articles targeted at the narrowest possible audience of fellow scientists. We’re sliding back toward alchemy, with natural laws shared only with a tiny group of fellow initiates.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and hasn’t always been this way. Galileo famously reported his findings in popular books (granted, this got him into trouble with the Church…). Michael Faraday was well known for giving Christmas lectures to the general public. Famous scientists of the 19th and early 20th centuries routinely gave lectures to general audiences.

Somewhere in the last fifty-odd years, though, we’ve picked up the notion that it’s somehow unseemly for Real Scientists to speak to a general audience– that, as “Jon” writes, the only job of a scientist is to hunker down and do research that will be read and used by other scientists. The messy business of dumbing things down for the person on the street is best left to English majors who couldn’t hack calculus.

It’s no coincidence that the public prestige and influence of science has decreased significantly over that period. As scientists have lost interest in communicating science to the public, the public has lost interest in science.

This wouldn’t be a problem if science were still something that idle aristocratic gentlemen could take up as a hobby, but it’s not. Modern science is a tremendously expensive endeavor, requiring the sort of resources that can only be obtained through broad societal support– government grants, and so on. That funding stream is dependent on public goodwill toward science, which in turn depends on the public being informed and engaged by scientists.

When scientists stop talking to the public, that support becomes more tenuous, and you get, well, the situation we have now. You get science funding levels that whipsaw back and forth depending on who holds office and priorities that shift for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the science being produced. As scientists, we find ourselves in a hell of our own making– science has become a political football because we have failed at our jobs as scientists.

So, talking about science to the general public is my job. It’s part of the job of all scientists. It has to be, for science as a whole to survive and advance.

Does this mean that every scientist needs to write a popular book? No, no more than every scientists needs to study quantum gravity. Different scientists have different strengths, and every scientist should work on those things that they do best.

But general-audience writing is absolutely and unequivocally a legitimate part of the activities of a scientist. It’s essential for the overall health of the scientific community, and needs to be recognized as every bit as important as pushing the uncertainty in some physical constant back another decimal place or two.

If we don’t share our results with the public, we’re no better than alchemists in the end. Science requires communication, not just with other practitioners of the art, but with the people who support the work, and the children who will become the next generation of scientists.

Comments

  1. #1 ponderingfool
    July 9, 2009

    As scientists have lost interest in communicating science to the public, the public has lost interest in science.
    *******************
    Was the vast public ever really that interested in science?

    Or are we talking about a certain segment of society that have lost interest in science that had it before?

  2. #2 William
    July 9, 2009

    I don’t think he’s saying that science shouldn’t be communicated to the public, but that you’re supposed to do it through a journalist.

  3. #3 gg
    July 9, 2009

    When scientists stop talking to the public, that support becomes more tenuous, and you get, well, the situation we have now.

    One could make a good argument that the death of the SSC back in 1993 was in large part because scientists didn’t make enough of an effort, until it was too late, to properly communicate exactly what they were doing and the importance of it to the public. Budget overruns were a major factor, of course, but that wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if the public had been more engaged and interested in the proposed science.

    I was a “fly on the wall” in a discussion amongst particle physicists during that era, when they were trying to decide how best to approach Congress to save the collider. I got the impression that too few people had thought about popularization in that era to make a compelling argument.

    But general-audience writing is absolutely and unequivocally a legitimate part of the activities of a scientist.

    I stress to my students that one of the reasons that Einstein was so successful as a scientist was his ability to write his papers in such a clear way that the gist of them could be understood by the general public as much as by scientists. I consider my blog-writing as a way to not only reach the public, but also to exercise my own skills at being concise and clear.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    July 9, 2009

    I don’t think he’s saying that science shouldn’t be communicated to the public, but that you’re supposed to do it through a journalist.

    I don’t think that’s any better. It’s still setting scientists up as some sort of esoteric elite who only communicate to the masses through intermediaries.

    One could make a good argument that the death of the SSC back in 1993 was in large part because scientists didn’t make enough of an effort, until it was too late, to properly communicate exactly what they were doing and the importance of it to the public. Budget overruns were a major factor, of course, but that wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if the public had been more engaged and interested in the proposed science.

    I think that’s probably true.

    I also think that the high-energy particle physics community has learned from this, and greatly improved their outreach in recent years. As tired as I am of the endless LHC media blitz, I have to admit that they’re doing a very good job of publicizing the machine and the science it will do. I’d like to see a similar concerted effort from other fields of science as well.

    I stress to my students that one of the reasons that Einstein was so successful as a scientist was his ability to write his papers in such a clear way that the gist of them could be understood by the general public as much as by scientists.

    Exactly, especially for Special Relativity. The central equations are called the “Lorentz Transformation” (Or “Lorentz-FitzGerald” in some sources) for a reason– the mathematical work was done earlier, by other people. Einstein’s big contribution was getting other people to see that, weird though the consequences are, they’re also inevitable when you think carefully about the problem. His 1905 work wasn’t remarkable because it was mathematically sophisticated, it was remarkable because his arguments were so clear and compelling.

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    July 9, 2009

    Was the vast public ever really that interested in science?

    Yes.

    Einstein was an A-list celebrity. Van Allen made the cover of Time. Feynman and Sagan were at least B-list celebrities. The first three became well-known to the general public specifically because of their scientific achievements, while Sagan was known for his popularizations. People were interested in what these scientists were doing. I can’t be sure of the direction of causality, but accounts of what scientists were doing were part of the popular press, and calling something “scientific” was a way to enhance its reputation (this was not always for the better; in the 1940s cigarette ads used to feature physicians who touted the health benefits of that brand).

    Contrast that with today: how many living scientists whom you have not personally met would you recognize if you saw them on the street or in the airport? My list would include Stephen Hawking (I have attended two lectures by him, and the wheelchair is a dead giveaway), Chad Orzel (because his photo appears on this blog, which I read daily), and that’s about it.

    Last month I attended a reception my undergraduate department put on for reunion weekend. This department boasts a half-dozen or so Nobel Prizes, and the room in which the reception was held has the award photos. I only recognized two of the people in the photos: one who had taught one of my classes, and one I had met subsequently. On my own I could deduce the identities of two of the other people in the photos: King Carl XVI Gustaf (that he appears in all of the photos was a major clue) and a prizewinner of East Asian ethnic origins. That left three prize winners I could not identify without help.

    I don’t think he’s saying that science shouldn’t be communicated to the public, but that you’re supposed to do it through a journalist.

    Even if that were the intent of the comment, it would still be wrong. Chad is a professor of physics, for FSM’s sake–education is his job. The argument has more merit if you are talking about federal lab employees and other soft money people, but even then I still disagree: sooner or later you will likely find yourself on a plane trip sitting next to somebody who will ask you what you do for a living, and that’s your opening.

  6. #6 uber
    July 9, 2009

    First year engineering. One of my profs said “…look to the left and to the right. 2 of you will be stuck in a closet doing all the boring, engineering work. One of you will be allowed to interact with the public and get all excited about the work you’ve done. Get a personality and be that one.”

    I always remembered that and i am not ashamed of not being those engineers stuck in a closet doing ‘real’ work.

  7. #7 ponderingfool
    July 9, 2009

    Yes.

    Einstein was an A-list celebrity. Van Allen made the cover of Time. Feynman and Sagan were at least B-list celebrities. The first three became well-known to the general public specifically because of their scientific achievements, while Sagan was known for his popularizations. People were interested in what these scientists were doing. I can’t be sure of the direction of causality, but accounts of what scientists were doing were part of the popular press, and calling something “scientific” was a way to enhance its reputation (this was not always for the better; in the 1940s cigarette ads used to feature physicians who touted the health benefits of that brand).
    ********
    That means there were people interested in them but it doesn’t mean the vast majority of people were interested in science. I am sure they reached an audience. I am guessing usually white and usually affluent. Most Americans then were not affluent whites. Today that is even more true.

    Hawking is fairly famous as you mention. Heck they had cartoon versions of him on the Simpsons and Futurama. Not to mention he appeared on ST:TNG, mentioned in Weird Al’s White & Nerdy, and referenced in Legally Blonde, Seinfeld, Family Guy, and Pinky & the Brain.

    Dawkins was on South Park. Neal Degrasse Tyson has had multiple appearances on shows like Colbert and the Daily Show, not to mention on PBS. Craig Venter has been in Time.

    Besides, most Americans back in this high water mark of science popularity in the United States did not think evolution explained human evolutions.

  8. #8 Markk
    July 9, 2009

    I think there should be a point 5 and 6 on your list.
    5. Have other people replicate (or not) your work.
    6. Have other people use the model you created for your work or the data on which you based your model do do other things.

    Science isn’t personal. Its societal. If it’s individuals hoarding secrets then its wizardry. If It is a group of people banging around models till they are bent into shape its science.

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    July 9, 2009

    Excellent set of observations.

    I need to get back to that in my blog. Maybe I’ll write about that nonsense on “Countdown” last night about uranium in the 6000 year old earth, and Olberman’s equal bit of nonsense referring to it as carbon dating!

    gg@3:
    Surely you remember The God Particle? One could argue equally well that they went out of their way to popularize what they were doing, but [a] did a bad job of it and thereby [b] exposed their arrogance and hubris for all to see. When Lederman insulted Rustum Roy in the pages of Physics Today, that didn’t help him get other physicists to help make the point that this small subfield of physics was more important than any other project in any other part of science.

  10. #10 JThompson
    July 9, 2009

    It’s not so much scientists not being willing to share their research as it is the public not being willing to listen to it.
    There are 3 channels on TV that do nothing but promote science and uncountable blogs. Yet the poor people yearning for knowledge of science just don’t have access to it.

    The reason science is struggling for funding is because we’ve got a substantial amount of the population that think nothing could be better than a new dark age. Think Texas Board of Edumacation.

    My point is people like Prof. Orzel are doing their jobs and they’re doing them well. Science is being communicated like never before. People that don’t like science aren’t going to like it no matter how you phrase it for them. If you dumb it down to a “Fire is hot. Burns hurt.” level, they’d probably immolate themselves out of spite.
    You can’t educate someone that wears ignorance as a badge of honor.

  11. #11 ponderingfool
    July 9, 2009

    Why is that in Canada the most trusted person (at least according to this poll http://www.readersdigest.ca/mag/cms/xcms/the-canadians-you-trust_2745_a.html) is a scientist (David Suzuki ) by a wide margin but in the United States that would be an unlikely scenario? What is it about Canada that is different and can be incorporated here in the United States?

    David was wonderful when I used to watch him on PBS as a kid. He now is a forceful voice on human causes of climate change. He has his own non-partisan foundation.

    He is a popularizer of science. Of course he was on CBC which may have enabled him to last longer on TV than he would have here in the US on commercial stations. David thinks the CBC standing by him allowed him to environmental pieces that he would not have been able to do otherwise.

  12. #12 Rob Knop
    July 9, 2009

    Amen, brother!

    Let us also not forget that at Union College, Chad’s in a role where communicating science has even more weight than it does for scientists at larger, more research-focused Universities.

  13. #13 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 9, 2009

    Well said. But there have been several phase transitions since Galileo. There was the schizoid aspect of Kepler also being an Astrologer, and Newton also an Alchemist absorbed in exegesis of the Book of Revelations. There was the explosion of field reports in Natural Philosophy, which led to fascinating theories by the likes of Goethe and Darwin. There was the 19th century that you alluded to, with idle aristocratic gentlemen (and museum curators and local curates). There was the anomalous 20th century, with the triumverate of University, Government, Corporation. Now we are in the 21st century, which is NOT like the previous ones. The age of wikiscience?

  14. #14 abb3w
    July 10, 2009

    Quibble: #4 is part of science as anthropological practice, but I’m not sure it’s yet part of the philosophical discipline’s core.

    I fear there will be math….

  15. #15 escort bayan
    August 3, 2011

    My point is people like Prof. Orzel are doing their jobs and they’re doing them well. Science is being communicated like never before. People that don’t like science aren’t going to like it no matter how you phrase it for them

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