Elephants, Mice, Red Flags, Bulls, and Science

Mar 06 2008 Published by under Intersection, Public Perception of Science

Henry Gee and I have been talking, on our blogs, about how the public views science, and what can be done to change that. That's hardly a new topic for scientists. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen or heard the topic discussed. It's a water cooler conversation topic at universities and government labs. It gets raised on email lists, discussion boards, and blogs. It's featured in journal editorials, at seminars, and at conferences. There's a widespread consensus that we could, should, and must do a better job of talking to the general public. On this issue, the consensus is wrong.

We don't need to do a better job of talking to the general public. We need to start talking to the general public.

OK. That last statement was a bit over the top - I was clearly indulging in hyperbole - but I probably wasn't as far over the top as you think. Here's why:

Scientists might not spend enough time doing public outreach, but that doesn't mean that there's none done. Scientists have written some spectacularly good books for the general audience. There are plenty of scientists who have appeared on all kinds of TV shows. I've talked to scientists at museums and at zoos. Cafe Scientifique events are held all over the planet, and by all accounts are wildly successful. The list could go on for pages, but the point is clear. Scientists do spend time talking to people who aren't part of the scientific community.

It's also clear, as David Goldston points out in a column in the latest issue of Nature, that the general public is interested in hearing more about science, and in hearing it right from the horse's mouth:

Moreover, those statistics mask a number of attitudes that are far more favourable to science. For example, a 2006 poll conducted for a science organization asked who the respondents would be "interested in hearing from" about evolution, creationism and intelligent design. The two categories that ranked highest were scientists (77%) and science teachers (76%). Clergy ranked high, but 15 percentage points lower than scientists; and only half as many people were "very interested" in hearing from clergy compared with scientists.

Even the nature of the intelligent-design crusade reflects the high stature of scientists. Intelligent-design advocates try to sell their wares as science rather than religion partly as a legal gambit; the Supreme Court has ruled that religion cannot be taught in US public schools. But intelligent design is also framed as science because its purveyors know that science and scientists are held in high esteem and epitomize modern, forward-looking, hopeful aspects of US society.

Scientists spend time telling other people about science. It appears that the general public is interested in learning more about science. We've got the two most important elements there for improving the public's perception and understanding of science, but somehow the connection isn't being made. Why?

Dr. Gee thinks that a large part of the problem might be with the way that a journal article is transcribed and translated into something that you'll find in the news. Press releases are harder to write than you might think, he points out, and even after the press release has been written, there's still the news editor to deal with:

My beef - and it has been for years - is that news editors rarely have any training in science, having, more likely, come from a general journalism background, or one which favours the arts and humanities. As a result, they tend to regard science as a specialist subject, like fashion, or gardening, which will appeal to a minority of the audience, and which can often be relegated to some cutesy 'And-Finally' slot. Now, of course, this is a caricature, too, and things are better than they once were--but even today, science stories are still run in a most uncritical fashion, as if the news editor in charge has had no means of weighing the validity of a story except in terms of sensationalism.

One solution to the news editor problem would be, as he points out, for more science writers to move on to that area of the business:

The message is that scientists intent on being journalists should realize that their lofty aim of spreading scientific literacy more widely will be stymied unless they set their goals higher than just writing about it in blogs or in the mainstream media. They must become news editors, too, so that, in good marxian fashion, scientists can take over the means of production.

Improving the way that the media covers science might help improve things a bit, but I think that approach as at least one major problem of its own. It's the same problem that most of the other approaches - from general readership books to science documentaries to Cafe Scientifique-type events - face. It's the same problem that lead me to that outrageous statement back at the top of the article. Simply put, we're pretty bad when it comes to picking an audience.

If you look at a book on science, a "meet the scientist day" at the zoo, a Discovery Channel documentary, and a coffee shop powerpoint talk, you'll see that they all have one thing in common: most of the people who are going to be reached by these approaches are already interested enough in science to spend time doing things that they know will involve learning about science. To put it another way, we might not be spending all of our time preaching to the choir, but we haven't really made it very far out of the church.

Don't get me wrong here. I don't think that there's anything wrong with doing any of those things. If anything, it would be good to see more of this sort of thing. If people are willing to come out somewhere to hear about science, we should certainly make sure that they have the opportunity. But if we want to get still more people to pay more attention to science, we're going to need to do more still, and with different audiences.

Like the audience that's at the Houston Rodeo this week.

Mythbusters did an episode a while back where they tested the myth that bulls are enraged by the color red. They did a few things with colored flags and dummies, but the final test of the myth came when one of the cast dressed up in a red jumpsuit and stood very still in the middle of the bull ring. A couple of professional rodeo clowns were in there too, moving around to distract the bull. The bull ran toward the motion every time, and ignored the guy dressed in red. Later on, they set up a china shop in one of the pens, and discovered that bulls are actually very nimble when it comes to moving around the shelves. In another episode, they demonstrated that elephants might not be terrified by mice, but they are very wary around them.

I don't know what percentage of the rodeo crowd watches Mythbusters, but I'd be surprised if it's high. What if one of those myths was done live in front of that audience?

That's one idea, and not the most realistic, but there are plenty of other possibilities. What if, the next time that teaching evolution becomes an issue in a state, we don't just spend most of our energy trying to get our message out in the press and to the politicians. What if scientists spend a weekend day at a table in a shopping mall, letting people do the kinds of experiments that you see when evolution's taught in an introductory level lab. I bet eight and ten year olds would have just as much fun doing "predation" experiments with different beans and different tools as college freshmen do.

It'll take work, and it'll take creativity, but I bet that if we - as individuals and as a community - make an effort to take science to people who aren't actively looking for it, we can make a real difference.

So where should we start?

9 responses so far

  • Lewis says:

    Excellent post!
    Proposing that we light more candles rather than cursing those standing in the darkness!
    If we are caucusing on an issue of the highest importance to science in the USA, I'm on your side.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    There is one place where we have a captive audience of Leaders of Tomorrow. That is the university-level General Education Biology Course for Music Majors. My objective in teaching one of these courses is to have the students leave the course with the understanding that biology is interesting, important, and accesible. I think teaching a general education course well is more important than teaching a major's course well. The major student will learn the material anyway, and any mistakes will be delt with at some other time in the career. In the General Education course, how successfully one molds the students' attitudes is more important than which parts of biology got discussed.
    At my university, other scientists and engineers do do not take any biology. So music majors know more about biology than chemists, physicists, etc. It is kind of scary to think that your kid's piano teacher may understand natural selection better than your kid's chemistry teacher.

  • Martin says:

    I sort of agree, and sort of disagree, and I think there's some woolly thinking over what we are trying to achieve.
    Firstly, yes, books by scientists, Science Cafes, and blogs all fail to hit the front line of science. We're very much in our tower, chatting among ourselves.
    I've run science buses and public tables before here in Britain. We attracted the pensioners and the children, but absolutely nobody between the ages of about 13 and 50, the audience we really wanted. The reason for this is that, frankly, science exhibits are mostly lame.
    The biggest gains are thanks to things like CSI, 24, Spooks, Scrubs and so on - TV shows and stories that appeal to young adults and capture the imagination. The biggest shifts in public opinion have been due to campaigns by newspapers or broadcasters. On that basis, I think we should be pushing to get more scientists involved in the real media (i.e. TV, Film, Newspapers).
    There's also the question of politics. The creationists in Texas have got a candidate running for the local school board with a stack of funding behind him - organization that we scientists can only dream of. We seem to lack the capability for political lobbying at the level that evangelical churches manage. Where is the science equivalent of MediaWatch? We may not like some of the tactics that our opponents use, but they work.
    Ultimately though, what do we want to achieve? If it's better education, we need to get into schools. If it's better public debate and awareness, then doing shows in shopping arcades looks a bit naive next to evangelists with multi-million dollar lobbying outfits.

  • Janne says:

    I do talk to the public. That is, to the public that consists of my non-science friends, relatives, people I met at the neighbourhood pub. Not talking about science all the time of course - what a crushing bore I'd be - but if the subject comes up then I'm always game to discuss it.
    But I'm not a good speaker; I do not have a commanding voice or an engaging manner. I'm not tall, dark and handsome and I do not cut a good figure in front of a camera. My writing is laboured and unclear. If the requirement for public outreach is to be media-savvy then count me out. I can't do it only badly, hurting science more than helping it. Put me in the crowd of people discussing a science topic and I do fine. Put me in front of the same crowd "with a coffee shop powerpoint talk" and I will clear out the house in five minutes flat.
    Researchers have not chosen their career based on their ability for or interest in public communication or media appearances. Yes, there are researchers that are brilliant in front of a crowd. Most of us, frankly, are not. With enough training and coaching we could probably aspire to mediocrity. Let the researchers that do have a genuine ability and interest do it, and do it well. Don't force the rest into a role they are completely unsuited for.

  • more of a tech guy says:

    Just as I finished reading this page and scrolled back to the top, the ad for "On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science" leaped out at me. It reminded me that one of the ways scientists can engage the indifferent public is through images.

  • Henry said: "In my experience, the public tend to engage more with science if they can try things out for themselves"
    But what do you mean by "engage"? Do you mean "go wow"? Do you mean "encourage them to get science qualifications"? Do you mean "give them a greater understanding of political issues surrounding science"?
    In short, is our ultimate aim P.R., recruiting, lobbying, or a combination of the above? If it's recruiting then we need to get to schools and parents. If it's lobbying or P.R., then we need to learn to be more like other politicized groups.
    Janne said: "I do not have a commanding voice or an engaging manner. I'm not tall, dark and handsome and I do not cut a good figure in front of a camera. My writing is laboured and unclear."
    Then you need training - surely better writing and presentation skills would be invaluable in your science career dealing with conferences, writing papers, constructing proposals and so on? Of course, whether you have access to it is a whole other issue...
    Janne said: "Let the researchers that do have a genuine ability and interest do it, and do it well."
    I agree here. I think we need central organizations - even foundations and charities - devoted to the organization of the lobbying, P.R. etc. activities of scientists and contributing to their training in some way. How cool would it be if we had something like that for the quality science blogging community?

  • Yttrai says:

    I'm saving this entry for later reference. You raise a tone of excellent points that hit close to home: I'm leaving a lucrative (ha!) research career for 2ndry ed teaching for many of the reasons you state - i want to attempt the "slow change from the inside" and excite the kids, which will hopefully have an osmotic effect on their friends and family. I know i'm crazy but hey, someone's got to try 🙂

  • spaulding says:

    The USA needs a massive, symbolic cultural wake-up call that reminds us that yes, science is important, and yes, many other nations are making faster gains than us and will surpass us soon, if not already.
    What will the new Sputnik be? Strong AI from Japan? Superhuman GM babies from South Korea? Hamas releasing a supervirus? It will have to be something scary. It sounds wrong to say it, but if that's what it takes we should hope it happens sooner, while we have a chance to change course.