First off, the very act of using natural language to describe scientific concepts can be considered "dumbing down".
But we often hear the narrative that STEM literacy is declining, and that our mission is to fight that decline lest the general public becomes ignorant and afraid of the world around them. But here are three questions in response to that claim: 1) Can you actually reliably measure STEM "literacy"?, 2) Is it really declining?, and 3) Is that the true motivation of our mission?
So what to do? Well in the words of famed English novelist and critic George Orwell, "the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it."
So while many scientists agreed with the messages of the March, they didn't necessarily agree with the methods.
But not all scientists and members of the scientific community joined in the efforts. The March's slogan was "out of the labs and into the streets," but many scientists chose to stay in their labs. In this two-part series I'll weigh the pros and cons of the effort, starting with the pros.
There are many features of the scientific enterprise that we can incorporate into our everyday lives. These are all well and good, and with a properly trained mind can be wielded to great effect. But there's one more feature of science that has only emerged in relatively recent times: the rise of the collaboration.
In a perfect world we would just open up the doors, let folks filter in to take their seats, and start talking about science. They would listen, agree that it's pretty awesome, and go home to tell their friends and family what they just learned.
But how many times do scientists not actually mind the stereotype, and even actively work to encourage it? I've met more than one scientist who deliberately puts on an air of aloofness, who has judged society to never be able to understand their work, or who thumbs their nose at social conventions because they're too important.
The most interesting stories are when theory connects to observations, when there's a strong attempt to refute or bolster some piece of (un)known science. And here the name of the game is error bars.
The end goal of this process is to achieve a mastery of the subject. And a handy side effect of having an understanding of a topic with this particular technique is that you're perfectly positioned to explain it to audiences who have no prior experience using simple, uncomplicated language with lots of metaphors.
If a single person walks away from an educational moment not understanding the concept, we have to assume that it's entirely our fault.
Imagine a world where everybody was fully comfortable with the scientific viewpoint and readily accepted the latest research without question. Well for one, anyone who served as a facilitator of science would be out of a job, because the general public could facilitate themselves. And for two, that world would be a very scary place.
The most generous word I could use to describe the current state of media is "fractured". It's not that all audiences have turned solely to social media and that traditional media is dead, but it's that everybody has an almost dizzying array of options available to consume media.
I've had a pithy saying that I like to toss around. I don't know where I got it, and I can't find a source for it, so I'll go ahead and take credit for it: the first thing that lies to you is the data. Never, ever trust it.
We can't ever forget in our teaching moments the "how" we do science, otherwise it will always be just a list of empty facts, as easily consumed and discarded as the last headline.
Okay, there's one phrase that absolutely drives me up wall. I do my best in all public interactions to stay cool and respectful of differing opinions and approaches to understanding, but when I hear these two little words I instantly Hulk out and start (mentally) smashing things…
What makes it so hard to talk about climate science? Or course the short answer is "politics", but why is it political, and why does that prevent us from speaking clearly about the subject?
It's our mission as science communicators to, well, communicate science. And not just the process and methods, but also the value and importance of science in modern society. But there's a dangerous line that's very easy to cross when promoting all things science: that science is all the things.
As fans of the scientific method we should immediately recognize the need to provide evidence to back up our statements. Therefore a part of our mission as a community of scientists, educators, and communicators is to share with our audiences that science can be incorporated into their everyday lives.
It's so easy to dismiss flat-Earthers. Most of my colleagues do so with a contemptuous smirk and "of course the Earth is round", sometimes following up with "you idiot". I myself usually respond with a contemptuous roll of my eyes and "I refuse to feed the trolls"...sometimes following up with "you idiot".