Quite honestly, the current brand of science is...all over the place.
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So what does it mean for a scientist or science communicator to have a mission when it comes to the public?
Sometimes you encounter people who believe differently than you do. I know, crazy, but let's explore the hypothetical scenario just in case it were to happen.
The phrase “popular science” has a benign enough definition: explaining science to the general public.
But we are not competing in the marketplace of commerce. We're competing in the marketplace of ideas.
There are of course a few challenges to public outreach from the perspective of a scientist: difficulty in translating the jargon, fear of saying something inaccurate, discomfort in presenting to large crowds, and so on.
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.
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.
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.
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.