Communicating science

So in an earlier post I denigrated some efforts that were being taken supposedly to “communicate science,” or to be more specific, to help foster an interest and understanding of science and try to reduce the idea of scientists as either hopeless nerds or conmen pulling a fast one on the public to maintain their funding. Science is quite simply the most functional of all of our survival practices, and the one that fosters nearly all of our advancement as a species. Despite this, it doesn’t have much support in this country, and this is ludicrous. So I’m providing a couple of thoughts and ideas to help spur this along.

First off, though others have covered this themselves, I’ll go into the problems with the “Rock Stars of Science” campaign that has been implemented, where major researchers are posed, bearing their haughty superhero faces, with popular musicians or performers, also wearing their stoic deadpan faces as if waiting for the photographer to finish screwing around so they can get to the serious business of writing their timeless poetry. The reason this fails to promote science is quite simply that it relies on the ridiculous pandering to image that rockstars utilize, while at the same time saying that scientists need a leg up from members of a “community” known for substance-abuse, hedonism, facades, and fame garnered almost as often through outrageous behavior as solid musical accomplishment. Rockstars aren’t really the bottom of the celebrity heap, that position being held entirely by Tom Cruise, but they’re not exactly held in high esteem, either. And it does nothing to actually promote science, because it ignores what science does in favor of seeking the apparent opinions, through association, of figures that aren’t known for their thinking abilities.

This isn’t to say that the rockstars are stupid, any more than anyone else that could have posed for the pics. They’re simply not known for intelligent discourse, but for much shallower and image-conscious traits. That’s almost diametrically opposed to science and its value. Anyone may leap in and provide examples of rockstars that are smart, if they like – I have my own list of rebuttals handy, and you damn well know it’s a good one. Ima let you finish…

Now, if you really wanted a photographic ad campaign, then how about going the real superhero route, posing them (alone!) with their haughty expressions, and then listing their latest escapades:

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov: won Nobel Prize in Physics for their work with Graphene, the thinnest, strongest lattice of carbon. Graphene is a single atom thick yet impervious to penetration by even very small atoms, transparent, an excellent conductor of electricity, and able to bond to numerous materials, promising significant breakthroughs in microcomputing, conductive materials, and bullet-proof tights.

If you like, these photos can be elaborately staged to be even more dramatic, catching the eye while sneaking in the impact of their work. If you really want to promote image and facades, at least do it from an effective standpoint. Hell, I’ve had my own fun simply composing the photos for book reviews, from Demon-Haunted World with its haunting shape in the background darkness (too subtle it seems,) to Why Evolution Works with its family tree, Last Chance To See on its tiny fragile island, and Your Inner Fish dragging itself from the water.

Chris Mooney is one of the big supporters of this program, and his other pet obsession, as a supposed science-promoter, has been to blame scientists for their inability to use proper “framing,” which is to present their work in a manner that makes it acceptable to more people. There are some major problems with this. Recognize that scientists are not promoters at all, and it’s asinine to think that they should be. Promotion requires a fair amount of marketing savvy and a lot of time and effort, not to mention money. Scientists are the people who get the real work done – requiring them to spend any length of time playing around with how to promote their work simply means far less work gets done. And this is accompanied by the fact that their expertise, their entire background, is generally in lab work, study, and research, not in marketing. It’s easy to spend eight to twelve years getting an education just in their own specialties, and now Mooney thinks they should spend more to learn promotion? Not to mention that science budgets are exceptionally lean, and hard to obtain – no funding source is likely to add in some more for advertising, and if they did, it would be to professionals, not researchers. So apparently this promotion is going to come out of the scientists’ own pockets? Consist entirely of press-releases and conferences? I’ve got news for Mooney – that’s already being done. The journalists, of which he claims to be, generally don’t attend, and when they do, they fuck up the story anyway. Thanks for you thoughtful contributions, Chris.

It also needs to be said that many aspects of scientific study and breakthroughs don’t promote well, because the science is so specialized that explaining it to the average person takes a ridiculous amount of time. Analogies, when they can even be used, are fraught with the danger of misrepresenting the science too drastically, and promoting misunderstandings. This is usually compounded by the intentional efforts to misrepresent by those who oppose the scientists’ work, or don’t like the bare facts involved (religious fundamentalists and corporate-funded politicians, I’m looking at you.) And it’s also hampered by a very simple thing: it takes a certain kind of mindset to present things to the public effectively, one that is not taught or encouraged in the degree programs, unless your degree is in education.

That leads in to the next bit. In two review books, Demon-Haunted World and Your Inner Fish, I caught the initial stirrings of this next idea, because both authors touched on it when they related their experiences in classrooms. Young students are often fascinated by new science, and of course, this science must be couched in terms they’ll comprehend. And this is one of the key times to foster an interest in science to begin with. So how about a program where local university researchers are invited to speak to elementary school classrooms on their work, or any related work? This costs nothing, and requires a minimum of prep time. It gets the kids interested in science. It gets the scientists involved in communication, and actively seeing what works and what doesn’t – moreover, in a non-judgmental atmosphere. It lets the kids see the real world applications of new research, and also their own schooling. And it provides the existing teachers with material to springboard from, and discussion topics for at least the next week.

In fact, even grad students could address high school classes as part of their degree programs. This serves an additional purpose of letting the high school students know what awaits them soon afterward, while getting the grad students presenting their work. The rapport from similar age groups may be greater, and overall (for both scientists and grad students,) it presents a distinctive affirmation of their work efforts, recognition that often doesn’t come from presenting at conferences and submitting papers. School age students can be more enthusiastic about the findings, and entertained by the lab stories. Handled well, it’s also a great source of public interest stories that newsrooms are always looking for, and while the typical ten-second soundbite is a pathetic excuse for “news” (as is nearly everything on public access TV,) it’s still better than no exposure at all.

The program might also serve to get colleges and local schools more communicative, which wouldn’t hurt. Such a program shouldn’t be mandatory – there are some researchers who really would make terrible presenters – but it should be encouraged and potentially worth some special credit or recognition. It’s also a program open to private foundation funding.

Speaking of encouragement, consider the amount of time, effort, and funding spent on high school and college sports. Now, think about why: what is it accomplishing? Physical fitness? No, the exclusivity of varsity sports (which is encouraged, and even part of the appeal) rules this out as a decent excuse. So, do they promote students towards better careers, accomplishments, or motivations for the younger students? Only a handful of athletes go on, from any college, to using these skills later on, often for a very brief career if at all. Varsity sports are, quite simply, pandering to instincts, the mistaken belief that competition of this type is functional. In some cases, it gets more funding for the schools, but seriously, aren’t schools about education? Isn’t one of the key interests on college campuses about changing standards? Do schools really have to prostitute themselves and their students just to keep afloat? And if so, when is this going to change, and who’s going to do it?

If academic accomplishments are the prime raison d’ĂȘtre of schools, then they need to be recognizing academic accomplishments at least twice as much as they do sports. Does the math team have school uniforms? Do the winners of the history fairs and spelling bees get something more than a $12 plastic trophy? Do the various science competitions take place as often as the softball and field hockey games? How are the kids going to excel in such pursuits if they have one big buildup per year (if that – my school had nothing of the sort) and then the kids are back to zero in a different class the next year? Do the academic accomplishments make it onto the roadside signs as you enter town? The attitudes about science are developed during these very years – why is it given such short shrift?

Science isn’t a spectator sport, so it’s hard to get kids and parents involved? Then you’re not doing it right. Rocketry is one of the coolest things to watch, and it’s readily available to adolescent kids. Robotics can be used for competitions of all kinds, and it’s far less violent – often it’s even funny. Even basic competitions like spelling bees and trivia eliminations can be made more exciting with the simple addition of countdown buzzers and activity-based styles, rather than simply standing on a stage. We cheer when someone catches a ball simply because we’re conditioned to – we’re surrounded by it. Promoting academic accomplishments requires the same kind of enthusiasm. All it takes is a little creativity – and the motivation that this is important to foster.

What this means is community involvement, enough to get some momentum going. Only a few years ago, the emphasis on adolescent extra-curricular sports programs began, creating the term “soccer mom” and a whole new expectation of what quality time with the kids was supposed to consist of. But parents really don’t participate beyond cheering from the sidelines and supplying the kids with materials and transportation; imagine if they instead worked with their kids on projects, like this one to send a video camera into the stratosphere. How many parents during a parent-teacher conference will it take to get more science-based programs active in a school? It would be a damn sight better than whining about christian “values.” Call me crazy, but I think real education actually has better value.

Should we take money for such endeavors from the school sports programs? Give three reasons why the hell not; provide what the useful functions are of school sports. I’m not talking about mandatory gym classes, which do fulfill a need for physical activity – I’m talking about varsity sports and competitions, programs that need equipment and uniforms and stadiums/fields and transportation. Can you, reading this right now, come up with three things you, or anyone you know, developed during high school and college sports that are used in your current careers? Yes, there’s resistance against cutting school sports programs – there’s resistance against lots of things. That’s not an excuse to avoid them, if there are better choices.

There’s also the possibility, for those creative enough, that academic competitions exist right alongside sports competitions, and serve the same funding purposes – which means increasing the available budget for schools. Can this be done? Of course it can – but it needs community support. If you’re on this blog (and have read this far,) chances are you’re supportive of science. That’s a start, as long as it’s treated like one.

A disturbing aspect of science communication and education is that it’s the parents who are often holding the kids back. Not only by spending so much leisure time on sports, giving the subtle message that they’re much more fun than nature or astronomy programs, but by going to zoos, aquariums, and museums and not being prepared for the questions. It’s an ugly fact: no parent will ever have all of the answers for the questions their kid has. The problem lies in either providing false information in an attempt to look knowledgeable, or in simply dismissing the questions as if they had no merit. Most of this can be solved with a notepad or a voice recorder! Copy down all of the child’s questions, and see that they get answered later on. This even presents opportunities to springboard to new topics or expand on some trivia, something I engage in occasionally with this blog (see the “Too Cool” entries linked on the sidebar.)

It’s not really that we have a problem with science in this country, it’s that we don’t even realize when we’re de-emphasizing it. Our culture has developed around different lines and this isn’t going to move us forward in any way – indeed, we’re dropping steadily behind. The US doesn’t really need to be the world’s source of airheaded media personalities, frothing televangelists, and overpaid steroid junkies. This will only change when we make it change ourselves.