So a few days ago, Brian of Laelaps and I had a conversation. The conversation went like this:
Sci: Somebody wrote a book where he referred to the “tone” of scienceblogs.com as being bad for science. The book is “Don’t be SUCH a scientist”. Because we are “such scientists”, as in, people who are obsessed with facts and take passion and interest from everything we communicate with. I’m really getting annoyed by this. Though I see the point, in that we all know many scientists can make learning some pretty dry stuff. But look, I’m a communicator, so are you. We write stuff people find entertaining! It’s on a blog for ALL THE WORLD to see, it’s even on the NY Times sometimes. Yet. I get 1500 hits a day. I know twilight fanfic websites that get way more than that. So I’m communicating, and I’m doing it well, and it’s not for lack of exposure…why aren’t people clicking then?
Brian: Yeah, [that scienceblogs reference] I don’t understand how it’s bad for scientists to help more people understand science! I haven’t read “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” yet, but a copy should be coming to my mailbox soon.
Sci: I think I want to post something. Because one wonders. There are those of us out there. Scientists, students of science, etc, who post about science. We try to do it so everyone can understand. It’s interesting, it’s relevant. It’s not fact-obsessed. There are tons of popular science books out there doing the same thing. But NO ONE CLICKS. And no one reads. Scientists might be part of the problem, but we’re not the only ones causing a major lack of interest.
Brian: Well, the people that read us are already interested in science. It’s harder to reach everyone else. You can’t make people care about something if they’re just not that interested. How about we write our own book, “Maybe they’re just not that into science?”
Sci: hehehe. That would be SO FUN! So it comes around again. How do we get people interested. People focus on scientists and science being portrayed as “cool”. But I don’t know if that’s it. People want to become doctors, and doctors are not necessarily cool. They want to become doctors because doctors save people. I want to be a scientist because scientists save the world. Perhaps we should focus more on how people doing science are heroes. Saving the planet, saving people.
So it comes around to how do we get people interested
Brian: Right, and for me, science just had this inexplicable draw. I loved nature, and if I wanted to learn more about nature I knew I would have to become a scientist. Making scientists “cool” will not solve the problem, and it might be a problem we never really solve. We just have to keep working as hard as we can to popularize science.
Sci: But you will contribute to human knowledge. You will inspire, which is very important.
Brian: I think a major improvement would be getting more science-savvy people into mass media outlets to replace some of these journalists who are on the science beat but don’t know a thing about science! I reject this idea that there was some golden age when people respected science all the time and we need to go back. There never was such a time. It’s always been a fight to get people to understand science, but it’s something that is worthwhile.
Sci: Yeah, i definitely agree. People talk about how, during the “space race” people were interested in science. Of COURSE they were. It could come down on their heads any minute. If I were building a fallout shelter and heard about spy satellites orbiting the earth, I’d want to know how they worked, too. But that’s because it’s relevant, not because science was somehow “cooler”. And people NOW are interested in science. They are interested in medicine, in vaccinations and psychiatry, because it’s relevant. It’s something they’re dealing with every day. I don’t think we can say that people are “less” interested in science than they used to be. They are interested in what is relevant to them at the moment.
Brian: Right. Well lots of people are interested in science, it is just what aspect, and to what extent. And it would be great if we could get people excited about science that isn’t directly relevant to their everyday lives, because there’s more to science than just medicine and technology.
And this conversation caused me to do a lot more thinking.
Mostly, I’ve been thinking about two things: science being “cool”, and the idea of a scientific golden age. Where do people GET the idea of a scientific golden age? Sure, it was a space race. People were interested. There were great scientific communicators around. But those people who were firing off rockets and stuff in their back yards? We still called them geeks. And those people who went on to be physicists? We still called them nerds. Science was never POPULAR.
And it probably never will be truly popular. To do science takes a real attention to detail, and an incredible amount of perseverance. We never give up. We never stop working. Many of us are devoted to our jobs in a way that probably isn’t very healthy. You have to be willing to keep taking the data, and do the same thing, EXACTLY the same thing, over and over and over. You have to deal with the fact that a lot of times, you’re going to be wrong. You have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous reviews, and a lot of rejection, because the scientific community is about finding the truth, and this means only the best stuff is going to make it.
But what we have to do is convince people WHY we do what we do. Why we put up with that kind of attention to detail and all of the frustration. When I think about science, and how frustrated I often become because science is so…uncool, or unpopular, I think about doctors. A lot of kids want to be doctors. Very few want to be scientists. Doctors are better known, sure. But there’s more than that. Doctors have a reputation. Everyone knows WHY doctors do what they do. They are like heroes. They heal people. Save people’s lives. Every day. When you’re a kid, the doctor seems to know a lot of the things your parents don’t. And that’s all still true as adults. Doctors do save lives. And that’s why kids want to become doctors.
Why don’t kids want to be scientists? When people think of scientists, they think of people with frizzy hair, people who discover things with long names, people who are boring. Scientists are not heroes. And this is where science suffers.
Yes, doctors save lives.
Scientists save the world.
Doctors save many, many lives every day. But without scientists, doctors would not have the technology they do and the knowledge which enables them to put it to use. Most of us wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for aseptic surgery, vaccination, antibiotics, caesarian sections. We wouldn’t be here without doctors. But we also wouldn’t be here without scientists. Doctors save individual lives, but it is the work of scientists which saves populations. You life might be saved by a doctor performing an emergency appendectomy. But he couldn’t do it without scientists. Scientists designing the antibiotics. Scientists figuring out better ways to perform antiseptic surgery. Scientists designing the very thread the doctor uses to stitch you back up.
And not just in medicine. Scientists will eventually find ways to save us from ourselves, from global warming, from killing off life in the oceans. They could save us tomorrow by knowing when and where the next earthquake will be, the next volcanic eruption. Some are finding ways to increase agricultural yield to spare farmland and decrease hunger. Scientists obtain the knowledge which allows us to save species and ecosystems. Scientists give us knowledge about the world around us, where we came from, and where we might be going. And the stuff we find out is not only exciting, it’s probably a lot more exciting than that LOLcat you just wasted 5 minutes on.
Why aren’t we telling people? To be a superhero, be a SCIENTIST! To save thousands of people, be a SCIENTIST.
What do we tell kids. When they are kids. We tell them about doctors. Firefighters. Doctors keep you healthy, doctors save lives. Firefighter, like doctors, are heroes. What do we tell them about scientists?
Edit: W00t! Brian’s been doing some thinking, too. Check it out!