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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Unpopular Science

In a world in which Democrats are dismissed as overly-educated pansies, in which Republicans cater to the basest of the base using unsupported, untrue spin-doctored facts passed off as honest research, and in which there is serious debate between the scientifically-credible fact of evolution and the flimsy idea of intelligent design, the discussion must inevitably turn to modern America's disillusionment and disinterest in science and academia. This semester, I am not only taking a whopping 8-credits in Systems Physiology, but am also committing some yet-described from of masochism by subjecting myself to an interminably long 3-credit class on Ethics. Among the many class discussions we've had, one of the more interesing ones has been on the divide between science and the masses. Science and scientific research, for reasons still not fully understood, are seen as geeky, unwieldy, snobbish, and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Science and Nature, the scientific magazines with the largest readership within the scientific communities, are rarely picked up by the Average Joe, despite countless studies that will ultimately affect them and their way of life. In Science, this week, for example, headlines include a study postulating a genetic link to obesity, turning waste products into fuel, accidents involving human testing of novel antibodies, and possible cooperation between North and South Korea to build ties between their two scientific communities. I'm not arguing that the format of research papers is accessible to all; it does, after all, take a certain amount of background, foundational education to understand most scientific research papers, no matter what the field, not to mention sufficient literacy (America has a roughly 85% literacy rate for prose, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy study done by the National Center for Education Statistics, Table 2, all scores above Below Basic for 2003) and access to the magazines. What we therefore talked about in Ethics was the responsibility that scientists had to their community to digest and present their research for the masses. Part of our obligation as researchers is to make our findings accessible and understandable to those outside of our field, with the hope of improving general education of others. One approach is to encourage scientists to participate in popular science seminar series aimed at inviting the public to "scientific" talks. We as scientists are trained to simplify our research for the layman and many grants are funded with some sort of "public outreach" aspect. With that in mind, I recently attended two popular science talks somewhat outside of my field, with the hopes of improving my breadth of understanding. One was a talk by Simon Conway Morris, a paleobiologist and deist who used his time at the podium to postulate that not only was there a pattern of evolutionary convergence, but that this was in fact leading towards some sort of universally inevitable, singular truth, and that this was a sign of a higher being. The other was a talk about using molecular data (i.e. DNA) to map the evolutionary history of humans from apes. In both cases, I learned something I did not previously know -- and in both cases, I was shocked by the lack of science in these scientific talks. It made me wonder about whether, by holding these popular science talks, though we are trying to encourage the populace to become more educated in contemporary research, theories and thought, if in the process of appealing to Joe Blow, we end up excising the very science we hope to introduce to them. My reason for suggesting this is that all of the so-called research was so glossed over in both these talks, that they seemed to fall apart when critically challenged. Although presented as absolute truth and fact, neither of these presenters discussed the science behind these sciences. Originally, I had planned to blog about Morris for a wholly different reason, but after considering that talk alongside the human evolution talk from last night, I started to wonder if popular appeal and hard science were mutually exclusive. Is a research seminar, by nature, too boring or too highbrow for a bricklayer to understand? And if the science is, itself, missing in these seminars, then what then is the point of having popular seminars? The questions from last night's seminars were misinformed: a good indication of the level of scientific understanding that exists in the real world. Questions about what a "missing link" is, what are "DNA markers" (in a talk about DNA markers), and a political challenge on man's relationship to chimpanzees suggest not even a superficial understanding or caring about the molecular techniques used to examine the evolutionary history of humans and apes, but rather a need by the audience to associate the conclusions with popular jargon, for the jargon's sake. For those of us who cared about the science behind the talk (for example, I was curious to know how the presenter was able to map his phylogenetic tree onto a timescale of million years, given that there isn't an understandable constant rate of mutation), the presenter was dismissive of our questions and rather preferred to schmooze and field other questions about monkeys and God. Which leads me to wonder if, perhaps, the point of the popular seminar is not actually about science. With both talks, I was within a small minority of students who attended -- the vast majority of people who went to these evening talks were actually elderly men and women, dressed in blazers, suit jackets, and church hats. Brooches and rings and extravagant earrings abounded -- in fact, the attendees reminded me not so much of those who would attend a talk out of interest, but those elderly, idle elite who might don their Sunday best to attend a horse-race, a Broadway play, or an opera. What was happening on-stage seemed almost incidental; watching the post-talk milling, I realized that this was a social event for the attendees, intended to allow people to show-off their beautiful things and small-talk, while collectively feeling better about having attending an "academic" talk. Whether or not the presenter's points about models of hominin migration actually got through, I'm not too sure, but I do know that it was certainly not on the minds of most after the applause ceased. This therefore leads, once more, to the idea that perhaps the layman not only is not ill-equipped to fully understand science, but that more important than the lack of education, is a lack of caring. But, if that's the case, than how do we reach out to the community and encourage improved general scientific understanding of our surroundings? If the pursuit of scientific understanding is part of bettering all of humanity, but we cannot seem to communicate our findings to an improved general understanding of the world, what then is our true purpose? Is it all just a quest for pure truth? Ultimately, I think what researchers need to do is not fall into the trap of removing the science from the presentation and to remember that our goal is not to schmooze but to act as ambassadors from the scientific community to the public. Our goal is not to distill "answers" (for very few answers are truly apparent in science) but to slowly suggest a new way of thinking for the audience, and encourage them to question our methods as well as our conclusions. I hope that, someday, we will see a greater shift towards accepting science into popular culture -- maybe then we won't need the hacks in mainstream news media to distill (often incorrectly) important scientific findings for us; we'll be able to talk about them for ourselves.

9 Comments:

Blogger Matt said...

I appreciate the balanced analysis of the situation.

I'd like to suggest that the problem is not exclusive to attempts to distill science to the masses. It's more related to attempts to force science into a desired ideological conclusion that is not supported by the facts.

The exact same thing that has been occurring in evolution circles for many years has now been adopted by the intelligent design circle. They're both trying to use science to prove a point which is not evident from the known facts.

The fossil record gives us no direct evidence of evolution from one species to another yet it's declared as a fact in High School biology texts and by the majority in the biological sciences. As far as ID, it's adding an element of study that belongs in philosophy and theology, not natural science.

4/19/2006 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Rtother said...

Yeah, a large part of the problem is the huge amount of stuff out there. Everything from potential fusion reactors, hydrogen fuel cells, to gene expression affects us, and we only have a finite amount of time. I can understand why people are more interested in TomKat than in fusion. Tom Cruise is much more familiar and easier to understand (mostly) than physics. Some things are too complex for many people, myself included.

4/19/2006 11:36:00 PM  
Blogger catswym said...

giving a good talk is about understanding your audience: what their background is, their current understanding and the level of understanding that they can rise up to in any given hour of lecture.

as soon as you have a "general" audience, it seems to me, you must assume that your audience has no background and no understanding. for every person in your audience that has a firm grasp of what exactly DNA is and how it 'works' (for instance), you will have someone else who doesn't. what else is a researcher supposed to do but distill their research down to conclusions only?

it would be different if we had some sort of categorization of "general science" talks (and perhaps we should) where the speaker could advertise the "level" of their talk (i really don't mean this to be as elitist as it might sound). and certainly, if we are serious as scientists about getting the word out we need to advertise these talks better.

the problem, i believe, is that we don't want the general public to be able to interpret and understand the science on their own. we want to be the dispensers of information and the arbiters of research. we want to keep ourselves necessary and above.

4/20/2006 08:52:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

matt said:
I'd like to suggest that the problem is not exclusive to attempts to distill science to the masses. It's more related to attempts to force science into a desired ideological conclusion that is not supported by the facts.

I think you're right that that's part of the problem, although I think we academics (scientists and non-scientist researchers alike) need to be aware of the political ramifications of our research and conclusions and make sure to address them, at least in popular seminars. I think it would help avoid the misappropriation of badly interpreted conclusions by the ID side, while still addressing the fact that evolution, while as close to a fact as we're going to get in scientific circles, isn't a fact fact.

rtother said:Yeah, a large part of the problem is the huge amount of stuff out there. Everything from potential fusion reactors, hydrogen fuel cells, to gene expression affects us, and we only have a finite amount of time. I can understand why people are more interested in TomKat than in fusion.

I can't... I think most everyone is capable of understanding these aspects if properly distilled. There's nothing special about the academics who work in this field other than their schooling. While we can't expect people to grasp nuclear reactor science in one two hour popular seminar, I don't think we need to treat the popular seminar as a "dumbing down" so much as a more broad, general talk.

And I can't understand anyone who cares about TomKat.

catswym said:
as soon as you have a "general" audience, it seems to me, you must assume that your audience has no background and no understanding. for every person in your audience that has a firm grasp of what exactly DNA is and how it 'works' (for instance), you will have someone else who doesn't. what else is a researcher supposed to do but distill their research down to conclusions only?

I honestly hope that's not what it boils down to. The two "popular" talks I've given (in my Ethics class which has a mix of grad students from different fields), I've always approached with a need to include a broad description of my techniques. I just feel like it projects too much faith in our research if we don't allow people to question and come to our conclusions rather than just telling them our conclusions -- it allows us to presume our audience is less capable than we are in thinking -- when really we can hand-hold them through our logic and let them decide for themselves whether or not they believe our conclusions.

At least that's my naive, idealistic perpsective in educating the masses.

catswym said:the problem, i believe, is that we don't want the general public to be able to interpret and understand the science on their own. we want to be the dispensers of information and the arbiters of research. we want to keep ourselves necessary and above.

This is a fascinating point. I need to mull this one over but I think you make a very good point with this.

4/20/2006 03:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Adam said...

catswym said: the problem, i believe, is that we don't want the general public to be able to interpret and understand the science on their own. we want to be the dispensers of information and the arbiters of research. we want to keep ourselves necessary and above.

I just can't believe that this is the way most scientists think. People focus on different fields in order to get a job or what not. The difference between professionals is not usually their levels of intelligence, but just the bodies of knowledge that each focused on studying.

There will always be a "need" for scientists, lawyers, businessmen, etc. Not everyone can be a jack of all trades, and specialization is actually preferred.

I don't think it's because scientists don't want the public to understand the science and research, it's that a lot of scientists and researchers don't know how to express their ideas in a way that a layperson would understand, but without losing meaning or making the layperson feel condescended.

4/21/2006 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger EL said...

I don't have anything brilliant to add, but I wanted to commend you on this post. As someone who often feels very alienated from science, I selfishly like the idea that people on the inside might be talking about how to make their work traverse these boundaries.

4/25/2006 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

Jenn,

Interesting post, and interesting point. I was struck, though, by this phrase: "Ultimately, I think what researchers need to do is not fall into the trap of removing the science from the presentation and to remember that our goal is not to schmooze but to act as ambassadors from the scientific community to the public."

Maybe the self-conception of popular science lecturers as "ambassadors" to an alien and benighted people is a central part of the problem. Scientists don't think of themselves as "ambassadors" to their colleagues when giving a presentation or as "ambassadors" to their students when giving a lecture (even though in the case of the students they are working over material for people who are presumed to be more ignorant of the discipline than they are). The notion puts a lot of distance between the scientist and the "general public" and I wonder how much that distance plays a role in the temptation to present yourself as an oracle of Scientific Knowledge, rather than as someone explaining the research and methods behind the interesting conclusions you've been able to draw from them. Maybe scientists need to think of themselves less as ambassadors to the public, and think of what they're doing as different only in degree from what they do when they discuss research with their colleagues or their students.

4/25/2006 11:33:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Hey Rad, I think that's an interesting point, although I think I would distinguish between Oracles and "ambassadors". Part of giving a popular scientific talk IS recognizing that there is a gap in familiarity with the material between the populace and the scientist. Neither you nor I could walk off the street and hope to understand a talk on astrophysics, and part of the process of giving a popular talk is figuring out where you're using jargon or concepts not familiar to the general public.

That's why I think ambassador is an appropriate word. It recognizes the difference but encourages an approach towards understanding that is primarily the responsibility of the scientist.

4/26/2006 06:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

This is a battle I gave up on long ago.

I simply resign myself to the reality that people in the U.S., at least in the backwater parts of it that the white house is willing to bend over and be servants too, are too fundamentally stupid and religious to understand science.

5/02/2006 03:43:00 PM  

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