This Is My Job

I got a weirdly hostile comment to my popularization post last night:

You have some chutzpah. You are being paid, probably quite well, to do research! Journalists are paid, not nearly so well, to popularize research. It takes some nerve to take an extra year’s salary, and to take time away from your real job—and then to complain about not being well-enough rewarded. If you want something to complain about, become a science journalist and see how well you are rewarded then. I’m sure you think that is beneath you, and that you do so much better a job—but the general audience you aim to address can’t tell the difference.

We need fewer scientists doing committee work/writing reports/giving TV interviews/blogging/”popularizing”/writing the thousandth general audience book on quantum mechanics. We need more scientists doing their jobs.

In a perverse sort of way, I’m actually kind of glad to see this comment. “Jon” here couldn’t be a better example of the sort of counterproductive attitude that has gotten us into the predicament described in Unscientific America. The notion that there is no responsibility to communicate natural laws to a broad public is something that should have been buried with the last of the alchemists. It ought to have no place in science.

Even leaving aside the point that my day job is as a professor of physics, and thus includes an obligation to educate people, the job of a scientist includes communication. As I’ve said many times before, science is a four-step process:

  1. Observe an interesting phenomenon in the world.
  2. Invent a theory that might explain said phenomenon.
  3. Test your theory with experiments and further observations.
  4. Tell everyone the results of your tests.

Step #4 took the longest to get nailed down– scientists were still hiding their findings in cryptic anagrams well into the 1600’s– but the explosion of progress that led to modern science didn’t take off until it was. That fourth step is what separates science from alchemy– alchemists tried to ferret out the secrets of the natural world, and hoarded that knowledge for themselves; scientists try to find the secrets of the natural world, and then share them with the rest of humanity.

The dissemination of knowledge is the crucial step that makes rapid scientific progress possible. Scientific data are like pieces of some gigantic and esoteric jigsaw puzzle, and your only chance to put the whole thing together is to get all the pieces together. If a scientist in England has three or four pieces, one in France two more, half a dozen in China, and five in the US, no progress is possible. Only by sharing the pieces among themselves can the scientists in all of those countries make progress.

The problem is, in the last hundred-odd years, we’ve begun to lose the idea of wide dissemination of knowledge. Scientific publication has become increasingly specialized and technical, and scientists are now rewarded for producing articles targeted at the narrowest possible audience of fellow scientists. We’re sliding back toward alchemy, with natural laws shared only with a tiny group of fellow initiates.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and hasn’t always been this way. Galileo famously reported his findings in popular books (granted, this got him into trouble with the Church…). Michael Faraday was well known for giving Christmas lectures to the general public. Famous scientists of the 19th and early 20th centuries routinely gave lectures to general audiences.

Somewhere in the last fifty-odd years, though, we’ve picked up the notion that it’s somehow unseemly for Real Scientists to speak to a general audience– that, as “Jon” writes, the only job of a scientist is to hunker down and do research that will be read and used by other scientists. The messy business of dumbing things down for the person on the street is best left to English majors who couldn’t hack calculus.

It’s no coincidence that the public prestige and influence of science has decreased significantly over that period. As scientists have lost interest in communicating science to the public, the public has lost interest in science.

This wouldn’t be a problem if science were still something that idle aristocratic gentlemen could take up as a hobby, but it’s not. Modern science is a tremendously expensive endeavor, requiring the sort of resources that can only be obtained through broad societal support– government grants, and so on. That funding stream is dependent on public goodwill toward science, which in turn depends on the public being informed and engaged by scientists.

When scientists stop talking to the public, that support becomes more tenuous, and you get, well, the situation we have now. You get science funding levels that whipsaw back and forth depending on who holds office and priorities that shift for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the science being produced. As scientists, we find ourselves in a hell of our own making– science has become a political football because we have failed at our jobs as scientists.

So, talking about science to the general public is my job. It’s part of the job of all scientists. It has to be, for science as a whole to survive and advance.

Does this mean that every scientist needs to write a popular book? No, no more than every scientists needs to study quantum gravity. Different scientists have different strengths, and every scientist should work on those things that they do best.

But general-audience writing is absolutely and unequivocally a legitimate part of the activities of a scientist. It’s essential for the overall health of the scientific community, and needs to be recognized as every bit as important as pushing the uncertainty in some physical constant back another decimal place or two.

If we don’t share our results with the public, we’re no better than alchemists in the end. Science requires communication, not just with other practitioners of the art, but with the people who support the work, and the children who will become the next generation of scientists.