Earlier this week, there was some interesting discussion of science communication in the UK branch of the science blogosphere. I found it via Alun Salt’s “Moving beyond the ‘One-dinosaur-fits-all’ model of science communication” which is too good a phrase not to quote, and he spun off two posts from Alice Bell, at the Guardian blog and her own blog, and the proximate cause of all this is a dopey remark by a UK government official that has come in for some justifiable mockery.
Bell and Salt both focus on the narrowness of the “dinosaurs and space” approach– a reasonably representative quote from Salt is:
Bell points to I’m a Scientist; Get me out of here! Here scientists of various types are quizzed by children. The questions there cover what’s on their mind. It’s not that there are no dinosaurs or astronomical questions, it’s that the questions are far wider in interest than Willetts allows for. It’s possible that children are simply more interested in a wider range of sciences than some of the people charged with the task of enthusing them. It’s also likely that you have to engage multiple audiences. There is a Space and Dino audience. There are also human biology audiences and ecological audiences. Telling children in these audiences that science is cool because it has dinosaurs is a subtle way of saying: “If you’re interested in cute furry animals then science isn’t really for you. We don’t think kittens, human cells or stuff like that are that interesting.”
That’s a good point, but there’s another angle on this that is more relevant to my preoccupations, which is that you really don’t have to work to get kids interested in dinosaurs and space. Dinosaurs are easy. They’re gigantic extinct reptiles like something out of a horror movie– that sells itself.
Saying “I’m going to devote our science outreach efforts to talking about dinosaurs and space” is sort of like saying “I’m going to devote our school lunch program to chocolate bars and ice cream.” It’s too easy– you don’t have to spend lots of money to get kids interested in dinosaurs, any more than you need to spend lots of money getting them to eat ice cream. If you’re going to make a concerted effort to get kids interested in some aspect of science, it should be something they’re not already interested in, in the same way that school nutrition programs make a concerted effort to get kids to eat something that isn’t sugary crap.
This is related to something I said a while back in a discussion of physics outreach programs. Somebody took offense at a dismissive remark about the LHC, saying “people really like the LHC!” Which is fine, as far as it goes, but physics is much more than the LHC.
If we want to spend a bunch of money doing physics outreach programs about particle physics and cosmology, I can pretty much guarantee that it will be a success. If you can slap a picture of a gigantic accelerator or a Hubble telescope picture on it, people eat that stuff up.
But then, if we’re just going to spend money promoting the LHC and the Hubble, we might as well save the money and do nothing at all. Particle physics and cosmology don’t need outreach efforts. They’re on tv all the damn time– the various science-related channels on cable are part of my nightly channel-surfing routine, and it’s a rare night when one of them isn’t running a program showing lots of pictures of giant particle accelerators or distant galaxies. Any outreach efforts along those lines by individual universities or physics organizations is just a tiny film of extra icing on top of a gigantic televisual cake.
If you’re going to commit resources to a new outreach activity, it ought to be directed toward something that’s harder to sell. Because, well, if you don’t make the effort, nobody’s going to buy it. Dinosaurs and space and the LHC will take care of themselves, but condensed matter physics or thermodynamics or optics isn’t going to catch the public imagination without some real effort, effort that’s not going to come from tv networks with seven-figure production budgets. Not unless somebody puts in the work to find a way to make those fields attractive on a smaller scale first.
Of course, this situation is subject to a vicious cycle of disincentives. It’s hard to make condensed matter physics cool, and faculty with lots of demands on their time don’t want to put in the effort. Which means that nobody does popularizations of the subject, and then there’s no interest in it, so it becomes harder to get anybody to listen, or put in the effort, and so on.
That’s why I advocate strongly for more efforts in this direction, and why I spend time blogging about low-energy physics, and mostly let the latest particle physics gossip slide. Particle physics doesn’t need my help, but low-energy physics does. And if I were given the chance to direct national science education and outreach initiatives, that’s why I wouldn’t spend time and money on dinosaurs and space.
Dinosaurs can take care of themselves. Space can take care of itself. Spend the money on things people won’t get interested in without your help.