The Status of Science: We Have No-one to Blame but Ourselves

Over in Twitter-land, Josh Rosenau re-tweeted a comment from Seattle_JC:

It is a bad sign when the promotion of science and science education has been reduced to a grassroots movement in this society.

It’s a nice line, but it doesn’t entirely make sense. When I hear the term “grass-roots movement,” I think of something that has widespread popularity among the public at a low level, with that public support forcing political elites to take notice. Things like organized labor back in the day, or antiwar activism in the Vietnam era.

That’s almost the opposite of how the term is used here. If we had a grass-roots movement in support of science, that would be a Good Thing. What we have, instead is a small and scattered collection of mid-level organizations working against elite opposition and general public apathy. And we have no-one to blame for this situation but ourselves.

By “we,” here, I mean scientists. Because as I’ve said before, there is no monolithic Science, only the collective actions of scientists. And the end result of the last century or so of these collective actions has been the marginalization of science.

If you want the public to care about science, you have to talk about science to the general public. And time and again, scientists have shown active disinterest in this. Chris Mooney likes to use Carl Sagan as an example– Sagan was put up for election to the National Academy of Sciences, and lost the vote, in part because members felt that he spent too much time on popularizing science.

But the problem goes deeper than that. Our entire academic system is set up to reward everything but talking to a broad public. At major research universities, teaching is something to be actively avoided as much as possible, particularly at the undergrad level. And as Sean Carroll pointed out, writing a textbook, let alone a popular book, can be a problem for someone seeking tenure at a research university.

If you get a job somewhere other than a research university or a national lab, people within the field will cock their heads sideways when you tell them, like a dog hearing an odd noise. Actively seeking to be at a smaller school that gives greater weight to teaching is often regarded like some sort of character flaw, and forget about outreach to the general public. Too much involvement in education and outreach activities is often looked at as a sign that you can’t handle “real” science.

People are generally in favor of outreach activities, of course, but in the same diffuse way that the general public is in favor of tax increases. If you ask them whether they’re in favor of outreach to the general public, they’ll say yes, but pressed to support it in a concrete way, they’ll find reasons not to. Any discussion of outreach requirements like the NSF’s infamous “broader impact” criteria invariably includes the argument that forcing scientists to do outreach as a condition of receiving government research funding is a wholly unreasonable imposition. But nobody’s willing to hire and promote outreach specialists who want to do that sort of activity. Directing any significant money toward outreach activities is questioned, because it could’ve been spent on “real” science.

And while a great many scientists will bitch at length about how the media gets everything wrong, and what few stories do make it into the news are hopelessly “dumbed down,” if you ask them to provide a general-audience description of what their research is about, that’s also treated as an unreasonable imposition. But hiring people to do that is out of the question, because the money could be spent on “real” science rather than PR flacks.

This is the system that’s been in place in academia longer than I’ve been alive. And then people wonder why there isn’t a more vocal constituency for science out there. But there’s really no mystery to it at all– if you want a public constituency in favor of science and science education, you need to work to make one. Instead, we have built a system that pushes people in exactly the opposite direction– when talking to the public is punished by loss of prestige and decreased chances at tenure, it’s no surprise that scientists are so bad about talking to the public. And it’s no surprise that the public doesn’t consistently and vocally support science.

The opportunity is there, and the audience is there. The general public can get fired up about science issues but at present that’s kind of a stochastic process. Every now and then something bubbles to the surface– a planet gets demoted, a robot explorer finds something cool, a local or state school board gets packed with wing nuts– and you find that there really is a wide interest in science out there, but there aren’t enough people working to keep science issues out there in the public consciousness.

The good news, however, is that as I said above, there is no monolithic Science, just the accumulated actions of lots of individual scientists. Which means that this situation can be changed through, well, a grass-roots movement within science.

If you want to see better support for science and science education, support the people who advocate for these things. And that means “support them within your scientific community,” not just “send a check to the NCSE every now and then.” If you have a colleague or a student with a strong interest in outreach, support that: give them the time and resources to do what they want to do, and when it comes time for hiring or promotion, make an argument for outreach as a positive factor, not a distraction from “real” science.

And support science education across the board, not just on the fun culture-war topics. It’s not enough to make sure that the biology books have correct information about evolution, you also need to make sure that biology teachers have the resources they need to do their jobs. Getting climate change units into science classes doesn’t do that much good if they don’t also learn how to do math. And make sure they start young– high school biology isn’t going to make much impression if kids are being turned off from science in elementary school.

To circle back around to the start, then, a grass-roots movement in science is what we need, not what we have. We need to change the minds of large numbers of low-level people, and through that effort force changes in the elite structure. It can be done– God knows, there have been mass popular movements around much, much stupider things, as anyone watching the news lately knows– but it took a lot of work to get where we are, and it will take a lot of work to get us back out.

23 thoughts on “The Status of Science: We Have No-one to Blame but Ourselves

  1. I kinda wonder… what fraction of scientists working in academia are employed by large research universities and what fraction by small liberal arts colleges and CC’s. Because while I think everything you said about expectations for science faculty at research institutions, I face NONE of these prejudices where I work. People are thrilled at the types of outreach I do, and they would go gaga if I were to write a moderately successful textbook, or even popular text. (At least I THINK this is the case… we’ll see in 9 months when my tenure review is complete!) Maybe the problem is not so much “There is nobody to step up and do outreach” so much as – we are expecting outreach and popularization from the small (?) community that is least willing, able, and in a lot of cases least COMPETENT to provide it.

  2. Firstly, congratulations. The above is a superb post.

    Of the research departments I’ve been at only a tiny minority of staff were interested in outreach, and even then in the UK the word is used not out of concern for communicating science so much as appeasing top-down criteria. From my experience of conversations with chemistry professors, very few seem to recognize just how badly science is represented to public, and if they do recognize it, they don’t feel compelled to do much about it. Those that do seem rarely to be from the highest positions. It tends to get left to the lecturers and senior lecturers (or assistant professors) who have an interest in it, or who’ve been diverted to outreach and teaching because their research careers never reached lofty heights. The pressures of the job indubitably lead some, if not most, to view outreach as a chore or even something to talk about at interview and never follow up on.

    Similarly, the online community promoting skepticism, science and so on seems to have recruited a handful of academics, but nothing like a significant portion of university educators, senior professors and so on. This all leads me to think that science and skepticism aren’t able to fight the good fight against ignorance, superstition and tragically misguided goverment policies as well as they could.

    It’s true that “there is no monolithic Science, only the collective actions of scientists” but more scientists should realize that it would be a very good thing to fight harder for what they do and that the public understand it. Too many scientist laugh and despair in equal measure at the pseudoscience, religion and other forms of nonsense pervading the societies they live in but do nothing about it, though the demands of a research career probably have a lot to do with that. Without their contributions though the burden on campaigners remains too high. So perhaps the first burden is to “outreach” to scientists themeselves. George Monbiot put this across articulately when discussing the reaction of the Norwich climate unit just as the “Climategate” scandal broke in late 2009:

  3. One issue in current outreach movements that is often overlooked is the fact that the word “outreach” is generally synonymous with “outreach to kids.” How can we expect adults to become engaged and excited when we do nothing directly for them? Science outreach to kids is extremely important, but most will hear nothing more about science after they graduate from high school or college. This is slightly off topic I know, but this is the first article I have seen in a long time where “outreach” in this context clearly means “outreach to adults” and I think it is important to point that out.

  4. A great example of how little outreach matters any more is to examine land grant universities. Originally outreach (extension) was supposed to make up 1/3. Now, research is valued at 90%, teaching at 4% and Extension at 1%.

  5. Isn’t this just a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma/collective-action problem? Outreach increases general interest in science, so it benefits the whole community and makes more resources available. But if a researcher concentrates on that, they’re not maximizing the piece of the pie of research grants that the institution can get. So the ideal situation is to be the one who focuses on research while somebody else does outreach.

  6. “And we have no-one to blame for this situation but ourselves.”

    I don’t know, I tend to also blame the oil billionaires who pour gobs of cash into muddying the waters.

  7. There are still many good scientists speaking out to the public, Neil Degrasse tyson, Brian Cox, even Bill Nye still out there, plus all you bloggers! I’d say getting out to the public is even more prolific now.
    The problem lies in how our society views science. It’s a tool, but not a tool for understanding, but only for stuff. New phones, tvs, toys, games, cars, planes, you name it. But as soon as it gets applied to having a relationship to the universe around you, no thanks.
    The message is out there, but there are still more attractive options to an emotional populace. It’s not that the view of the role if science is misguided, it’s that who wants to know calories when stuffing crispy cremes their hole, who wants the truth about the benefits of exercise and healthy eating when you can have a bypass, hip replacement, or a free medicare scooter. Solar storms? Who cares, I just want my cable back up. The atmosphere of venus? Global warming is a left wing attack to force the views of the liberals down our throats.
    ok, getting too cynical, time to go ride my bike.

  8. Yes more science outreach would be useful, but as already mentioned, it’s not going to overcome the billions of dollars and tax-deductible PR from vested entrenched mining, media and banking interests.

    “We” as a society have ourselves to blame, “we” as scientists have the fraction of blame according to our proportion of population/power.

    An altruism+rationality virus would be a useful scientific contribution 😉

  9. I think Science made a Faustian bargain back in the 1950s and 1960s when it argued for public support of science because science could be used to beat the Russians and cure cancer.

    The problem is that, now that the Russians are no longer a threat and cancer seems no closer to a cure, the old arguments are hollow and new arguments ring false because there are few valid arguments that could not and should not have instead been made 50 years ago.

    I support the argument that knowledge is important to society.

    However, if we are going to argue that knowledge is important to society, we have to acknowledge that the study of Classics also adds to knowledge, and we need outreach not only for science, but for learning in general.

    It would help if we had a Protestantism that understood “Every man is his own priest” as an inducement to learning, as Luther intended, rather than a pass on ignorance, but that’s another topic.

  10. You are 100% correct.

    The problem with the correct observations made @8 and elsewhere is two-fold: The fact that you see those presentations doesn’t mean the “public” does, and they actually don’t know that cell phones are based on science.

    I know the last bit because I teach a general ed science class that includes bits of physics and it is like seeing scales fall from their eyes. Some is a lack of deep or critical thinking, like the simple fact that what we think of as a “cell phone” today would not exist without the invention — through basic research just a few decades ago at a major R1 university — of lithium ion batteries. They know batteries matter, but don’t know the inventions are comparatively new. And that they use microwave frequency radio waves? Ha! No one wants them to know that!

  11. The problem lies in how our society views science. It’s a tool, but not a tool for understanding, but only for stuff. New phones, tvs, toys, games, cars, planes, you name it. But as soon as it gets applied to having a relationship to the universe around you, no thanks.

    But that’s not an independent external factor here– it’s exactly the problem I’m talking about. Scientists haven’t been doing enough to sustain general interest in science, the result of that is that people don’t care. This is exactly the problem I’m talking about.

    As to the question of moneyed interests making a concerted effort to sow doubt, that’s absolutely part of the problem. But scientists have made it far too easy for them, by basically ceding the field to them for the last fifty years.

  12. Money, power, peer-approval, and esteem addictions are science’s worst enemies. For starters, the same dopamine, self-deception, and denial that keep all addicts from wanting to know they’re addicts have prevented researchers from “discovering” and exposing the existence of money, power, peer-approval, and esteem addictions.

  13. This was a great piece, and I think you’re absolutely right. I think another issue however is that we are not trained as reporters – we are trained as scientists. Our language is very specific to our discipline and to our specific area within that.

    I think that one thing we need are more scientist-reporters. People who are specifically trained at reporting science accurately and in and accessible manner. Andre Picard at The Globe and Mail does a great job of this.

  14. as someone said: “if you cant explain to a 4 year old, what you doing,you better stop doing it” (einstein). Scientists are exclusively to blame for not “popularizing” science, and why it should be “popular”?. Most of “science” is actually boring and remote from daily life. People walk, and dont think about gravity when doing it: why should we?

  15. I like this article and subsequent posts! But if the governments of the world want it, it will happen. Problem is, they do not. Lack of education is step one in the Oppression Handbook. You can ask scientists to be more evangelical, and you can encourage the people to get interested, but just like the news, in two weeks there’ll be something else grabbing their attention and pulling them away. Cynical? Perhaps. But if this version of humans is collectively too stupid to see the value of knowledge and the danger of distraction and “trans-fat entertainment”, let us be erased and let version 2.0 begin.

  16. We could certainly promote science by thinking big. How about a grand objective akin to the space program? We could certainly come up with several such objectives. A cure for cancer and a viable fusion reactor design would qualify.

  17. I think a not insignificant part of the reason scientists don’t value outreach is that *other scientists* don’t value outreach. If you, as a scientist, do outreach, in the eyes of your peer group, you’re wasting time on a nonintellectual pursuit. Outreach is looked down upon (by scientists), and so those scientists who do it are also looked down upon.

  18. Science must be promoted at the elementary school level. I was horrified to find that many elementary schools have dropped science education to meet the testing requirements of NCLB in reading and math. I teach high school physics, and I dread the coming days where students arrive at high school without having had the experience of trying to build things, play in the dirt, look at pond water in a microscope or see what floats and sinks. While my school district is still encouraging exploration, I have seen many other schools sacrifice inquiry for drill and kill. Students will not develop the love of learning required for science if they are educated in this manner.

  19. One thing that seems to be lost here is that there are a lot of people who are willing and able to popularize science. They work at nature centers and museums where public communication is the actual mission. However, the NSF does not seem to realize this resource. Requiring scientists to collaborate with such institutions to popularize scientific topics would not be that difficult or expensive. We do a weekly podcast. We frequently interview scientists. Most are happy to grant our request and are very good when we interview them. It takes very little of their time. The enjoy talking to people with scientific training who can help the communicate to the public. But when I asked the NSF if they could help us build listenership they couldn’t quite understand the question despite their own studies showing that the public gets most of its science information through what is called nonformal channels.

  20. I am reminded of the way my academic colleagues responded to the work that eventually drew me away from academe altogether. They kind of patted me on the head, even as they genuinely approved that I was reaching an audience that they hoped to reach but were unable to connect.

    Click my name where it says “posted by” for more about my writing and my colleagues in an online essay, “Why I write for Adolescents.” Click URL below for a list of my books except my current work-in-progress, Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future.

    Fred Bortz

  21. Fred, I heard that Fukushima disaster was a lot worse than “the authorities” let on. Is that so? And what is the long-term risk? Also, how are the Japanese offsetting the power production loss? tx

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