I’ve had this piece by Rick Borchelt on “science literacy” and this one by Paige Brown Jarreau on “echo chambers” open in tabs for… months. I keep them around because I have thoughts on the general subject, but I keep not writing them up because I suspect that what I want to say won’t be read much, and I find it frustrating to put a lot of work into a blog post only to be greeted by crickets chirping.
But, now I find myself in a position where I sort of need to have a more thought-out version of the general argument. So I’m going to do a kind of slapdash blog post working this out as I type, and hopefully end up where I need to be, whether or not anyone else pays any attention.
So. The general thrust of both Borchelt and Jarreau’s pieces is pretty similar: a lot of work in “science communication” seems to be misdirected or ineffective. The audience for science blogs and web sites and the rest is drawn from the same limited pool of people who actively seek that stuff out. Most of the rest of the public isn’t looking for information about science, and thus, they’re not getting it. Which is generally a cue for much hand-wringing among the science-communication crowd over how we’re failing, and need to Do Better.
But over the last few years, I’ve started to wonder whether that’s really as big a problem as all the deeply concerned blog posts I’ve read seem to think. And the reason for that is Beyoncé.
It’s not anything that Beyoncé herself did, just the fact that I’m aware of her. I don’t own any of her music, and I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to a complete song of hers, as occasional snippets have been enough to confirm that it’s really not my thing. Nevertheless, I know of her, and have a generally positive impression, because news about her manages to impinge on my awareness in a variety of indirect ways– performing at the Super Bowl, bits of gossip on the pop-music station I listen to when SteelyKid’s in the car (they don’t regularly play her stuff, but they talk about her a bunch), or various science-y people on Twitter gushing about her dropping a new album, etc.
Beyoncé is just the most positive example of a general category of people I don’t have any particular reason to care about who I am nonetheless vaguely informed about. I think of this general phenomenon as “stochastic awareness of pop culture.” I don’t have any systematic knowledge of Beyoncé or the various Kardashians, but I know who they are and a bit about them because that information randomly shows up in front of me. Which is more or less inevitable, because there are a lot of people out there who care very deeply about the activities of these individuals, and pump an enormous amount of effort into generating stories about them. And the end result is that even though her music is not my thing, I have a hazy sense of her place in the pop-culture firmament, and a generally positive impression.
And hand-wringing blog posts aside, I think science communication could do a lot worse than operating on this same basic model. That is, we generate a lot of content about science that is primarily consumed by people who already care about the subject, in the same way that legions of reporters generate endless stories and thinkpieces about Beyoncé and other celebrities. And some fraction of that content will, from time to time, randomly end up impinging on the awareness of people who aren’t actively seeking information about science, leaving them with the same kind of stochastic awareness of science news that I have about celebrity culture.
Most of the time, this involves big, splashy stories– LIGO detecting gravitational waves, or the Pluto fly-by, and that kind of thing. In the pop-culture analogy, these are basically like Beyoncé performing at the Super Bowl. But there’s also a lot of connections that are essentially random. My favorite personal example of this is when my Forbes blog post about friction, inspired by a silly episode where I didn’t lose my phone off the roof of my car, wound up as a story in the Daily Mail. On a typical day, I’m pretty sure the overlap between my blog readership and the readership of the Daily Mail is negligible, but for essentially random reasons, this story ended up being put in front of a lot of people who wouldn’t actively seek it out.
From a communications and policy perspective, the hope is that when these stories land in front of people, they spark a “Hey, that’s cool…” sort of reaction. Ideally, this might prompt people to learn a bit more about the specific random topic, by reading other articles, or striking up conversations at work, etc. I can’t say how effective this is for random phone-on-the-car stories, but it works for big news events– whenever NASA holds a press conference, I can expect a few questions about it at Starbucks the next day, from the regulars who know I’m a scientist. And hopefully those leave a generally positive impression about science as something that’s pretty cool and thus worth a bit of money.
I would argue that the implication of the Borchelt and Jarreau posts I linked at the start of this post is that this is essentially what we’re already doing. That is, the work people who write about science (or make videos, etc.) are doing mostly ends up in front of an audience who already care about that subject. In the same way that most of what celebrity-culture reporters write about Beyoncé ends up in front of people who already care deeply about pop music. But I think those posts, and a lot of other writing about this, sort of underplay the effect of the occasions when, for random reasons, science news ends up in front of pop-music fans.
This isn’t an argument against doing science communication, though I’m sure it will be taken that way by some. It’s not even an argument against trying to find better and more effective ways to communicate science. On the contrary, I think both of those things are essential– the more science content we put out there, the better the chance that something breaks through, and if we can figure out and put into practice techniques for making stories land more effectively, we can hopefully boost the impact of those stories that do break out. I think we’ve seen some real progress on the latter, actually– NASA comes in for some ribbing about the number of press conferences they hold, but their PR people are genuinely good at crafting their messages, and the LHC has done a brilliant job of getting public attention for really abstract stuff.
So I don’t mean this as a “Science Communication: You’re Doing It Wrong” article. Instead, it’s an “Everybody take a deep breath and try to calm down” article. Yes, we’re mostly talking to ourselves, but “mostly” isn’t “only,” and I’m not so sure that stochastic public awareness of science is a major crisis that we need to wring our hands over endlessly.
(The obvious counterargument to my position takes the form “Yes, but science news is Important, while celebrity gossip is just trash.” Which is true to a point, but this is yet another area where science is not in any way unique. Pretty much any field of study that has even a slight connection to public policy has the same issues of stochastic public awareness of their subject, which is more Important than whatever Beyoncé is up to these days. And it’s been that way for decades (at minimum; Borchelt offers some documentation in the case of science) without the world coming to an end. So, you know, maybe it’s not that big a problem.
(I also find that I’m becoming less comfortable with declarations that this issue or that is What Really Matters, because there’s a kind of fundamental elitism to the whole business that rubs me the wrong way. At the end of the day, what matters to the general public is what they say matters to them, and if that doesn’t align with the elite consensus, it’s on us to convince them otherwise. This is maybe a sign that I’ve been in academia too long, and the secondhand smoke of “postmodernism” is rotting my brain, but whatever…)