недеља, 23. септембар 2012.

A Few Words To My Fellow Scientists...

Sometimes I’m surprised at how many of my fellow scientists don’t believe in popular science and science communication in general. To me it’s a natural thing to do, to talk about our science to the general public. It’s our duty after all. But to some fraction of scientific community it’s a waste of time because of a number of reasons like: ”it’s not our job”, or, “we are not good at it (speaking to the public)…we should leave that to trained professionals (who ever that may be)”, or, “I’m too busy and I get nothing out of it”, or, “whatever you do it’s gonna end up like stories in yellow press, taken out of the context, misinterpreted, blown out of proportion”, or, “the government should gives us funds no matter what and we shouldn’t have to justify ourselves to anyone”.  The next couple of lines are intended for that fraction of scientific community…if they ever stumble upon this.

See, I think science communication IS our job. We may not be directly paid for it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Like doctors - their job is to treat you, to cure you, but its understood that they should also explain to you, in layman terms preferably, the illness, the treatment etc.  That is also their job.

Sure, not everyone is equally good in speaking in public, talking to the media, and doing the whole science communication thing.  There are enough prejudice and stereotypes about science and scientist as something difficult and complicated, usually practiced by the people who are hard to talk to, with no social skill and no clue on how to speak in laymen’s terms and make sense of those complicated equations to anyone.  So yes, making someone like that engaging in science communication would be counterproductive.  But the easiest thing is to just say “I’m not good at it”, and not even try, cause most of it can be learned! There are tricks one can learn to help him/her talk about science to the general public or media. For instance, I’m not very good at drawing. Almost no talent at all. But I like to draw and I was a big fan of the Ninja Turtles when I was a kid, and I really really wanted to be able to draw them. So I practiced. Drawing line by line. Now, I can draw a really good Leonardo or any other Ninja Turtle, but if you ask me to draw you Splinter, their rat friend, or anything else, I would fail miserably. My point being – not everyone has the talent, but everyone can learn tricks to compensate and be better at it. Now, you might think that that looks like a lot of work for something you get noting out of? Why practice so much to give public talks and talk about popular science? What’s in there for you? An upgrade of your general talk-giving skills which you can apply on your conference talks as well! Trust me, it will do wonders! Usually, only small fraction of your colleagues do research in the very narrow field you are in, and they will get your science talk anyway. But, scientific meetings are often aimed for a wider research field, so there usually are people who haven’t spend a lot of time thinking about your specific research topic.  So if at such meeting you give a really technical talk about your specific topic, some people may not fully understand every piece of it, or fully appreciate your results. And you want them to appreciate your results! Especially those people from a wider field because sometimes they can have the best insight because they are looking at things from different angle than you! So its important to break things down to everyone when giving talks, even in the scientific community,  because your point will get through more easily. And you do this by applying the same skills and tricks you use when communicating science to the public!

Now, some say that no matter what you do, the media and the public always misinterpret the science and use it in a sensationalist way. That might be true at some level but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make things right, to get the right science story across, to talk about science to the public! What would happen to the scientific literacy of the general public, if we stopped talking about science and the media stopped covering it?! We have enough astrology and other crackpot science as it is! Imagine what would happen if we gave up! Rising the scientific literacy is what made people go more to the doctor when they are sick than to the local voodoo priest! So its our duty to talk about the science and fight all the misinterpretations and the crackpots! Here in Serbia for instance, people hid in their homes during the 1999 solar eclipse, afraid that something bad might happen to them if they go out! To me that was shocking and only due to the fact that we haven’t talked about science enough, leaving most of the public scientifically illiterate. So yes, we have to talk about it, correct the news that have been misinterpreting the science, talk even about the things we the scientists find silly, like horoscopes and  “upcoming apocalypses” .

And finally, yes, I think we should in fact justify ourselves and our spending to the public. Science would not die without funds, but would be seriously hampered, and progress would be difficult. But sometimes it’s hard for an average Joe, with few mortgages and loans in the middle of an economic crisis, to understand why so much funding should go to science. It’s our job to explain why and how is science improving his own life, and will improve the life of his children. It’s our job to remind him of all the great scientific achievements which he encounters in his everyday life, and to inform him about how the current science is hoping to improve his life. It’s our job to make him interested enough in the science so that when his kid gets interested, he is there to support him and encourage him, rather than dismiss him and push him to some other “more profitable and useful” career.

So, my fellow scientists, should we talk about science in the public? I believe that if we think like the scientists, if we break it down,  look at it from all the angles, think about the cause and the consequence, if we are objective, we can only reach one conclusion. ..
Now go out there and give some public talk about the science you love so much! :)

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