Communicating with the masses March 8, 2009Posted by calvinus in Communication of science.
Tags: Communication of science, Outreach, Public engagement
This is something I have been mulling over for a while, albeit sporadically, but I was recently given a bit of a nudge by a student who came to me with a “crackpot idea” (his words, not mine). Essentially, he is tired of public ignorance. Now, I am paraphrasing here – and I am not too happy with the haughty overtones, but the essence is there. He was coming at it from the point of view of the whole creationism vs. evolution debate (his nibs being a scientist and an atheist) and was not happy with the Dawkins approach – “evangelical atheism” was not something the student liked. He felt it only served to alienate people or make their views more entrenched, and I must admit that this is a viewpoint that I largely share. The student wants to “set up some sort of group to educate the general public – not to preach to them” as he doesn’t want to be stuck in a lab as a faceless scientist and not make a difference to the wider world.
Now, I don’t want to get drawn into the “Does God play dice with Darwin?” debate. Not now. I am too tired for the intricacies of the argument. However, I can see where he is coming from, although I would take it on a wider level. As a scientist, who is paid certain amounts of tax payers’ money to do research, I have an unwritten contract with my fellow members of the public not to waste that money and give some sort of return on it. Couple this with the fact that, as a chemist, I fear my subject has a criminally neglected public image at a time when it has never been more critical (climate change, pollution, energy supply, and all that) . We need to raise awareness of the relevance of science as well as give something back for the greater good.
However, how do we do that?
The student wanted to put on regular talks. Fair enough. This would effectively target those in the local area, but there are already more that one series of talks around here and the audience is mixed, as is the popularity. Mostly they are attended by people already working, or who used to work in a scientific discipline. Much as they are important (especially given the region in which I live), they are largely a self-selecting audience. People who attend already have an active interest. How do we catch those that don’t?
Another suggestion (one of mine) was blogging, albeit with a different audience in mind. My experience of the blogosphere so far is that you can reach a wider audience (new blogs such as this notwithstanding, obviously) comparatively easily, but again, isn’t it self-selecting? In addition, there are too many blogs to manage. How do you sift through all the chaff to get to the wheat? Now, if you are technologically literate, you have ways and means to find and follow a range of blogs, tweets, and all the rest. This is fine. Please pass on your tips to me as my free time is a precious commodity.
So…how do you communicate with the ambivalent masses? Answers on a postcard, or the back of a sealed-down envelope please as I really am at a loss. We certainly need to push ourselves out into the public more. I hear stories of colleagues who are contacted for an opinion or explanation on a particular subject by the press and hear that they refuse to give an interview as they are too busy marking coursework. Time needs to be made for this. Yes, those of us who work at universities or colleges have a responsibility towards our students, but we also have a responsibility to the wider populace. If nothing else, how do you convince prospective students that your particular branch of science is relevant if you don’t take such opportunities?
One thing is for sure, when taking these chances, remember who you might be talking to, otherwise you miss the point. Take my mother for instance (it could equally be yours, or your neighbour’s grandfather – lets not be sexist about this). My mither, bless her, has no idea about all things virtual or electronic so communicating to her through a bogs would be a waste of time. She tries to understand but knows she never will – the technology moves too fast. She tries to understand what I do for a living and has a vague idea, but it is hard work. However, explaining my work to her has been immensely useful as it has helped me understand some important points.
For example, a tip for those who, like my student friend, want to communicate science to a wider audience: imagine you are talking to the elderly relative of your choosing. If you use language they can understand, you are part way there. I have had to explain to a four-year old what an electron was in French before, all because I said the wrong thing. A basic error and a pain in the backside to fix. I partly managed to get around this problem because the child was able to ask. Which is another important point: communication is a two-way process. You do wonder sometimes if some of my colleagues are listening.