Illustration: Caia Colla
I had originally intended this post to be about the recent March for Science and the general idea of politicizing science, but after recently binge-watching “Bill Nye Saves the World” (a science education show targeting Millennials, hosted by a beloved host of a children’s science show in the 1990s—see trailer below) on Netflix, I have decided to focus on our failure as scientists to communicate to the public. Depressing, I know, but I truly believe there is a disconnect between our attempts to make science easily accessible and appealing to the general public so they actually listen. Public outreach is a major component of our grant proposals, but how much of that outreach is actually working, and how can we more effectively educate the masses?
As I was watching Bill Nye’s new popular show, I felt saddened that this great figure from my childhood, who helped inspire my interest in science, could not effectively explain some major gaps in the public perceptions of science. The show feels gimmicky at points, and I think would probably deter some viewers based on the mocking of certain issues. For instance, the episode on debunking homeopathic medicine is entitled “Tune your quack-o-meter,” implying that anyone that believes in homeopathic medicine is a “quack.” If I were a believer in this alternative (read ‘imaginary’) medicine, I don’t think I would want to sit through an episode of people, namely a mechanical engineer, mocking me. Although, this is somewhat irrelevant because I think the majority of people watching this show are scientists who just really love seeing common-sense things explained in new ways (or just want to feel the nostalgia of watching their childhood science pal, Bill Nye). This is an example of scientists teaching/entertaining other scientists, and it is appropriate that it came out right on the heels of another similar, yet more global effort.
The March for Science was organized as any peaceful rally for change should be: a community sensed a growing problem, and members of the community wanted to make that problem known. In the United States, this growing problem is the use of “alternative facts” (again, read ‘imaginary’) in place of real science, which have been marketed as truth within the current government. This has lead to budget cuts for science funding agencies and less enforcement for environmental protections. For those readers who may not be American, President Trump has named a man who denies that climate change is human-caused as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But this march wasn’t just in the United States. On Earth Day 2017, marches popped up all around the world to focus on issues specific to one location or important for all of us to pay attention to. Some reasons people around the world are marching have been published on the Science website (link below), including this quote from an Austrian biochemist:
“Antienlightenment sentiments are rising worldwide. Many Austrians are against genetic engineering but don’t know what a gene is, for instance. I have a problem with that. Or antivaccine sentiment. It’s almost fashionable to be against science nowadays.” - Renée Schroeder
Martin Stratmann, the president of the Max Planck Society, even marched, saying: “This is a march pro-science and pro-facts, not a march against Trump… Today, science is more important than ever before, but evidence and knowledge are being questioned in many places, including politics.”
Don’t get me wrong. The march was a great event. I attended in Boston, MA, and we had an estimated 50,000 scientists and friends-to-science show up on a miserably cold and rainy day to show that this is something we care about. I heard inspirational stories from medical doctors, stories of overcoming adversity from a black, female engineer, and was urged to run for office by George Church (THE human genome guy – I had a major geek moment). It was a fun time to gather around with like-minded individuals and talk about the problems we are facing. But there lies the problem: we were talking to like-minded individuals. Someone who may be interested in learning facts, but does not run in our sciencey circle of awesomeness may not have known the march was going on, or what the march was for. My mother, an educated nurse, lies somewhere on the edge of being a part of the scientific community and not. Even with her daughter posting about the upcoming march, my mother did not know why I was in Boston wearing a weird knitted hat (see image below). Somehow we sciencey people got caught up in the fun of having a rally and forgot to tell the rest of the world what it was for.
So if these forums are not useful at conveying our science to the general public, what is? How do we effectively communicate sometimes very difficult ideas to the masses? I believe the key is in starting young. We need to reach out to schools to mold minds to think about the basic scientific method and teach kids how to come to their own conclusions based on facts, rather than media. Let kids fall in love with knowledge and the quest for knowledge, just as Bill Nye the Science Guy taught me, and Carl Sagan taught the generation before me. I don’t think the non-academic minded adults are a lost cause, but I do think it will take more effort to recondition their minds to not always trust what they read. Lets face it, seeing and sharing a facebook post about secret government plans to infect us with disease through the flu vaccine is a little easier and a lot more exciting than looking up the sources for that post to see it is false.
Perhaps, this blog may be a good start for introducing the public to science. We write posts with the intention of making our tales of oceanography and being women in science broadly accessible, yet we tend to share it among other scientists. Why? I challenge you to invite a person that may not be otherwise interested in ocean science to read a blog post you find interesting. Share your science with that friend who studies literature! Or law! Or liturgy! You never know what they will find interesting, and it is bound to lead to good discussion.
Trailer for “Bill Nye Saves the World”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-_HKOcYBK8
Science article: Why the rest of the world is marching
Science News Staff (April 13, 2017)
Science 356 (6334), 119. [doi: 10.1126/science.356.6334.119]