Friday, March 28, 2008

Popularizing science is a good thing!

Following on the heels of Kelly's post about science communications and the general public: The Amygdaloids! This is a group of scientists who also happen to be musicians. They write and perform funny, educational tunes about various aspects of brain function, including emotional regulation and memory. And that's a good thing! Check 'em out.

And so now I have to climb up on my soapbox for a minute--not that I think Kelly said the things I'm about to take issue with, but her post got me all revved up.

I wholeheartedly reject the idea that presenting scientific information in a manner that can be understood by non-scientists is (necessarily) "dumbing down." On the contrary, it takes a special set of skills to do it effectively and responsibly. And if you can make it interesting and fun, on top of that? Better yet.

I also reject the idea that the average person is just too dumb to understand complex scientific concepts (while freely admitting that there are certainly more advanced/esoteric levels of understanding that the average person can't grok without lots more training ... but, then, I would also suggest that most people don't actually need that level of understanding anyway).

Both of these positions -- "explaining = dumbing down" and "people are too dumb to get it anyway" -- tick me off, frankly. I believe that scientists have an obligation to educate the rest of us, and that shirking that duty speaks of laziness, elitism, or both. So there.

Yes, it's a problem that the American public doesn't understand science well enough to play their part in a participatory democracy where billions and billions* of dollars are spent on science. So let's do something about it! Let's stop penalizing scientists --"they can't possibly be doing cutting-edge science, or they wouldn't be mucking around with the public "-- who try to bring regular folk into the magic circle by sharing their knowledge and excitement about science. Who is science for, anyway?! Let's train scientists to articulate what they do and why it's important, so that they can make cogent arguments in favor of funding priorities and public policy, and maybe also entice youngsters into science careers.

This is what I *heart* about education: everybody wins! So why the resistance, I wonder?

edited to add this link to an xkcd cartoon that makes the point more directly. I'm with Zombie Feynman!
*with a nod to Carl Sagan, who did his best to bring way-cool science to the masses and was downgraded in the scientific community as a result.


Bea said...

It's true - explaining doesn't have to mean dumbing down. Unfortunately, too many scientists can't seem to explain without dumbing down, giving what I like to call "bullshit explanations" which confuse rather than enlighten.

Definitely a skill that needs teaching to those who hope to be in contact with the public, either directly or through the media.


Kelly Hills said...

Oh, I'm definitely a tech inbetweenie - it was my job for nearly a decade in the computer industry, to translate between geek and general public without being insulting, and I find that it's a skill that's translated well over into teaching, as well. (And perhaps writing, although that needs to be borne out, still.)

I think I am mostly still puzzled by the same things you are - the idea that if Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould wrote it, it must be dumbed down, that science can't be entertaining and educational at the same time, that Joe Q Public won't understand science without a cutesy cartoon - and how, then, does that perception/bias by the media and, I'm afraid, fellow academics, then influence and affect what Joe Q Public knows and thinks.

People are learning about our field via Grey's Anatomy - not precisely an ideal situation, from my point of view. But they are because it's the only place you're hearing the discussion of bioethics to any degree, dumbed down or otherwise. And I just have to wonder how much of that has to do with a lack of graphics friendly ideas... and how much we have to shoulder ourselves, for locking ourselves away in ivory castles and talking to each other, and over the heads of most of the people affected by what we discuss.

Kelly Hills said...

Hee! nice xkcd comic edit - personally, I love Mythbusters. It's exactly the approach Dad took to teaching me about computers and basic science when I was a kid, and I think that more than anything is responsible for my love of all things science-y today. "What happens if..." was almost always followed up by some version of "well, let's find out/look it up/figure out the answer and test it".