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Selling science to the masses - Comments

Deepthought's Avatar Comment 1 by Deepthought

I read another article about the public presentation of science recently.

It says some fairly interesting things but I like how the author says that scientists should, instead of a white lab coat, wear "Perhaps a white cape. Or a black cape. Or something else entirely."

edit: I think the proposal to change the public image of science in the "Blinded by Science" article(that seperate branches of science should be "thought of as self-contained pursuits, like telemarketing or cooking") would deal with the physical chemists trying to fault things done in the field of evolutionary biology.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 07:29:00 UTC | #136775

Thomas Byrne's Avatar Comment 2 by Thomas Byrne

Also we need more good looking cool scientists like Brian Cox, Lisa Randell, That Polish woman, Olga something and Tyson (how cool is that) out there presenting shows and documentrys with cool computer effects and less cardigan wearing Raelian lookin' mo'fo's with trousers around their armpits.

...and the geek shall inheirit the earth...

Get over yerself, jesus-esqe/dr. phil style nice words bear no relation in real life. Sorry L-heads, that's just the way it is.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 07:50:00 UTC | #136780

Wosret's Avatar Comment 3 by Wosret

This saddens me, and I feel a tad insulted as a lay person as well. Though I fear they might be right...I will fight my reaction to be pissed off at them trying to dumb things down for me, and just pretend that I am excluded from the general public.

Whenever I see them attempting this, I will put my fingers in my ears, close my eyes, and yell "la-la-la-la-la, I'm not listening!" Until they're done.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 08:04:00 UTC | #136786

the way's Avatar Comment 4 by the way

....In the beginning was the nerd,...

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 08:06:00 UTC | #136787

Geoff's Avatar Comment 5 by Geoff

Um. Not convinced.

He seems to see it as an "either/or" scenario. Why not both? I don't know about the US, but we (in the UK) have very popular TV programmes (like "Brainiac") that do a pretty good job of popularising science.

You want to convince people to vote to fund stem-cell research? You need Michael J Fox on camera, shaking with Parkinson's and saying "this research could save my life, and thousands of people like me."

There are already many ads that do take a similar approach: cancer research, blood donor, stopping smoking etc. The big difference is that these aren't actively opposed by the religious (apart from JW's).

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 08:20:00 UTC | #136793

Logicel's Avatar Comment 6 by Logicel

PZ Myers disagrees vehemently with the 'framing' approach of Mooney and has written several lively posts related to this topic. Here's one:

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 08:25:00 UTC | #136795

nother person's Avatar Comment 7 by nother person

What a crock! Sure scientists need to think (at least some of us) about how we talk to the public, but this article as much as tells us to give up informing the public in favor of propagandizing. Should scientific organizations spend money to hire PR flacks instead of research? The recent successes of books like TGD would seem to indicate the opposite. Speak clearly and you will be heard. It is not necessary to resort to images of whirlwinds in smokestacks and similar emotional (fear based) appeals. Just tell the efing truth!

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 08:26:00 UTC | #136796

Logicel's Avatar Comment 8 by Logicel

In addition, the lovely bloke at Blogging Around the Clock has a list of all the pertinent links concerning this debate which has been raging for some time now:

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 08:31:00 UTC | #136801

aporeticus's Avatar Comment 9 by aporeticus

It's hard to read past the word "paradigm". Marketspeak for marketing science. And marketing doesn't give a damn about honesty and reality.

Hurricanes don't come out of smokestacks. A hurricane isn't caused entirely by climate change. Climate change might make them bigger or more frequent, but they could certainly hit US cities without our help. Or you could easily still have a season with few hurricanes, leaving people wondering if scientists really are dishonest about this climate change thing.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 08:38:00 UTC | #136804

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 10 by Bonzai

Why do they have to use the word "selling" as if it involves something dishonest? I usually avoid people who talk to me because they want to sell me something,

I don't know how Dawkins would feel for the implication that he is somehow on a par morally with a guy trying to sweet talk you into buying used cars from him.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 08:45:00 UTC | #136808

Pattern Seeker's Avatar Comment 11 by Pattern Seeker

I definitely can relate to where they are coming from. I agree with the idea of making science more relatable and accessible to the masses, but not with their methods.

As an American raised in the North, but now living in the South, I have seen just how different science is viewed in this country. Don't get me wrong, "wackos" live everywhere here, it's just an overt air of contempt for science on all levels in the South. People need to be better educated on science in general, the question is how? Most public schools fail in that regard and the MSM only use it if it fits their agenda, mostly casting a negative light, and not truly informing or educating.

So the question still remains-How do we as individuals who understand and relate to science, get others who don't understand modern science, or better yet, for the most part, those who won't understand science, better informed and educated?

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 09:07:00 UTC | #136811

Apathy personified's Avatar Comment 12 by Apathy personified

I tihnk it was Einstein who said, 'Simplify science, but don't make it simple'

As a lot of science is government funded, through research councils, etc, so scientists do have to be able to explain their research to the people who pay, tax-payers, and sometimes taking the time to reformulate something in simpler terms may help your own understanding.
However, this gross trivializing of science can't be the best way to do that, science is NOT a product to be sold, as that's then not many steps away from science being abused, we all know what that can do....

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 10:20:00 UTC | #136834

AmericanGodless's Avatar Comment 13 by AmericanGodless

We all know what Richard thinks of this -- see The God Delusion, the section on "The Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists".

One of the people mentioned when Richard discusses that "school" is Eugenie Scott, of NCSE. Richard doesn't talk about this directly, but to me, Scott's promotion of "methodological naturalism" is one of the worst examples of abandonment of scientific integrity in favor of public relations. Naturalism is not a "methodology," that can be left in the lab like the PCR machine and the lab coat, but a central theory that unifies all of science. And, when I asked her after one of her lectures if she didn't agree that naturalism was part of the cluster of theories tested every time an experiment is done in science that turns out not to require the "supernatural" to explain its results, she agreed with me, and further agreed that it is probably the best-tested theory in all of science.

Deepthought, in the first comment in this thread, suggests (following along with a Discover Magazine article by Bruno Maddox) that science might better frame itself as a collection of disparate and scattered fields of study, and that this might insulate evolution from criticism by physical chemists. But this is impossible, because evolutionary studies depend upon physical chemistry

Maddox, in his article in Discover (see Deepthought's comment for the link) asks, "What benefit is currently accruing to the scattered fields of botany, Mars exploration, quantum physics, and so on, by being thought of as mere branches of a greater, more boring whole?" Just how are you going to explore for life on Mars without a grounding in the chemistry of earthly plant life? And how will you understand mutation rates in plants without some understanding of the quantum chemistry of the tautomeric shifts in DNA bases that are the random (truely random -- you can't get more random than quantum physics) cause of many mutations?

The enterprise of science has two crucial virtues: its method, and its unity. Maddox dismisses the scientific method as being, by now, just part of "common sense," as most people know by now instictively that they must have evidence to back claims. But just gathering evidence is not the scientific method. The "method" is nothing more or less than a collection of steps that scientists have found helpful in their efforts to avoid fooling themselves. If you don't bother with controls and peer review, if you ignore negative results, if you cull the data, or allow any of hundreds of other sources of self-delusions to color your conclusions, then you are not doing science. Gather all the evidence you want, you can still fool yourself.

And one of the greatest assurances that you are not fooling yourself is when you find that some other line of research from someone else working on something quite different dovetails with what you are doing, and the reality of science springs out at you, because you realize you are looking at the same thing from two different directions. If you "frame" science by breaking it up, you will never see that the dance of chromosomes you see in meiosis under the microscope fits perfectly with the dance of the genetic symbols in transmission genetics; and you will never see that the timeline of geology fits with the timeline of genetics (see "Your Inner Fish" by Neil Shubin).

And you won't see that the smoke from a stack has a potential connection to hurricanes. No, hurricanes don't come full-blown from smokestacks (nor from butterfly wings), but both metaphors are apt, when considered in a context where the goal is to understand the world as an integrated whole, and where care is taken to avoid expanding the metaphor into self-delusion.

The article from New Scientist quotes Matthew Nisbet: "Sometimes the best way to talk to the public about science is not to talk about science at all." Nonsense. If you are talking about the real world, you are always talking about science. The "framing" problem, as I see it, is that most people fail to see science as a unified whole, and fail to see that science consists of all human thought and communication that bothers to take some care to avoid self-delusion. Which is why, when I hear people talk of "other ways of knowing" beyond science, I always wonder why it is that they think self-delusion is a "way of knowing."

The public mis-apprehension of science, especially in the US, is due to a public presentation that removes science from its philosophical context as a moral system of truth-telling and a unification of all human knowledge. If science is the only road to knowledge, and has no place for their religion, then the public will have none of it, thank you. What they want (and too often get) is a museum with a gift shop full of sparkley toys where the exhibits are the dismembered and stuffed pieces of science, and where the real guts of science, its unifying world view and its moral imperative, have been quietly buried out back.

Richard is in the business of getting to the heart (and the rest of the guts) of the matter.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 10:28:00 UTC | #136838

emmet's Avatar Comment 14 by emmet

A huge number of people get their information predominantly from television. One thing that I have noticed is that the information content of television documentaries has declined considerably. Most of the documentaries that I see on Discovery Channel (or whatever) contain vast amounts of padding and repetition --- the first few minutes after the ad break is a "synopsis" of the bit before the ad break, but the bits between ad breaks are so short that it amounts to repetition. They are much inferior to the information-rich Horizon, Panorama, and Living Planet documentaries I watched on the Beeb as a kid. I'd even go so far as to suggest that the low signal-to-noise ratio of documentaries, which we might otherwise think of as promoting science, actually contribute to the perception of science as dull and boring.

I don't think the answer is "framing", although I do think that certain issues could be promoted better by the scientific community and we could probably learn a thing or two about marketing and grabbing attention, but science documentaries that are less soporific than the current crop wouldn't do any harm.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 12:40:00 UTC | #136859

Apathy personified's Avatar Comment 15 by Apathy personified

Good points emmet.

Though unfortunately Horizon and Panorama are declining as well, and badly. A few months ago there was a Horizon documentary on the LHC, i think the Higgs particle was mentioned only once in the 40-45 minute show, most of it was taken up with what Prof. Frank Close (at Oxford) calls 'Factoids', i.e. sciency as opposed to science. The factiods in this particular case were that th LHC will create black holes or worm holes that WILL destroy humanity.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 13:14:00 UTC | #136877

Terminally Nerdy's Avatar Comment 16 by Terminally Nerdy

Hey guys, we have to realize that even crappy 'sciency' docs are still being watched chiefly by the better informed. I think the framing idea isn't the whole answer, but a good start. Anything and everything we can do to break the wall that the scientifically illiterate build around themselves is a good thing. It doesn't matter how cogent your point is if the recipient shuts down because it sounds like what they think they don't want to hear.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 15:38:00 UTC | #136943

TinyRobot's Avatar Comment 17 by TinyRobot

Have to say i'm with PZ on this one. I start twitching when someone mentions 'framing'. It seems uncomfortably close to 'deliberate mendacity' to me. Take the global warming example used by the author in this piece - let's scare people into taking science seriously!

Actually, I'd have doubts about that example too. Does anyone know of any research showing that scaring people is an effective means of communication for anything? (Genuinely curious about this).

In the end, i think well-written books and articles and well-spoken talks are the way to go. I dislike the fact that some publishers think quirkiness, vapidity, boorishness and sensationalism are required to sell popular science books (we've all seen the cringe-worthy titles). Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker et al are on the right track: serious works, capable of being read by layman and professional alike.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 15:45:00 UTC | #136947

the_ultimate_samurai's Avatar Comment 18 by the_ultimate_samurai

i kinda agree on this...personaly im a person who picked B...but i realize most people science goes right over their head...i know because they are everyone else in my family and most of my close personal friends. like they said up there i dont even talk to them about science...they wont get it.

but if you point to something in mythbusters...they will get that.

and i think that would have been a better explanation:
which of these two programs you think the average person would be more familiar with:
A: nova
B: mythbusters.

now im not saying anything is wrong with mythbusters..i happen to quite like that show, i state it because it popularizes science..and thats always a good thing. (sadly for the lay-person..if you want to get across about need something like bill nye..children level..)

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 16:03:00 UTC | #136955

shaunfletcher's Avatar Comment 19 by shaunfletcher

What is so sad is that people WILL watch and enjoy and learn from really good science TV. They will, they always did, but the media people wont provide it because they think the audience is 100 times stupider than it really is.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 17:48:00 UTC | #136981

Dr Benway's Avatar Comment 20 by Dr Benway

TV ad:

Pam: Hey who's the new guy?
Jan: I dunno. But I heard he's got a small carbon footprint.
Pam: Really! giggles You know what they say, 'small footprint, big...
Jan: Shh! He's coming this way!

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 17:58:00 UTC | #136985

lievemebe's Avatar Comment 21 by lievemebe

I am with you, AmericanGodless. Too often I have seen science sold like the latest clothing fashion, dumbed-down with gross repetition,and "brilliant scientist working at xx famous institute". Religions have been extremely successful because they have captured the big questions: Why am I different from kangaroos, where did I come from, what made the world? Science needs to capture this universal context and make reason and evidence the starting point of discourse.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 18:23:00 UTC | #136989

sarah95's Avatar Comment 22 by sarah95

uggh. I cringe everytime this issue is brought up because the communication and literacy problem between scientists and lay-people should NOT always have to be blamed on scientists!! WHY is it that no one even bothers to propose what lay-people might do to help the situation? They just get to sit there while scientists have to dance around the room and impress THEM enough to get them to un-glue the eyeballs from American Idol?

No. I may sound crass, but if you're going to ignore science and work actively to stigmatize it, then you deserve to get burned. All science needs to do is communicate clearly and factually and with a unified voice when an issue needs to be examined or legislated on by lay-people.

Otherwise, if people want to stick their heads in the sand against the advice of the rational man in a labcoat who doesn't speak in soundbites and slogans, they shouldn't come crying when a seagull bites their ass. I know there are some circumstances in which this doesn't apply because we all really can be "in the same boat" at times, but when the US economy tanks and people loose their jobs to techies in India, they can blame the PUBLIC's lack of interest and respect for science education, and kindly stop whining to scientists.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 21:40:00 UTC | #137003

robotaholic's Avatar Comment 23 by robotaholic

I love Chris Mooney!!! He's a great speaker. If you havn't seen anything he's done, look him up on youtube. It's worth it.

And I can see what they're saying. I must say I get irritated when you turn it to the science channel and the narrator is speaking to you as if you're in 9th grade. I wish there was *MORE* substance to many science programs-but I'm a scienceholic!

Geoff - what adds are actively opposed by JW's? - I'm just wondering...

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 22:41:00 UTC | #137010

bucketchemist's Avatar Comment 24 by bucketchemist

One of the problems, as I see it, is the perceived gap between science and 'normal' thinking. As long as science is purely associated with white coats and chemical formulae then a large number of people are going to feel disenfranchised. T.H. Huxley wrote a really nice article called 'We are All Scientists' drawing out the routine use we all make every day of the same ways of thinking which characterise science. I would say that getting people to feel ownership of the scientific method, and to recognise the power that it has in their own lives, would be a positive step.

Sun, 16 Mar 2008 00:18:00 UTC | #137019

BicycleRepairMan's Avatar Comment 25 by BicycleRepairMan

Three words: Your Inner Fish.

That book is how you can sell science, watch Neil Shubin's interview on The Colbert Report:
Its wonderful. Shubin manages to put the science in context, and to answer those questions we often think of as naive or strange with a straightforward answer.. This is a great approach.

Sun, 16 Mar 2008 03:06:00 UTC | #137036

hungarianelephant's Avatar Comment 26 by hungarianelephant

There's some good sense in this article, and then he goes and ruins it all with

The way to solve the problem is by framing the issue.

That might work temporarily, but in the long run, people work out when they are being bullshitted. And that damages the whole case, because the people you are trying to convince might never believe another word you say again.

This is partly why science and scientists have a dreadful reputation in the world at large. Most of us here are reasonably scientifically literate, and delighted to read about progress in our understanding of the universe we find ourselves in, and how science can improve people's lives.

That is not most people's experience of "science". The mass media feed them a diet of "reports" about what is good for their health, or their children, or their environment, and quite often directly contradicts what they were told by other "scientists" last week. Sometimes they are being told things that are so far detached from reality that it is laughable. Does anyone really think that two pints of beer constitute a "binge"?

The public may not understand science, but they are well able to understand when politicians are using it as a justification to increase taxes and interfere more in their lives. And their only contact with anyone approaching a real scientist is their doctor, who gives them 8 minutes of time and a prescription which is frequently useless.

Prof. Dawkins sees alternative medicine as a symptom of lack of rationality. I think he is wrong. In my experience, people turn to alternative medicine because they are suspicious of conventional medicine. It is a form of rebellion against a status quo which doesn't work properly. The precise form may not be rational, but the underlying sentiment is understandable.

Much of the problem lies in the huge gulf between science as perceived and science as actually practised. Most people are never going to understand what particle accelerators do, or why. But on the other had, if people had a better understanding of the scientific method, they might have a better idea of how science can be used, and a clearer / more rational notion of when it is being misused. (I also agree with 24. Comment #144397 by bucketchemist.)

If scientific method is actually taught in school, I missed it, despite taking up all the science options. I would bet that not one person in 100 could give a passable description of it.

Try starting there.

Sun, 16 Mar 2008 05:12:00 UTC | #137072

Henri Bergson's Avatar Comment 27 by Henri Bergson

So Americans are so extremely thick and uneducated now that they have to use pretty pictures to make a scientific case...

The solution is the re-introduction of a sterilisation programme.

Sun, 16 Mar 2008 07:00:00 UTC | #137093

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 28 by Steve Zara

Comment #144381 by sarah95

All science needs to do is communicate clearly and factually and with a unified voice when an issue needs to be examined or legislated on by lay-people.

How is that supposed to happen, when the very nature of science is that it is never a unified voice?

When science is as unified as it ever can be on a subject (the safety of vaccines, global warming), all it takes is one or two dissenters, and the media "presents the controversy".

Sun, 16 Mar 2008 07:59:00 UTC | #137106

dlitt's Avatar Comment 29 by dlitt

Carl Sagan was my hero for communicating science to the masses. I am also interested in anything Neil deGrasse Tyson has to convey.

Sun, 16 Mar 2008 08:08:00 UTC | #137109

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 30 by Bonzai

In Canada the public doesn't have the same hostility towards science that some posters describe in the Southern U.S., but their understanding is still quite distorted based on what I see in the media,--with the caveat the media image may be distorted. There are several things I notice in particular.

1.Very often science is confused with technology.
So there is this idea that science = gadgets. is "sold" primarily as a ticket to economical prosperity. The news tell us we need X number of graduates in science for a knowledge based economy, never mind the fact that the fastest growing sector is the low waged, low skill service sector.

This is a horribe idea. As they say you learn to hate what you have to do solely to get your pay cheque.

Children are sent the message at a very young age that science is just a good meal ticket with some bonus of playing with cool machines. If I were told that everyday I would be turned off from science too,

3. Science is often presented as some kind of gala tricks on a par with magic show, That kind of presentation doesn't necessarily enhance one's scientific understanding in a meaningful way.

4. Science is cold and boring. It is all about mechanically applying formulae and following procedures, it is only for a kind of particularly austere individuals,--nerds or geeks,-- who have neither imagination nor social skills. Many intelligent and educated people in the humanities have that impression.These intelligent people in the humanities who hate science may end up working for the media and influence public opinions with their negative stereotypes about science and scientists.I think the way science is taught in high schools probably contributes a lot to that impression.

A local newspaper once came up with a list of questions to test the readers' scientific literacy. Half of the questions were about who discovered what. They were not even science questions! The people who came up with the test themselves didn't know what science is.

I don't have a specific answer to what should be done to communicate science more effectively, but I think it would be misguided to present science as simply a collection of fun facts and neat tricks..It is a systematic world view. It is a set of methodology to understand the world. A guy who can rant off a long list of scientific facts in trivia pursuits does not necessarily have a very good knowledge of science. Facts are useless if you don't know what to make of them.

Sun, 16 Mar 2008 08:23:00 UTC | #137112