A way to increase engagement with science?

The public doesn’t interface with science terribly well. The recent article in Ars Technica about climate models is a good indication of that. Why is the public’s engagement in science so limited, and so politicized?

I can think of several reasons right off the bat.

  • Scientists frame their results in the language of the scientific community, rather than the artificially hyperbolic language of the popular press. This creates a kind of disconnect about what’s really been proven, and what the likely implications are.
  • Some people often feel ignorant when confronted with scientific details, and so don’t want to engage as it makes them feel stupid.
  • Scientists are often more interested in doing science than they are in communicating with the public. Outreach comes relatively far down their agenda. Sometimes, even when they do care about outreach, their training leaves them ill-equipped for the media spotlight.
  • Science can touch up against closely-held beliefs about the world that people don’t want to relinquish, regardless of the facts. Science can feel like a threat.

So how do we fix this? My solution, as of this morning, is that we need people in a new role here to fill the gap, and the right media vehicles with which to make it happen.

The new role is that of the celebrity science pundit. (Let’s call them spundits). While you might imagine that these people exist, what I’m proposing is different. For a start, these people are not scientists. They are not experts. In fact, being a professional scientist disqualifies you from fulfilling this role. Instead, these are informed laypeople with opinions about scientific results. The sort of people who might make good spundits are, perhaps, TV personalities who happen to have scientific training, actors who’ve had to learn some science for roles they’ve played, politicians who’ve been involved with science policy, and, of course, bloggers. Ideally they should be witty, outspoken, and telegenic.

Spundits interact with the public by appearing in TV shows, podcasts, etc, in which they make speculations about what they think will or won’t happen in upcoming science experiments. They face off against each other and have opinions much as political pundits do. In essence, they take bets and they talk about their reasoning. Maybe there is actual money, or celebrity forfeits attached. Their job is to frame a scientific discussion in a way that makes it exciting, and which associates informed points of view with personalities that people can identify with.

The job of the scientists in this picture is to act, if you like, as the judges in these contests. They are the impartial custodians of knowledge who actually determine what the right answer is. They give the celebrities a tour around their equipment, and then appear at the end with the magic envelope containing the results.

Why do I believe this might improve social engagement with science? Here are some of the reasons.

  • The public sees that non-scientists can discuss and have opinions about scientific subjects, and that being wrong is okay. Role models who engage with complex ideas are presented as attractive and interesting.
  • The public gets to see that the final arbiter of truth is the experimental result.
  • Scientists get to disconnect themselves from the kind of drama that’s antithetical to what they do and focus on being the cautious seekers of truth–the job they were trained to do.
  • Scientists get socially rewarded for running experiments, (their job), rather than doing cheesy interviews about vague ideas.
  • People get to see flawed expectations about scientific outcomes be demolished with wit, even before the results appear, and consequently get to feel permitted to exercise the same skepticism in their own discussions.
  • Smaller scientific results, rather than grand statements about vague theoretical topics, become the focus of public attention. This is made possible by the fact that the outcomes for the spundits carry the dramatic weight, rather than the ideas themselves. The public also gets to see more of what day to day science actually looks like.

In my mind, I see this almost as a kind of BBC panel game. People with expensive haircuts sit around in leather chairs talking in an animated way about pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge. Each week a different subject is aired. The spundits get to say things like ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, try again’, without appearing to lose any social credibility.

In any case, my key point is this: the people that the public see expressing opinions about science need to be ordinary, untrained, not expert, and still capable of getting the answers right. The alternative is that we continue to treat scientists as a kind of preistly caste endowed with mystic untouchable knowledge. If we do that, the quality of dialog will degrade even further.

The New Rock and Roll

It occurred to me with some horror the other day that software engineering is the new rock and roll. How can I justify such a grotesque statement? Easy.

Consider what rock and roll used to be like when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were around. A few key groups of people commanded enormous audiences. They attracted huge public attention. They were considered the voice of their generation, were courted by politicians for publicity, and affected entire cultural movements through their decisions.

These days most musicians scrape by on the money they get from performing, or from miserly record contracts they have no control over. They are often selected, vetted, and humiliated by judges like prize pigs while the process is transmitted live on television. Those judges are very often significantly older than the musicians themselves and yet are treated as arbiters of quality. And far from representing something powerful and disruptive, modern pop music most frequently offends the older generation simply by being too bland.

On the other hand, consider tech start-ups. The effect they have on society is frequently massively disruptive. The owners often achieve large cash windfalls. Attention to the products of these companies is often compulsive and faddish to an outlandish extreme. And a large success means instant worldwide acclaim. Most significantly, perhaps, millions of young men are lining up to be a part of the scene, the world over.

Let’s face it, Mark Zuckerberg is this decade’s Mick Jagger. This generation’s big rebellious moment is Zuck turning up to his IPO meeting in a hoodie.

I have spent my life being a nerd, and suffering the consequences of that. So to see nerdism now being so utterly in the spotlight is kind of refreshing and empowering. On the other hand, there’s something a little creepy and cheesy about this turnaround. Is the best form of youth rebellion that western civilization can come up with to work really long hours, do loads of math homework, and deliver a nice product on time?

Yucko, I say. Someone needs to take a stand against it. However, probably not me, as I’ll be too busy developing Android apps.

Battleship Jumps Shark

It seems there’s a new movie called Battleship coming out. Apparently, it’s science fiction. Also apparently, it’s based on the children’s game ‘Battleship’. Also also apparently, it’s bad.

What I find so hilariously wrong with this picture is that in their desperation to make as much money as possible without exposing themselves to any risk, the Mighty Lords of Hollywood have done something very risky that’s likely to lose them boat-loads of cash.

The apparently indisputable movie-business logic goes like this:

  • Only pre-tested brands can be known to make money reliably.
  • Brands that invoke nostalgia have the highest appeal.
  • The optimum demographic for movie viewing is young men, and young men like sci-fi action.

In order to wring ever more dollars out of this tired meta-formula, Hollywood scrapes the barrel of our past looking for things we’ve already bought so that it can sell them to us again. Can anyone else hear the brittle creaking of a strained paradigm here?

In the mean time, my guess is that we can get ready for the following exciting titles.

Mission Impossible–Speak and Spell: Tom Cruise and his buddies have to decrypt spy codes by spelling simple words on a cheerful plastic interface, while dangling on a wire somewhere, in order to save the world.

Simon, The Apocalypse: In order to avert a long-predicted world-shattering apocalypse that makes birds crash a lot, Nicholas Cage has to duel with a psychotic computer that communicates only through patterns of friendly tones and colors.

Hungry Hippos, The Torment Commences: In the first of eight planned films, Daniel Craig leads a ragtag team of survivors through a terrfiying post-apocalyptic wasteland overrun by zombie hippos that eat anyone on sight.

The Facebook IPO: A Tsunami of Meh

Today the BBC news website made me laugh.

Go to the front page, and the headline is ‘Facebook in stock debut rollercoaster’. Click on the link and you see an article that instead says ‘Facebook shares see modest debut‘.

Why is this funny? First, because everyone expected there to be a rollercoaster, because other tech IPOs have done just that, and there wasn’t one. But more significantly, if everyone expected there to be a rollercoaster, then having one wouldn’t have been news. We were supposed to have witnessed a blandly volatile event but we didn’t get one.

The media has grown quite accustomed, it seems, to taking dull events that have the surface appearance of drama and dressing them up as  narratives for our consumption.

When things don’t go as planned, the cracks in the system appear. The headline written before the event doesn’t get yanked. A much better, and truer title would have been ‘Facebook IPO appalls media world with mild performance’.