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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,┬áthese 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.

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