Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Science Communication, or How to Shoot Yourself In the Foot

One of my labmates, Randy Irmis, sent around a couple of interesting links on science communication. The first is a list of seven rules from a NOVA producer. The second is a list of things scientists can do to teach evolution more effectively, and the follow-up comments are even more illuminating than the list.

From a science communication standpoint, the most valuable experiences I've had were teaching a high school science class through the GK-12 program, and being involved with the Big Dinos Return exhibit at the Lawrence Hall of Science. Here's what I learned:

Freshmen may sit quietly while you draw a cladogram on the board, because they have to, but high school students will not, and neither will the general public. My "How to carve your Thanksgiving dinosaur" talk at LHS was fairly disastrous. Even after months of working on signage for the exhibit, I had completely misjudged the approach to take. The 'lecture' portion, which felt quite streamlined to me, quickly whittled my audience down from about 50 to about 12. Things turned around when I started showing people bones and how they go together. In retrospect, I should have started by showing the audience some cool anatomy and letting them ask questions, and then used their questions as a very gentle springboard to talking about the science. I don't think I would have had to dumb it down, I just think I approached it bass-ackwards. It's the accessible stuff, like bones and fossils, that makes people care about the science, not vice versa. Heck, I became a scientist so I could play with the cool stuff all the time.

Also, the NOVA guy is exactly right: people like to figure stuff out for themselves. Imagine if mystery writers gave away the whodunnit on page 10 and then spent the next 200 pages explaining how cool the crime was. I think that's a big problem in science communication and education. As a teacher, I am a compulsive sharer: biology is so cool to me that I can hardly help jumping right to the conclusion. But looking back, my most memorable educational experiences are of figuring things out on my own, because my teachers were smart enough to prepare the way without giving up the ending. It's hard to make up lessons that go that way, but maybe I've had my head on wrong. Maybe the strategy outlined above, of showing people the goodies and letting their curiosity draw them onward, is so reliable that I should be counting on it, not worrying about how to plan it.

The best thing we have going for us is that people are curious. They're practically desperate for news, and the Discovery Channel (a.k.a. the Bigfoot Channel*) isn't getting the job done. Over the past year I have had many conversations with strangers, and inevitably when they hear that my work relates dinosaurs and birds, all other topics are dead. They want to know all about it. I get the impression that I could walk into a mall, announce "I am a paleontologist", and spend an indefinite amount of time answering questions.

*One of the few useful services of the Discovery Channel is serving as the US outlet for BBC documentaries, which generally whip the pants off of anything homegrown. See Walking With Dinosaurs/Beasts/Cavemen, Blue Planet, and Journey to the Planets/Space Odyssey.

One thing that really disturbs me is the frequent lament on the part of scientists that the public is stupid. It bothers me for two big reasons. The first is that I don't think it's true at all. I've had engaging conversations with laypeople from 7 to 70, and in general people are very good about asking questions (curiosity again) and following chains of inference, IF they're presented accessibly. It's not that there aren't willfully stupid and combative people out there in the world. But they're comparatively rare, and I've had the good fortune not to run into any. In general, I think the "people are stupid" complaint is really code for "I'm so ridiculously out of touch that I'm basically incapable of meaningful human communication, and I'm not willing to change". Who's stupid now?

The second reason it bothers me is that it's godawful PR. If the "people are stupid" meme is reaching me, then it's reaching a lot of people, too. And if they hear that, decide that scientists are a bunch of pampered, arrogant elitists, and tune out, who can blame them? Anyone who complains about the public being stupid is a pampered, arrogant elitist.

'Nuff said.

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