Today’s post concerns science, today’s picture is of cats. For those of you interested in science and media, and the complex relationship between the two, please read on. For the rest of you, look at the cute itty bitty kitty!!…..
Ok. Got that out of the way.
Today I attended a talk at Rockefeller University by Chris Mooney, co-author (with Sheril Kirshenbaum) of Unscientific America. The thesis of the book, as gathered from the talk, is that America has a growing disconnect between scientists and the general public. Despite the fact that science plays a role of ever-increasing importance in their lives, the public no longer values scientists, nor are adequately informed of scientific developments,
There were the usual disconcerting and yet humorous anecdotes demonstrating scientific ignorance: Many Americans do not know the amount of time it takes the earth to circle the sun, while a survey determined that the top three American scientific role models are Einstein, Bill Gates and Al Gore (none of whom are, in Chris’s words, both a scientist and alive). There were also a few slides dedicated to the portrayal of both scientists and science in popular media, which was neither accurate nor flattering (an exception was Avatar, from the flattering perspective only of course). Mooney was charming and funny, and these slides were met with the expected laughter, drawing his audience in. We were prepped for the bad news.
The bad new is that things will only get worse, at least in the foreseeable future. Major newspapers are cutting science sections, leading to the demise of the professional science journalist. The ready substitute, science blogs, although providing an easily accessible source of communication (as this scientist well knows), are more of a curse than a blessing when it comes to the dissemination of false information. And politicians, while seemingly more ready to accept scientists than in past administrations (apparently signaled by the return of bearded men to administration expert-panels), do not incorporate scientific accuracy into their policy machine: the proposed 2008 science debate, for example, was considered to have a much greater potential for political harm than good.
As Mooney turned to the solution, I braced myself for the usual rail against scientist’s inability to communicate, or lack of desire to do so. To a scientist who loves and strives to find opportunities to communicate (umm blog!, University Newsletter!), those comments always feel like a slap in the face. Instead, he spoke directly to my situation and hopes for an alternative career. Only 7% of PhD trained scientists end up in tenure track positions, for those others with a desire and ability to communicate, Mooney suggested that there be outlets in the “scientific pipeline” that would allow them to do just that. The only dampening to the deep internal “hurrah” I felt at these comments, was that he was saying “should be”, not “there are. And here’s how you apply for these positions, please give me your resume if you’d like one.”
In my personal investigation of such a career, I have come to learn that scientists are often dismissed from consideration for communications positions because many believe that what makes them a good scientist necessitates that they be a bad communicator. I attempted (poorly I think, which may not be a good sign), to pose this question to Mooney. His answer, I think (communication?), was that there is the promise for changes to this perception in the future, perhaps with a “new guard” of journalists and policy-makers. I chose to see this answer as hopeful. And so, with such hope in mind, I will continue to do my part as a communicating scientist. I will continue to write: this blog, for the Rockefeller Newsletter, and a Rockefeller University blog that will be launched in the near future. I will continue to try to communicate scientific and critical thinking to my non-scientist peers, whether they want it or not (most usually not). And I will not give up on the hope that I could turn my desire to communicate, and my scientific training, into a new career.
For more information about the book, Mooney’s blog can be found here
And now, for those of you completely tired of science and communication, and my rantings thereupon, don’t forget about the adorable kitties above.