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Us and Them: Bridging the Gap with Curiosity

The recently released poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press puts light to an interesting dichotomy between scientists and the general public.

If you have often wondered whether anyone outside the scientific world ever notices your hard work, take heart! You are appreciated!

Seventy percent of the public view scientists as having a “mostly positive” contribution to society. This popularity is only surpassed by members of the military and teachers, and we outranked both medical doctors and clergy. An additional 23% said we have “some” positive effect on society, bringing 93% of the public in our favor.

However, before we pat ourselves on the back too much, consider what we said about them. 85% of polled scientists viewed the public “not knowing very much about science” as a “major problem”.  Unfortunately, the poll did not ask additional questions investigating why scientists think this is a problem.  This lack of formal explanation leaves the reasons open to interpretation for both scientists and the public.  But it may not be meant as detrimental as it sounds.

One scientist who was included in the 2001 AAAS members polled gave a two-fold explanation for believing it’s a problem.  First, the public understanding of what we do as scientists can influence government funding.  The majority of scientists polled cited government agencies as the most important source of funding, yet only 39% of the public would increase government funding for scientific research if they controlled the federal budget.

Fully 14% said they would actually decrease the current budget for scientific research given the opportunity.  Since most politicians are Jane and Joe Public, it may be very realistic to consider lack of scientific knowledge a “major problem” simply on the grounds of self-preservation.  The second reason was a wish to prevent the public from being beguiled by misrepresented science.

Throughout history, there are numerous cases where scientific ideas have purposefully or ignorantly been warped towards inaccurate conclusions. Example one: the lawsuits of the 1990s regarding required childhood vaccines and their link, or lack thereof, to autism.  Case two: vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s famous anti-fruit fly comment.

These sorts of misunderstandings are frustrating to both the public and scientists alike.  It seems that scientists would like to be able to say “take my word for it and trust me” whether it is regarding the speed at which we can “fix problems” or the capital it will take to do it.  Unfortunately, this isn’t likely to be enough.

In a brief review of this same survey, the writer of the Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases (pKIDS) blog observed that “scientists are more accustomed to lecturing than listening.  It’s not surprising, given the training they go through, but it can be alienating.”  Even with the best of intentions, that’s a fair assessment.  So what we do?  Granted the easiest option is to say “because I said so” and the second easiest is to whip out the 3-syllable words and lecture, but perhaps we should try the harder option.

Remember the overused proverb regarding giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish?  Perhaps as scientists as well as mentors we should hone our skills at talking with people about what we do rather than talking at them.  Avoid the big words and focus on igniting the scientific curiosity and fascination all of us had as kids.  The part of the proverb often neglected is that you have to teach a man to fish in such a way as he likes fishing.  If you don’t, he’ll just nod politely and go buy a fish.  Realistically, we can never expect the general public is know science as well as we do, but curiosity begets interest begets wiki search and Science Channel watching, which begets a gradually but noticeably more scientifically informed public.

Do you agree?

4 Comments

  1. Alex on August 10, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree with you that the target of her comment is the earmarked money. However, the number of blogs, articles, TV broadcasts etc that followed focused on her calling fruit fly research basically a waste of money. Whether that was the intent or not, clearly that’s how it was taken, and it is that interplay between scientists and the public regarding these misunderstands I’m attempting to draw attention to. Your comment brings up a good point: everyone should try to be clear about what they mean. It is likely that many misunderstandings simply arise from hearing what we want and not saying what we mean.

  2. Stuart H on August 10, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    After doing some research, I think the youtube clip linked in the article is very misleading because it infers that the legislation would have funded fruit fly research with a biomedical goal. However it is not, according to this Salon.com article:
    http://www.salon.com/env/feature/2008/10/27/sarah_palin_fruit_flies/
    The funding was actually for olive fruit fly pest control to protect the olive and olive oil industry. People ascribed a scientific ignorance to Palin in regards to D. melanogaster being used for biomedical research, even though she was reacting to an earmark that was meant to be used for pest control research in France. This seems pretty unfair because it is not clear that Palin does not know fruit flies are used for biomedical research.

  3. Alex on August 10, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    I don’t know all the details, but I did find this regarding what Palin is actually talking about:
    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/10/28/palin
    What I find more interesting is the outrage in the scientific community regarding the ignorance of this statement and some speculation as to how detrimental it would be to the public view of science in general. Needless to say, my shallow survey of resources suggests that no one, public or science, paid much attention to what Palin was saying in any speech, so it little impact as far as I can tell on us. Of course, that’s only true because she never made to be vice president.

  4. Stuart H on August 9, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    I am not a big fan of Sarah Palin, but the bit about the research occurring in France seemed strange. Were the details of this particular legislation ever released? Was it really for genetic research, or for fruit fly control in French vineyards.

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