The Science Story

 – for Danilo, with (some) apologies

A while ago, a friend of mine posted the following to his Facebook notes.

Scientists are talking, but mostly to each other: a quantitative analysis of research represented in mass media

Julie Suleski

The Ohio State University, Suleski.1@osu.edu

Motomu Ibaraki

The Ohio State University

Abstract

Journal publication has long been relied on as the only required communication of results, tasking journalists with bringing news of scientific discoveries to the public. Output of science papers increased 15% between 1990 and 2001, with total output over 650,000. But, fewer than 0.013—0.34% of papers gained attention from mass media, with health/medicine papers taking the lion’s share of coverage. Fields outside of health/medicine had an appearance rate of only 0.001—0.005%. In light of findings that show scientific literacy declining despite growing public interest and scientific output, this study attempts to show that reliance on journal publication and subsequent coverage by the media as the sole form of communication en masse is failing to communicate science to the public.

Reading over this now, I find it slightly amusingly arrogant, but mostly innocuous, a rather bland statement. However, when first posted, something about this enraged me beyond all reason. In fact, this was my reaction. (I should warn you here, it gets quite explicit.)

Fuck them!!! The arrogant sons of bitches!
Who gives a fuck what they’re talking about? They think they’re so high and mighty playing with fancy toys that the rest of society pays for. And then when we chose to give our attention to other things they blame the mass media and scientific illiteracy. Well, fuck you very much, scientific community.
Repeat after me: if we’re not paying attention, it might, just might be BECAUSE YOUR FUCKING SCIENCE SUCKS.
Now sit down and shut the fuck up!

When my friend (probably completely baffled), asked if I was being serious, I decided to “elaborate.” And by elaborate, I mean continue my rant. (Again, explicit.)

yes, really. I am offended by the implication that because less than 1% of sci papers make it to the general public, it must be the fault of the general public, without a moment of thought that it might be the fault of the science/scientists. Hey look, if you like science (which I do) go and do science, but don’t act like you’re better than everybody and that everybody should be listening to you all the time.
I like the philosophy of Hegel and the poetry of William Blake, but do you see me whining and whinging because they’re not more popular (the self-indulgent bastards!), or dialectically determining why few people read philosophy?
Being unwilling to be self-critical (or even consider the possibility! of being self-critical) and then looking down your nose at others…that’ll get you bitchslapped by me in no time!

It was left at that. (No surprise that this killed the conversation.) Now, I am both embarrassed at my vulgar attack on my friend (after all, he did post this to his Facebook page), and proud of the content of my critique. By which I mean that I do in fact think that wrapped up in that short abstract are a few unsavory presuppositions, and the language used is a little more than patronizing. How else to understand the words “failing to communicate science to the public?” As if there were these two entities, the public on the one hand, and scientists on the other: the scientists are the sages of truth and the bearers of wisdom, and they come from on high to ‘communicate’ this truth and wisdom to ‘the public.’ Not only that, but they are slightly baffled as to why the public is not as interested in science as they are, as if to say “I like this thing, why don’t you?”

I think one of the more revealing aspects of this abstract is the idea of “quantitative analysis” of the problem. Quantitative analysis (I am sure) is a useful tool for scientists, but it seems to be one (at least these specific) scientists can’t put down. It is kind of like the case of the man who carrying a hammer, sees loose nails everywhere.

In any case, I think I’m still right. Scientists think that they are more important than they are, and they think that because it is important in their lives, it should be important in ours too. Sigh.

——————————————-

“Ok, but [my friend might have asked, had he unwisely chosen to engage with a ranting maniac with an ax to grind], do scientists not truly know more things than the general public (within their specific fields), do they not have something beautiful and wonderful and interesting to say to the community at large? Can science not convey the miracle that is this world, even if it is not the only such vehicle?”

Indeed. And in the spirit of constructive debate, and not hurling insults, I bring you an article by Christophe Galfard in the World Policy Institute Journal. He starts off by asking some questions about microbes, and their perception in popular culture. And then moves to his larger point. “Is it because they are too small to be visible and hence don’t appeal to the feeling of awe that grips people looking at the night sky? Is it because once it is known they belong to the realm of microbes they just become subjects of fear? Perhaps. But it’s more likely the real reason is simply that their story hasn’t yet been told in the right way—and I suspect this is true for most scientific research.”

I emphasized the words their story because I believe we humans are story-kind-of-things and not quantitative-analysis-kind-of-things, and hence for something to be understood it needs to be in some kind of story. In fact the last section of Galfard’s article is called ‘Story Time’. And to get there, he takes a detour and tells the story of a scene in the film Neverland.

But what I like, as opposed to the aforementioned abstract, is not only the diagnosis that there is a gap between science experts and the general public. It is also the (self-)awareness of the fact that the cause of the gap is equally on the side of science and scientists as it is on the side of the public. Towards the end of the article, he writes the following. Through its findings, science yields answers none of us ever expect and may even help ensure the future survival of our species. But for this to happen, science needs to be alive and thrive in all the bizarre avenues opened to the human imagination […]. The dreams and prospects of science are unfathomable, and they should not be confined to the reach of a handful of experts, but be open to all. For this to happen, policymakers would be well advised to help scientists team up with, or become, story tellers who share their findings in lay terms with everyone.

For a mind blowing and beautifully written article, click here.

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One Comment to “The Science Story”

  1. A possible way of thinking of one of the writers of mentioned abstract:
    ‘Lets write a scientific article, which we will publish in a scientific journal, about how mass media are bad in their work of making the results of scientific research visible to the broader audience. Yeah, it will be a blast!’
    You see, everything would be juuuust fine if you didn’t mentioned it in a place who non-scientists read… 😉

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