Friday, June 03, 2011

Time to make science popularization popular

When I was in college, “science popularization” was a dirty phrase. Popularizing science was considered the domain of the intellectual lightweights of science. You were interested in science popularization because you were not very good at “real” science itself. More disturbingly, this attitude was the corollary of a larger set of beliefs which saw “science” as tantamount to academic scientific research and nothing more. This view relegated not just popularization but to a lesser extent even teaching to the side. All this was quite surprising especially considering that Pune is the home of astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, one of the foremost popularizers of science of his generation. But of course, even Narlikar’s “scipop” activities were admired because of his status as a first-rate scientist. The popularization was simply a side-product of his real scientific achievements.

When I came to America two things struck me. First, that science popularization enjoyed vigorous participation and appreciation from both scientists and non-scientists. And second, that some of the clearest writing about science came from people without formal scientific backgrounds. There are indeed many famous science writers like Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, E O Wilson and Steven Weinberg who have impeccable scientific credentials, but there’s an equal number of others like Carl Zimmer, Robert Crease, Richard Rhodes, James Gleick, Rebecca Skloot and George Johnson who have written first-rate books on science and its history and philosophy, and whose grasp of basic science rivals that of experts in the field. With the rise of blogs and online media, science popularization has enjoyed an even bigger audience and entire conferences like ScienceOnline are organized and attended by science writers and journalists who are fundamentally science popularizers. I attended ScienceOnline 2011 this year and was very impressed by the scientific passion and drive for science communication that I saw in all the non-scientists attending the conference. Most of these people had basic degrees in science but very few of them were professional scientists.

In this post I want to address the troubling attitude about science popularization that existed among my fellow students in college. I already consider my college years a thing of the past, so recent college graduates should definitely voice their observations and opinions in the comments section. Have things changed?

As I noted above, the real problem with the attitude toward science popularization is that it is endemic of a more troubling larger view of science as being equivalent to research and nothing else. But this view is just plain wrong. Even a cursory glance at the history of science reveals that while research has been the primary driving force within science, teaching, scientific funding, scientific collaborations and even rivalries, the impact of social factors on the direction of research and yes…science popularization, have all played a key role in science’s transformation of the modern world. This history reveals a simple fact that is sometimes forgotten; science is very much a social activity. The image of the lone scientist toiling away in his lab and making a great discovery with immediate impact on society was never really true, and is not true at all in this era of expensive science, international collaborations and interdisciplinary research. These days it’s not enough to have a great idea; one needs to sell it to academic institutions, government agencies, private corporations and other funding bodies.

But most importantly, one needs to sell it to the public. And this is true even if the sale is not actually conducted from a park bench by every individual scientist. The sale is necessary because not only has the majority of scientific research in history been funded from the public coffer but because that funding will stop flowing if the public is not convinced of the value of research. We are already seeing this happening in the US. A country which has been the largest public supporter of science until now is struggling to hold on to the public purse strings through its government agencies, in part because of a fundamentally bad economy but also because public support for basic science has been increasingly tainted by multiple factors including the declining quality of education, fundamentalist religion and a growing inability to separate long-term prosperity from short-term benefits.

The only solution to this problem is better science communication. No number of brilliant scientific research ideas by themselves are ever going to reach the public and solve the problem if they are not presented in a digestible form. In that sense, science “popularization” is really nothing but science “communication”, although the former entails fancier pitches. Hopefully the latter word conveys a much bigger and obvious sense of urgency. Thus henceforth I will refer to science popularization as science communication.

Once the key dependence of scientific support on a public that mostly is not formally scientifically educated becomes clear, the important of science communication cannot be underestimated. Communicate science, otherwise doing science will slowly but surely become an uphill battle. My friends who were erstwhile scientists should have realized that their future as science doers depends in an important way on the science communicators that they disparaged. Perhaps that should have generated more respect for the communicators.

Indeed, even within science the importance of “explanation” has been widely recognized. Scientists who were masters of explanation may not always be as well-known as the movers and shakers of science but within the community their importance is unquestioned. Most people won’t recognize the name of Harvard physicist Sidney Coleman who contributed much more to science by way of teaching, critiquing and explaining than he did through original research. Robert Oppenheimer was similar. At the height of his powers, Oppenheimer once said that the business of theoretical physicists was to explain to each other what they could not understand. Niels Bohr, a scientist who had an almost maddening obsession to state scientific facts accurately, used to stress to his brilliant students and colleagues that they could not claim to have understood the thorny subtleties of quantum mechanics if they could not explain them to each other in “plain language”. Richard Feynman quipped that one could not really hope to have understood something if he or she were unable to explain it to the average layman on the street. It may not be obvious, but all these scientists were implicitly extolling the key value in science of what we are calling science “popularization”.

But assuming that my friends had understood the importance of communication, that may have still led them to their second misunderstanding; that only scientists who are accomplished in research are capable of the best scientific communication. As I have noted before, even a factual examination tells us otherwise; there are as many first-rate formally untrained science communicators as there are trained ones. This leads right away to the larger fallacy stated above; the assumption that knowing or doing science necessarily means spending all your time in actual scientific research.

It’s important to spend some time discussing this fallacy since it also implicitly assumes that being steeped in the fundamentals, getting trained at the best universities or under the best scientists or being the valedictorian of your class are all equivalent to great scientific creativity and necessarily imply an actual research career. This is not the case at all, not just among non-scientists but even among scientists. As the case of Coleman and Oppenheimer reveals, the history of science reveals a multitude of (largely unsung) first-rate scientific “critics”, those who had an excellent grasp of their field but who could not, for one reason or other, achieve creative genius commensurate with their intellect. But Coleman and Oppenheimer were still exceptional scientists. How about science journalists who graduated with degrees in history, english and philosophy and then penned top-notch scientific volumes? The bigger point really is that science, just like many other things, is basically a set of complex ideas that can be digested by virtually anyone if they really apply their mind to it. People who can understand the tortuous meanderings of politics or the vagaries of sports statistics really shouldn’t have much problem understanding scientific basics, and this is proven for example by people who have edited excellent scientific entries on Wikipedia. Most of these people lack formal scientific training and yet have a knowledge of many scientific ideas that rivals that of the best scientists. And yet are we going to cast them aside because they are not professional scientists and will not win the Nobel Prize? There’s another key point; people may sometimes realize relatively late in their career that their real talents lie in other aspects of science like teaching and communication and not research. In fact this happens all the time (and we should be honest enough to own up to it) since many of us don’t really know what we are truly good at until late in our career. Should we then just give up these other scientific activities because we are supposed to fit within only one narrow box? Would we have dissuaded Isaac Asimov (“The Great Explainer”) from writing all those wonderful science books because he was not publishing top scientific papers? Such thinking reflects a very impoverished view of the institution of science and its role in society.

The real big truth is that not only can you understand science very well without being a great scientist but that there is nothing wrong with it. Every field needs its critics, explainers, teachers and creators. As described above, science has always been a multifaceted social activity, and it is unreasonable to assume that anyone who is competent to delve into one of its many corners should also be competent enough to delve into any other.

We live in an age where more people believe in astrology and ghosts than in evolution. In this age the importance of science communication is as or even more relevant than that of actual research, whether this communication is done by scientists or anyone else. When you are trying to discover antibiotics against rapidly evolving bacteria or viruses and when the public which ultimately funds your research is skeptical of this very evolution, you better realize the key role that the communicators of science are going to play in helping you achieve your goals. None of the great ideas that are created by “real” scientists are ever going to have an impact if they are going to reach ignorant and closed minds. Nor are most scientists involved in research going to have the time necessary to communicate science on a regular basis. On the other hand, most people can grasp and appreciate scientific facts when these facts are carefully and patiently communicated by dedicated professionals.

In such cases, it’s best to leave communication to those who do it best and nurture and encourage their potential. We owe them a lot. It does not matter whether they are actual scientists or writers or just scientifically minded members of the public. Science is inherently a social phenomenon accessible to anyone with an open mind; as Oppenheimer put it, what we don’t understand we need to explain to each other. We want to get the message across. The identity of the messenger should not matter.

Originally posted at Critical Twenties

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