Outreach. The word itself suggests a kind of uneasy exertion of the body. It reminds us that bringing scientific knowledge to the public, far from natural or straightforward, is an exercise demanding all manners of contortions.
So, like a particularly eccentric yoga pose, “outreach”–it’s believed in the science community–is not for everyone.
In 2009 I was finishing up my physics degree at MIT. The atmosphere, for a bunch of normally very serious physics students, was something I can only describe as “giddy”. Here, finally, was the chance to mark our heights against the wall. The seniors traded GRE test scores, lists of target schools, and daydreams about new lives in sunny California. Anticipation hung like a haze; it was the air we breathed. When I mentioned I was interested in science writing, the gentle suggestion came that I might be capable of “more”.
It’s important to remember that, historically, science was a hobby of the rich and curious. Well-to-do white men with lots of leisure time were our proper founding fathers, so it’s unsurprising that a bit of elitism, insularity, remains. To say that the divide between the “scientist” and the “layman” has grown would be inaccurate. I can only say that, in this age of access and informational wealth, it remains disconcertingly large.
For the emergence of the anti-science movement, for the shifting of the political winds that has resulted in massive, targeted, funding cuts in certain disciplines, and for the continued proliferation of falsehoods and misinformation, scientists have to take some blame. But so do journalists. It’s partly the result of ineffective communication.
In 2010, I was selected as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow and got to be an intern science writer for a newspaper in California. I arrived early summer at an interesting time. Black oil was still pouring out of the Macondo well in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but the around-the-clock news coverage of the gulf oil spill had somewhat abated. This was the time for a lot of opinions, and a local university professor became entangled in a public debate about whether oiled birds could be saved through rehabilitation. The professor, a wildlife expert who had devoted most of his life to oiled animal rescue and recovery, of course, believed these efforts should continue, but his opponents said they didn’t do any good at all.
The more I read of this controversy in the media, the more confused I became. A typical news article began by informing me of a lack of consensus, then I got fed some quotes: Scientist A said no, while Scientist B said yes, somehow both sides had studies that seemed to rule in their favor, and none of it got me any closer to understanding the truth. My question was this: how can rational people disagree about facts?
It took me a week to research and write this story. The first time I called, as expected, the professor pointed me to studies, he regurgitated the same old points, and even had some colorful language for the other scientists. But a few days later, when I got him on the phone again, with a potential answer for why the studies disagreed, he listened: I pointed out the different species of birds they sampled, the decades that separated them, their disparate methods of measurement, and others. Then there was a pause on the line.
I learned the truth was that survival depended on the species, depended on their sizes and their habits, how much oil they’ve ingested, whether their homes were destroyed. I learned that in recent years, his university had poured millions into improving their methods, and there’s evidence this effort has paid off in terms of decreased mortality rates. Now this was happening, he said, and he feared a public outcry would spell the end of yet another thing that did good in the world. When I called the others with this information, they agreed, it was not their intention to halt these efforts, they said, they had simply felt that the effectiveness of these programs had been misrepresented in the media.
This experience left an impression. I understood why the scientists had exaggerated, bent the truth a little. They had come to regard the media with suspicion, as a threat.
Science is not quick or glamorous, and we don’t need to make it that way. It’s the piecemeal assembly of reality, fact by painstaking fact, and that is beautiful enough. Every time incremental progress is reported as revolutionary a disservice is done. How many times can we prove and disprove and prove again relativity, quantum mechanics? I think good judgment, and the will to exercise it, is the best quality a science writer can have. Because in a disagreement I can trust her to stand, not squarely in the middle, but as near as she can to the truth, and in science, there are no two versions of it.
Whether it’s fear of being labeled a self-promoter, of appearing unfocused in one’s work, or it’s just hard to find the time, many scientists choose to take very little ownership of their research in the way it’s delivered to the public. So, non-scientists, rather than feeling like participants in the endeavor, feel as if they’re being taken for a ride. And scientists, rather than just normal people deeply interested and informed about a particular subject, acquire an untrustworthy quality of “otherness”.
How do we break down this divide? To start, we have to examine how it arises.
I think it happened something like this: sometime in sixth or seventh grade, I excelled at doing some menial task–perhaps memorizing a table or dropping some liquid into a beaker–and heard the word “talented”. Someone else failed in this task. Then in tenth grade, a difficult concept arose, the most challenging yet. So I went home, trusting in my ability, and eventually made the connection. This other person did not. Maybe he gave up too quickly, or was not given the intuition appropriate to him, but he began to believe himself ungifted for science, a non-participant.
What he didn’t know, and I’ve never told anybody, is the night I took that difficult concept home for the first time, I cried. Alone in my room, I read the section over and over in the book and stared at a picture until my tears blurred it. I threw my notebook; I threw my stuffed animals; I threw a tantrum at my mom when she came to check on me. I yelled I was stupid, that chemistry was stupid, that I hated it all.
I wonder how many people who go on to become scientists have stories like this. We don’t talk about it, these moments of “weakness”, because then we would have to admit that science is hard for us, too, is hard for everyone.