A Little Idea from Science Online Seattle

Monday, I went to the first event for Science Online Seattle. I had seen a tweet last week about it and signed up on a lark. I wasn’t even sure I would go — it doesn’t seem necessarily like something for a non-scientist. I was encouraged to go when I realized that someone I already knew was going. Still, it’s a little strange to show up in a law school classroom (very nice classroom with outlets at every seat!) to a room full of strangers that you are under the impression are all Awesome Scientists. Fortunately, most of the discussion was about how to make science more accessible and useful to researchers, journalists and “laymen” alike. The livestream is available online so I won’t try to summarize all the points. The twitter #sosea hashtag has a lot of side discussion and comments.

### Engaging the Public

One topic1 brought up was that researchers in government agencies often can’t be open about what they are working on — strict public relations policies and risk aversion means that there’s little incentive to, for example, keep a blog of a research trip. One person even joked that no one wants pictures of a researchers having fun because a Congress person will see it and complain about wasting taxpayer money! Another issue brought up was how certain scientific questions (e.g. climate change) are extremely politicized. Another common theme was funding — crowd funding was brought up as an alternative to traditional methods (government funding is getting tighter) and specifically the new site Microryza which, in short, is Kickstarter for researchers2. The game Foldit is harnessing human minds to solve problems and lets non-scientists participate in science. Half the talk of the night was how to engage the public.

If you’ve read previous posts, you know that I care a lot about the public not being (mis-)led by fearful information about science. That hypothetical Congress person can only criticize researchers having fun on a trip if her constituents believe that narrative. But they won’t find it a meaningful narrative if it’s a common pastime for “normal people” to follow researchers groping with hard questions or posting neat pictures of the fruits of research. Climate change science “scandals” wouldn’t be so scandalous if people engaged more with scientific questions and the inherent ambiguity of results.

A Modest Suggestion

But how do you engage the public? Most people aren’t scientists or really have much training in it. Many think of scientists as a special priesthood. Some think that priesthood isn’t up to much good. But, in general, I think many people just feel disconnected from it: it’s not something “normal” people can be involved in. It’s too hard to understand. Non-experts can’t really judge.

The main products of research are journal articles. Many of them are essentially paid for by the public already. In any case, many are pretty freely available (though not enough!) “Gatekeepers” — journalists and scientists explaining new results — are useful to provide context and background. But that’s not enough.

Let us, the “layman”, actually read science articles! They are usually pretty short. Good ones are readable, even if you have to skip the statistics or spend a few minutes finding out what a word means. Bad ones often are confusing even ignoring the math. Exposure to the reasoning necessary to “prove” something exposes you to the complexity and ambiguity of science. Would people be so worried about the current scary health news story if they more often read the reviewed article and not just the overblown press releases? When the news claims the sky is falling but the journal article mentions only a small unexplained change with myriad possible explanations, would people worry so much? When an opinion piece doesn’t even link to good sources, would we pass it around credulously?

I realize it’s pretty optimistic to believe people (possibly with poor science and math basic education) would want to (or even be able) to read journal articles. I wouldn’t expect everyone to always go read the article that’s a source for the news. While I think even occasional article reading would improve how people view science, I don’t know how to get there. I just know that I get a lot out of them, even as a non-scientist3.

So, my non-scientist friends reading this, I hope you try reading a journal article sometime soon. It won’t be as mystifying as you think. Pick a topic you care about or a news story that worries you. Google the article title and you’ll probably find it. Feel free to skim it. Ask questions. Google the unknown words. Science is understanding the universe around you and that article is describing only a very, very tiny piece.

  1. I’m not really going to try to attribute specific thoughts to individuals. In one case I remember who said it, but for the rest I don’t recall exactly. I might be able to figure it out from the livestream but I’ll inevitably get a bunch wrong.

  2. Though thankfully they don’t require projects to have concrete results. Research just doesn’t always go where you expect!

  3. An undergraduate “computer science” degree doesn’t make me a scientist or even terribly more educated about science than most. I only took one semester each of chemistry and biology which is no more than humanities and non-technical degree programs at my school.