In a slightly related post, the New York Times has an interesting article this morning about a man who was wrongly convicted of “stabbing, beating, biting and strangling a social worker in upstate New York.” The case revolved largely around bite mark evidence, with a local dentist acting as an expert witness, testifying that the teeth marks on the victim matched the accused perfectly. DNA evidence has overturned many cases (as it did with this one), so that isn’t really new. What interests me about this story though is what it says about the perceptions of science in society. Even though most people do not make a living using science, it has real world consequences
Lawyers, for their part, are taking steps to counter what they call the “C.S.I. effect,” when juries become overly impressed by forensic evidence. During jury selection, it is not uncommon for them to ask potential jurors about their television-watching preferences to weed out those who seem unable to separate fact from fiction.
Mrs. Dip-with-a-different-last-name pointed this article out to me last week, which I think is similar in theme. What I really find interesting about this is not that his research is controversial, but how quickly a bastardized version of his research was spread throughout the blogosphere and traditional media. In both of these cases, incorrect versions of science led to serious misunderstandings.
I tend to blame us scientists for this gulf in public understanding. True, most people could spend more time understanding the basics of the world they live in, but that is easy for us to say, it is how we make a living. I get to spend all day thinking about science, and expecting people to become experts would be like expecting me to become an expert in anything else, auto maintenance, plumbing, baking, computer programming….If I instead think of science as something I’d have to learn about after a long day of work, like any of my other hobbies or any other important aspect of life, it seems daunting. This is one of the reasons I think that science blogs can be important, I think we as a community need to become better about getting our messages across. Political junkies have really excelled at using the internet, and blogs in particular, for this purpose. Who knows, perhaps it wouldn’t be so easy to cut earth science programs, or to cut funding to the USGS if we were better at getting our messages across? As I mentioned in my first post, we must make a connection between science and everyday life.
This is why public outreach is so important. There are many simple things we can do.
1. Let’s support high school teachers and students. After all, this is where most people get the majority of their exposure to science, and their high school science courses will largely determine how they approach science for the rest of their lives. Supporting high school science can be as simple as visiting classrooms, judging science fairs, tutoring, etc., or as involved as providing research experience to students over the summer (one professor in my graduate department was especially good at this). As even easier way is to support the friends and colleagues of ours who decide to teach high school science. It seems a rather thankless task, very hard work that I don’t think gets enough respect from the professional science community.
2. Let’s support undergraduate survey courses and the people that teach them. Same reasons as above, that is the only chance to introduce earth science to most people. These are future voters, politicians, jurors, etc., we can’t waste those chances.
3. Be a salesperson. I don’t know how Physicists do it, they must be the best sales people in the world. Somehow they can convince governments to spend tens of billions of dollars on such boondoggles as particle colliders. Seriously, this astounds me. Not that I don’t find the science interesting, in a perfect world with unlimited resources I would say go for it. But we all know that competition for funding is tight, yet somehow these projects get funded. Earth Science is very relevant (well, maybe not thermochronology, but you get my point), and we need to sell it that way.
4. Let’s all refrain from blaming the public every time science is misused. At least in my opinion, the shortcoming is mainly ours. We are fortunate to be able to spend our lives doing jobs that interest us, and the extra effort it would take to share some of that knowledge really isn’t that much.
5. We need to find a Carl Sagan of geology, someone who can take the message to the public. And, when we find him or her, we need to not disparage their work (as happened to Carl Sagan, and to many academics who try to become popular).
There will be more rules, I am sure.