I noticed this editorial in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, on getting scientific results out to the public. It's worth reading, but not in the way that they think. It starts out reasonably well:
As members of the research community, we know we can't rely on the popular media to correct the misperceptions the public might harbor about science-related issues. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey of Americans, carried out in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 76% of scientists feel the media do not adequately distinguish between substantial findings and those that are unfounded. Although it would be easy to say that the public “just doesn't get it,” the burden of passing along the understanding and implications of contemporary science falls squarely on the shoulders of those actively engaged in funding, publishing and carrying out research.
That's been said before, as the editorial itself notes, but it's no less true for all that. And the advice that follows is sound, if still rather boring: when you talk to non-scientists, try to gauge how much they know about the subject (without offending people), lay off the acronyms and jargon, look for helpful (and accurate) analogies, and so on. All fine.
But then the piece floats off into the mist - or, more accurately, floats off into about the year 1976.How do we get the word out to the public? Well, we need public officials on our side, it says. But take heart! "Globally, several world leaders have voiced support for increasing the promotion of science in their countries", and that should cheer anyone up on a rainy Monday morning. How anyone was able to type that line without burying their head in their hands is beyond me.
There's more. "It is important that we engage the public where they are", says the editorial, and I can't argue with that one, since trying to engage 'em where they ain't is unlikely to prove fruitful. And here comes the rain of musty pillows again: "A growing number of organizations and institutions are seeking to do this through several different approaches", says the next line. You can just hear the (unsigned) writer thinking "Dang it, what's the word count supposed to be on this thing again?" Whoever it is goes on to point out that Sloan-Kettering hosts an annual seminar for just that purpose.
It's only in the last couple of lines that anything useful gets said. Because if we agree that the public should know more about science, and if we've decided that we should go where they are to realize that, then the two places I'm sure that they might be found are online and watching TV, and maybe both at the same time. Just under the wire, the editorial manages to mention that there are these things called web sites, and even (quickly and quietly) suggests that people start their own.
I like that one, understandably. And although it's not like I get millions of readers here, I still get a lot more than I ever thought (between 350,000 and 400,000 page views a month these days). Many are people who are already in the sciences, but I continue to hear from readers with no particular science background at all, which makes me very happy indeed.
But how much science do I really get across? Well, it's not like I'm trying to teach people to do drug discovery, since it's unfortunately not well suited to trying at home. What I'd like for all science outreach activities to do, though, is get across what science really is, what research is like, and broadly how it works. There are so many things that people outside the field don't necessarily get to experience or realize: how much time we spend chasing ideas that weren't right, for one. How much time we spend making sure that we made what we thought we made, or that we did what we thought we did, and trying to nail down how much we can believe what we think that we know. How little that is, in many cases, and how we're always getting surprised even in the areas that looked well-understood.
Real scientific research is quite bizarre by the standards of many other occupations, and I don't think that people get to understand that. (I might add that the ways in which science gets compressed for dramatic effect tends to obscure all these things - TV and movie scientists are always so sure of themselves, and get their rock-solid results so quickly). So rather than start off by trying to teach everyone lots of details, I'd rather that more people understood what the whole effort is like. . .