In general, people appreciate science, but they’re mostly attracted to the glossy and shiny parts of science. Take this Cyanide and Happiness comic for example:
That isn’t to say that these little grey shirted dudes across the world are at fault or to be judged (we all are little grey shirted dudes ourselves at some point), but it is something to think about how the scope of “science” is understood and perceived differently within the general public.
In many instances, science intimidates people. There is a fear, a distance, and an uncertainty about it. After all, most adults never have another incentive to study or understand science after high school, and many people write themselves off as not fit to learn or even take an interest in science based off of bad early experiences. However, with a better cultural understanding of what science is and how it works works, people stand better chances of being able to accurately interpret and approach the information that gets thrown at them on a daily basis.
It’s an issue that scientists and educators are actively trying to tackle, and of course, a primary ambition of science journalism. Only recently have I realized that there is a vibrant community dedicated to initiating and understanding this sort of communication. Actually, “Science Public Engagement” is a HUGE thing. There exist professional agencies that function purely to aid scientists in communication, radio shows (a local Boston one) that intertwine science and comedy, and citizen science projects with an initiative to get regular people involved as contributors to real science research. There was even a national conference last month dedicated to the theme of Global Science Engagement and science policy (which by the way is coming to Boston next year). A ton of scientists, journalists, and educators are out there collaborating on innovative ways in which non professional citizens can engage into a deeper understanding of science.
Here I summarize some key points from Martin Storksdieck, the Director of the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University. He spoke briefly during a symposium at the AAAS Annual Meeting in February:
“Science can actually turn people off,” says Martin. The school system is an individual’s first exposure to science, but what ends up happening there are educators simply “throwing out information and hoping that it sticks.” Instead, we need to take people into an experience. “Combine elements built on what best engage people,” says Martin, “combine your agenda with their agenda.” People become disengaged because no personal meaning is established in their science learning or there is no fear present to drive them. Because of that poor foundation, we need people, from young students to adults to “re-self select themselves into science” and we need to let them rediscover a chance to “own what they learn.”
So we need to think, as scientists and educators, how do we make science not threating, accessible, and meaningful? To get people involved in science, we need to give them the experience of being a part of the science themselves and to show them that it is an important part of their lives.