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 became an AAAS Mass Media Fellow at a newspaper in California. I arrived in early summer—as black oil was pouring out of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Although the around-the-clock news coverage of the oil spill had abated somewhat, opinions abounded, and a local university professor became entangled in a public debate about whether oiled birds could be saved. The professor, a wildlife expert who had devoted most of his life to rescue and recovery of oiled animals, believed rescue efforts should continue. But his opponents said they did no good.
In researching the story, I combed existing news. I found that a typical article on this subject began by informing me that there was no consensus. Then I got fed some quotes: Scientist A said no, while Scientist B said yes. Somehow both sides had studies that seemed to support them, yet none of it got me any closer to understanding the truth. How, I wondered, can rational people disagree about facts?
The story took me a week to write. The first time I called the professor, he pointed me to studies, 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 to say what I’d learned about why the studies disagreed, he listened: I pointed out the different species of birds the different researchers sampled, the decades that separated them, their disparate methods of measurement, and more. After a pause, he said that yes, the rescued birds used to die—no matter what you did to help them—within a few days or weeks. Sometimes they would all die.
I learned that survival depended on a bird’s species, size, and habits; how much oil it had ingested; whether its home was destroyed. I learned that in recent years the scientist’s university had poured millions into improving rescue methods, and there was evidence that this effort had paid off in decreased mortality rates.
Now he had to defend his work, he said, as he feared a public outcry would spell the end of yet another thing that did good in the world. When I called the other scientists with what I’d learned, they agreed. It was not their intention to halt these efforts, they said; they had simply felt that the effectiveness of the programs had been misrepresented in the media.
Looking back, I understood why the scientists on both sides had exaggerated, bent the truth a little. They had come to regard the media with suspicion, as a threat. I also understood why journalists were happy to instigate. There was immense public interest. But as I watched readers hurl words like “heartless” and “wasteful” at each other in the comments, I realized that no understanding had been passed on.
That summer I learned that language matters. I learned that context matters, that a truthful narrative supported by facts is compelling on its own. And I learned that our inability to tell the story of science—of its goodness, its vision, its relentless truth-seeking—is eroding the public’s trust.
Science is not quick or glamorous, and we don’t need to make it look that way. It’s the piecemeal assembly of reality, fact by painstaking fact, and that is beautiful enough. Every time the incremental is reported as revolutionary, a disservice is done. To sensationalize scientific progress is to misrepresent it.
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 such a writer to stand not squarely in the middle but as near as possible 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 like consumers being sold a product.
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.
A shortened version of this text was published in Technology Review magazine on June 18, 2013