Home > Burns My Shorts, Conference Report, Why There Are No Women in Science > Scientists and the Public – What’s Our Responsibility?

Scientists and the Public – What’s Our Responsibility?

Hunt Willard spoke at the NC Science Blogging Conference about “Promoting Public Understanding of Science”. Willard is the director of the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. He made a distinction between getting people to actually understand the science itself – which he felt was really hard to do – versus getting them to understand the implications of science. He felt it was very easy to get people on the bandwagon with implications.
I’m not sure, however, that you can do an adequate job of getting people to understand the implications of this or that bit of science without getting them to understand some of the science itself. I don’t think it is always quite so easy to tease out the science from the policy implications. The easiest example that comes to mind is stem cell research: are you for or against it? How do you try to make a case for or against it without delving, at least a little, into the science of it? I suppose if your mind is already made up that it is immoral and against God’s will, then no amount of discussion of the science is going to make any difference to you. But for someone who is feeling more ambiguous about the whole thing, then I think a discussion of the science is exactly what is needed to help them make an informed decision about implications and policy.
A different example he gave, however, is very intriguing. He brought up the issue of sequencing Neanderthal DNA.

At some point, Willard said, cloning will be so straightforward we’ll be able to clone a Neanderthal. He asked, “Can you really believe no one will want to do it? Just to see?” And then…what do we do when the “experiment” is over? With research dogs – we euthanize them at the end of experiments. With chimpanzees – at the end of experiments they are sent off to sanctuaries where they are well taken care of for life (and Willard said we might well consider, as another issue, why we treat our research chimpanzees better than we treat many of our elderly and poor human beings). What are we going to do with the Neanderthals? We’ll have to take care of them – or, perhaps, we have to acknowledge that we have created a legitimate new human race. And then what? This is a science issue where one needs to know absolutely nothing about the details of cloning in order to engage in a serious debate about implications and policy.
Willard mentioned the “cocktail party test” in discussing science – can you describe in easy-to-understand language, in just a few minutes, what it is you are doing, to someone at a cocktail party? He also called this the “my mother” test which annoyed the hell out of me. Why not the “my father” test or better yet the “my parents” test? I’m sure you think this is no big deal and in the grand scheme of things most likely it is not – but it’s just casual bits of language like this here and there, all the time, that remind me that for most people, the default assumption is that women are not scientists. I’m just saying – it creates a different image in the mind if you say “my parents” test rather than “my mother” test.
So, anyway, you’re at the proverbial cocktail party, and someone hears you’re a scientist, and suddenly you are supposed to be the expert on…all things scientific. How do we make information available to all of us, Willard asked, so that we can defend our arguments even if we aren’t in an academic setting, if we don’t have access to academic journals? Blogs can help with this. They can give the general public access to plain English versions of academic papers. Willard expressed reservations about blogging, however and thought many scientists would be reluctant to take it on, because blogging was “antithetical to the training of a scientist. My opinion doesn’t matter – it’s the data and my interpretation of the data that matter.”
Well, I would argue – and I did, in the Q&A – that good science blogging is NOT just “my opinion” anymore than a good journal article is. The blogger is, or can be, an informed commentator on science. The education and experience a science blogger brings to discussing the issues make what that person has to say more valid and valuable that Joe Schmoe’s opinion – which is, truly, just an opinion – on the same subject.
This is something that I have encountered upon occasion on this blog. “My opinion is just as good as anyone else’s.” “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion.” “We all have our own opinion, and everybody’s view is valid.” Well, in a word, no. Just because the subject is gender and science, doesn’t mean that this is not a scholarly subject, where knowledge and data matter. If I have graduate training in women’s studies, experience directing a program for girls and women in science and engineering, and have researched and written on a range of topics in gender and science/engineering, and you have an opinion that you formed in the last five minutes, what I have to say about the topic is far, far more valid. An opinion is NOT equivalent to informed discussion. So, while you may be entitled to your opinion, you are not entitled to think that it holds as much weight as somebody who has more experience and knowlege in a topic area than you do. I wouldn’t presume to go tell Bora I have an opinion about circadian rhythms and expect him to consider it as valid as his expertise.
So I don’t think scientists should be afraid of blogging. They aren’t sullying themselves, aren’t lowering themselves from the sacred heights of Knowledge and Fact into the slimy depths of Opinion. Blogging doesn’t – or shouldn’t – ruin your science cred.
Anyway, Willard did argue that scientists ought to be more interested in communicating broadly with the public, by blogging or other means. He thought this would be a problem, since most scientists went into science because they didn’t like speaking in plain English to other people. (The persistence of this stereotype – and the degree to which it is accurate – is depressing. This stereotype is one of the reasons many young girls don’t want to go into science or engineering – they don’t want to be that kind of person.)
Willard thought that communication with the public ought to be an expectation of all scientists. Audience members replied that it would have to be made a part of tenure if he wanted all scientists to do it – which seems perfectly reasonable, for academic scientists. They will do that which is rewarded with tenure. That which is not, they will not do. Willard acknowledged that it is not the younger scientists who are engaging the public, it’s the mid-career scientists – they can “afford” to do so at that point.
My thought: so if they’re doing it and they see a value in it, why don’t they change the rules for tenure? If they did, they would give credit to a significant subgroup of scientists who are actually engaged in communicating with the public. These are, for the most part, women (and some men) who take part in outreach programs to encourage young girls to consider careers in science and engineering. They are communicating with young girls, with parents, and with teachers. They are spreading the word about science to a very broad audience, getting them engaged in thinking and doing science. And for the most part, they get no official credit whatsoever for this work.
I don’t think this kind of work ususally gets thought of as “communicating with the public” when people talk about scientists engaging the public or conducting a dialogue with the public about science. But surely, encouraging young girls to stick with math and science and consider careers in science and engineering is a part of promoting public understanding of science. In the effort to bring young girls into science, one key effort can be to engage the girls’ parents or other significant guardian. Parents remain a significant influence in their daughters’ lives, and bolstering their comfort with and knowledge about science career options is important. But I think because it’s mostly women who are doing it, and because it’s being done on behalf of young girls, it doesn’t have the same legitimacy as other forms of communicating with the public about science.
Well, maybe I’m too gloomy. We did have that session in the afternoon about blogging and education. So that’s a step in the right direction. Bloggers are starting to think about what they can do to help make K-12 teachers’ jobs a bit easier – how can we be of assistance in the classroom? That’s a good step in the right direction.

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  1. January 25, 2007 at 9:45 am

    “So, while you may be entitled to your opinion, you are not entitled to think that it holds as much weight as somebody who has more experience and knowlege in a topic area than you do.”
    Amen! (or its secular equivalent)

  2. January 25, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Perhaps Dr Willard referred to it as “my mother” test because it’s harder to explain science to her than to his father–or maybe his father passed away. He was using it, if you’ll recall, as a personal example not a term for the general public to use. Just saying…

  3. January 25, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    He was using it, if you’ll recall, as a personal example not a term for the general public to use.
    He was speaking in public as an official representative of a public institution. Zuska’s mild reminder that his words carry weight and that he might choose them with more care is spot-on.
    (Z: I wanted to ask him about stem cells too, for all the same reasons you list.)

  4. January 26, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    I frequently used the “my mother” example. Partly because I am more likely to talk to my Mum about what I do than to my Dad. Until, that is, I suggested it to one of my undergrads – who laughed as her mom is a high school chemistry teacher and probably understands her daughter’s work better than her daughter does. So now I try to remember to use that catch all phrase “the lay public”.
    I was frustrated by the idea that it is only midcareer scientists communicating science as opposed to all. One good thing about being in a US land grant Agriculture school is the existence of extension agents. Their role is to communicate science to farmers and other user groups. Perhaps we need extension agents in biology and chemistry?
    Also the comment about the lack of scientists’ ability to communicate was particularly annoying. Where has he been? It surely is not still true? If so, please don’t let my undergrads hear, so far I’ve managed to convince them otherwise.
    Thanks for doing these summaries. I didn’t take notes until the afternoon sessions.

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