Pinky & The Brain, Sheldon Cooper, Beaker & Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Dr. Ross Gellar, Professor Farnsworth. What do all of these pop culture scientists have in common? (1) They’re all known for being a little bit crazy, (2) they’re all men, and (3) none of them are very likeable or good at communicating their jobs to the general public. While all of these qualities represent some pretty extreme stereotyping of the scientific community, the inability to communicate their research to the general public is not only a problem in how pop culture presents scientists, but it’s also rampant within the real world too.
In Friends, Ross is a paleontologist who is constantly berated by his friends about his boring job. There’s an entire episode dedicated to Ross finding out that people are having sex in the section of the library his PhD dissertation is in, since no one ever visits that section. There are countless jokes about his dull job and his other “science-based” interests (e.g. how salt water taffy is made, watching documentaries). Thinking back, Ross Geller had a pretty amazing job; he worked at the Museum of Natural History in New York and became a professor at Colombia University in his early 30s. Yeah it’s a show, but it’s a little disappointing that the most educated “friend” was treated so poorly. I guess it was just “the 90s”.
This stereotypical portrayal of scientists in pop culture, which has yet to end in the 2010s (although it’s definitely getting better), is a pretty strong indication of the alienation of science towards people outside of the “science world”. The fact that science is often not innate or intuitive to the general public leads to a wide-spread belief that science is “boring”. I don’t think this is a problem with science as a subject itself but instead it’s likely related to how it’s taught within schools, and how it quickly alienates the kids who “get it” from the kids who “don’t”. This separation continues with age, dividing our culture, and more or less dividing the “geek” from the non-geek.
Why? Well, think about that high school class. Was the kid who was the best at chemistry also the top debater? Maybe. But probably not. You tend to move towards a career that suits your personality. Most scientists are not the ones who are going to be lawyers, businessmen, or publicly communicate daily. For example, the idea of being a lawyer and professionally arguing for a living puts me in a cold sweat. But working in a lab, writing at a computer, and occasionally passionately talking about my interests with equally interested people? That sounds great. Communicating scientific findings is essential; but problems with communicating science to the general public continues to be a large issue, primarily because of this division in personality type and the assumption that the general public is un-interested in science.
So what can we do? Well, a lot. Thankfully a lot of young scientists have grown up with these pop culture biases so it’s a lot easier to ignore them, and instead focus on famous, real-life and diverse, scientists. Most scientists I know aren’t a big fan of the “Big Bang Theory’s” perception of what makes a scientist. Instead, we are quite social, we like to use social media, and chat to people about our research. We want people to know what’s going on with our science and enjoy communicating with them. A recent paper by Hundey et al. 2016 on recommendations for incorporating science communication into graduate training showed that current graduate students are interested in new training opportunities not currently available to them and they lack the opportunities to put these scientific communication practices into action.
When I began my graduate studies my goal was to move towards a career in scientific communication, something I believed a Masters degree in Oceanography would help with more than a degree in Journalism or Communications, which would lack the scientific focus. Unfortunately, there still seems to be a gap between research-based science and science communication to the general public. While my understanding of the scientific community and how to conduct research has certainly increased, I feel no better qualified to communicate my findings with the general public. In fact, over my degree I was encouraged to write less emphatically, ensuring that the facts are the only things communicated. Of course it’s important to present the facts in research papers, but departments seem to be continuously breeding scientists who are only taught to communicate with other scientists, while programs are popping up left and right in “Scientific Communication”, not necessarily geared towards people with a strong understanding of the research world.
As Hundey et al. 2016 discuss, and as I have experienced, students in these research-based programs want to communicate and discuss our research with the non-experts too. They present a call for a “cultural shift”, away from only research papers and instead enhancing communication of scientific findings beyond the scientific world, sharing with the public and the media (Hundey et al., 2016). So instead of this division between these two programs, more research-based Masters and PhD programs should be adding courses or seminars on communicating through social media, making youtube videos, tweeting, writing articles for local papers. Because, it is only by effectively communicating research that we will ever get anything accomplished, and maybe someday, the scientist will become the cool character (I think we’re already part-way there).
It has never been more important for scientists to learn how to become the out-spoken, opinionated, decision-making members of the public. Hopefully, by slowly closing the division between these two “worlds” we can start making political decisions and policy changes based on evidence. Facts are facts (no matter how alternative one may want them to be) and our community needs to start speaking out, making our voices heard, and showing off what we know… So speak up and speak out, and we’ll eventually start being heard.
Hundey et al. (2016) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/lob.10151/full