Public Outreach, For Real

The next post or three will be a bit different, and I feel I need to warn those who’ve started following this blog based on its earlier content.

I won’t be writing about a scary disease or weird stuff in food products. The next post will not discuss career planning for scientists or attempt to explain public health catastrophes. Nor will I be diving into the science wonk community’s controversy du jour, whatever it might be, or providing a backstage tour of science in the making. Those sorts of stories are all fascinating for serious science fans, and modern science journalism wouldn’t exist without them, but at least for a short while I’m going to take this blog someplace else entirely: public outreach.

Yes, yes, every science blogger claims to be doing “outreach,” but deep down we know that’s bullshit. We blog because we want to find others who care about the same things we care about, and because we want attention. There’s nothing wrong with those motives. Fitting into a community and getting attention are fundamental human drives, and the basis of much of the global economy. But while pursuing those goals, most science journalists and bloggers – and I certainly include myself here – have withdrawn into the science ghetto.

It’s a lovely neighborhood, really. There are smart, inquisitive people roaming the streets at all hours, and they’re fascinated by the nuances of the latest discoveries. We chat intelligently on Twitter and agree on many important issues. There are paid full-time jobs like mine that operate entirely inside the ghetto. Meanwhile, we congratulate ourselves on our “outreach” efforts, which we feel are helping the benighted masses understand the importance of rational thinking. Unfortunately, that’s all speculation, and there’s a lot of evidence that we’re nowhere near as effective as we want to believe.

Think about it. There are hundreds of good science bloggers and journalists filing stories in multiple languages, across multiple media, constantly. Most of the world’s population is within a finger-tap of this trove of expository content, much of it excellent. Yet a talk show host feels comfortable giving anti-vaccination zealots a multi-million viewer stage, the public’s perception of one of the greatest threats facing society literally fluctuates with the weather, and a TV network supposedly dedicated to science programming has no qualms claming that mermaids exist.

If this is what the collective outreach effort of the entire science journalism and blogging community can accomplish, then we suck at it.

It’s comforting to hear that a podcast or article of mine reached tens of thousands, until I realize that hundreds of millions still believe in ghosts. My work – and probably yours, if you’re in this business – is only reaching out as far as the next cluster of science wonks. It doesn’t matter how diverse or seemingly influential those wonks are, they’re a tiny minority of the general population. We’re doing an excellent job reaching the people who already think like scientists. The problem is that most people don’t.

I’m pretty sure I can’t fix this, but I have to try. It would be great if you gave it a shot, too. What I have in mind is a simple explanation of how to think like a scientist, and why that’s the best way to approach all questions of fact. It’s not about specific data, experimental techniques, or the latest results, just a straightforward explanation of how science works. That’s it.

Of course everyone got exactly such an explanation in the third grade, but you can see how well that stuck, right? There’s clearly room for repeating these concepts in as many ways and forms as possible. We don’t have to take the same approach; in fact it’s probably best if we don’t. Don’t talk out of a textbook or get bogged down in the details. Create your own explanation based on your own understanding. The key is to condense the essence of scientific thinking into a short, simple presentation for the general public. I mean the real general public, out there beyond the ghetto walls.

My first attempt at this will be in the next post. I hope that when you see it, you’ll decide you can do better.