If it’s Inspiring, Can it Be Wrong?

Research Blogging / by Dave Munger /

After attending last week’s ScienceOnline conference in North Carolina, Dave Munger asks whether relying on titillating tactics is a boon or bane for promoting science to the public.

Credit: Flickr user avinashkunnath

Three times a week, I go running with a group of people from all walks of life, from builders to professors to personal trainers. Since we’re sometimes out on the road for hours at a time, we all talk about our jobs, and I don’t hesitate to mention that I run ResearchBlogging.org. The next time I see them, I ask if they visited the site.

Nearly universally, if the person isn’t a scientist, the response is the same: “I looked at a couple of the articles and my eyes glazed over from all the technical terms.” I know that many of the bloggers featured on Research Blogging are very interesting, engaging writers, who take pains to avoid overly technical explanations of science, so sometimes I’ll point my running companions to individual articles I think they’ll enjoy. In those cases, they tell me later that they really liked that article, but that it’s too laborious and time-consuming for them to wade through every blog post to see which ones they’ll like.

Such is the problem nearly every scientist faces when trying to communicate her or his research to the general public. Based on this post, it’s probably safe to say that thousands of studies are published every day. The sheer numbers are so overwhelming that it’s no wonder that many people simply shut science out of their lives.

Last weekend, I attended a meeting, the Science Online Conference in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where more than 300 scientists and science communicators came together to discuss the future of their fields. Very quickly, the conference’s unofficial theme became how to get average people—like my road-running companions—to open up to science once again.

The keynote speaker was Robert Krulwich, a journalist whose radio show and podcast Radiolab has become a sensation both over the airwaves and online. Krulwich said that his program is primarily a science show, but most listeners don’t think of it that way, because the show’s unique format turns science reporting on its head. Instead of doing what most science reporters do—learning about science, then telling readers about it—Krulwich and his co-host Jad Abumrad learn about the science along with their listeners (or at least act as if that’s what they’re doing). Krulwich says he likes to aim the content of his show a little below the average knowledge level of his listeners. That way no one is left out, and even if they already understand the information being presented, they enjoy the feeling that they are already one step ahead of the program’s hosts. For example, in one segment, the hosts discuss whether it’s possible to live without any numbers at all, while Johnny Cash’s song “25 Minutes To Go” counts down the final minutes of a condemned man’s life (it sounds depressing, but it’s actually quite funny).

While Krulwich reaches over a million listeners with his show, the scientists and bloggers at the conference were also concerned about reaching people at a more intimate level. Bloggers Stephanie Zvan and Maria Walters (aka Masala Skeptic), along with radio host Desiree Schell, led a session discussing how to reach both “geeks” and “non-geeks” with the same information. They asked whether it was possible to share science with those who are passionate about it, without causing others to tune out. Walters, who writes for the snarky feminist-science site Skepchick, thinks that the site’s in-jokes and snarky attitude keeps readers coming back. But for people who don’t know what it means to say “don’t high-hat the monkey,” they offer a quick primer on skepchick-isms. Schell says that for her radio audience, any amount of snark is too much; she doesn’t want to turn off listeners, so her program has a “no snark rule.” 

But can science communicators go too far when trying to appeal to a broader audience? Darlene Cavalier is a television journalist who runs a popular site called Science Cheerleader and is a leading advocate for citizen science. At first “cheerleader” was just a metaphor, but as her site became better known, Cavalier began to hear from professional cheerleaders who were also scientists and engineers. Cavalier organized a performance of 13 scientist-cheerleaders at the 2010 National Science and Engineering Festival to promote science, posting a video to her site that quickly went viral. When she showed her video at the Science Online conference, the results were controversial. While some appreciated the video’s “stereotype busting” depiction of attractive women who were also scientists, others wondered whether objectifying women in skin-tight clothes was a healthy image for science to adopt for itself.

It was a repeat of a controversy that had played out on blogs in November when the video was first unveiled. Physicist Greg Gbur summed up the discussion on his blog. While many bloggers were supportive of a program that might get girls interested in science, Suzanne “Zuska” Franks argued that Science Cheerleaders probably only served a privileged few “who are already interested in science/engineering but who are afraid it will make them look like fat lesbians.”

At the conference, one of the attendees said that while she was sympathetic to the idea of getting girls involved in science, she could never have been a cheerleader herself; she “always hated those skinny bitches.” If science is something that typically appeals to self-described “geeks,” then does it make sense to use “popular” kids to promote science? Cavalier thinks so. She says that several women approached her at ScienceOnline to tell her that they, too, had been cheerleaders in high school but were now scientists or science communicators. Many of them had concealed their cheerleading past because they felt their colleagues wouldn’t take them seriously. Given the gender imbalances that continue to pervade science and technological careers, the manner in which women and girls are introduced to science can make a big difference. But as biologist Zen Faulkes observed after watching the Science Cheerleader video and reading some background information, “we scientists need evangelists, and I don’t doubt for one second that these women are wonderful evangelists.” Previously he had a strong dislike for cheerleaders, and these videos opened his mind a bit. Perhaps they might do the same for others who thought they didn’t like science.

Dave Munger is editor of ResearchBlogging.org, where you can find thousands of blog posts on this and myriad other topics. Each week, he writes about recent posts on peer-reviewed research from across the blogosphere. See previous Research Blogging columns »


Originally published January 19, 2011

Tags communication community public perception

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