A few days ago, searching for something completely different, I came across a post by John Hawks — The futility of science communication conferences — which I duly bookmarked. The real point of that, of course, was to remind myself to go and read the foundation post: Communication, Literacy, Policy: Thoughts on SciComm in a Democracy, by Rick Borchelt.1 It’s a beaut, and not just because it pushes all my confirmation bias buttons.
At issue is what “veteran science blogger Ed Yong” describes as the fate of all discussions of science communications: an EntMoot.
“Hours and hours to debate and agree upon the most basic things, while war rages around.”
And the causus belli? Who is responsible for the abysmal state of public literacy about science? Is it the scientists, who couldn’t communicate their way out of a paper bag? Is it the journos, who never understand that science is a process, not an end result in one of the big journals? Or their editors, ditto in spades?
Borchelt, who is, I think, still communications director for science at the U.S. Department of Energy, explains what I’ve always known:
[T]here is little evidence that anything we have done as science communicators since the end of World War II has moved the needle one mark on the science literacy scale.
He goes on, amusingly, and at length.
[W]e’ve poured lots of money in it and literacy hasn’t changed, we’ve gone through lean times with almost no funding and literacy hasn’t changed, science journalism has been in the catbird seat for a while and then in a tailspin for a decade and science literacy hasn’t changed, Bill Nye the Science Guy came and went on television and science literacy didn’t change, we’ve launched initiative after adult, informal science education initiative after initiative from NSF, NASA, NOAA and the rest of the known science funding universe and science literacy remains stubbornly low. And we continue to agonize over this.
What the data do support is that there is a minority — a large minority, granted, somewhere around 20 percent of the American public — that could be classified as “science attentive.” They seek out some kinds of science information proactively, most often on health-related matters. But the audience that we assume is there to read with joy and awe and optimism about the wonders of science writ large is, well … there isn’t one. Or at least there isn’t one large enough to write a check to do science writing or science communication on any kind of large scale. If willingness to pay for science content is any kind of indication, then adult Americans by and large would much rather watch Game of Thrones. Or Cait Jenner. Or soccer.
I strongly suspect that what Borchelt says of Americans is true of audiences everywhere, only the names would be different.
Why am I still exercised about this? When I was younger, I naively thought that if people had straightforward scientific information that they could understand, maybe with a little effort, their opinions about science would be based on facts. That is why I communicated science. I was wrong.
We need to face the facts that science is a low-salience issue for most Americans, Kim Kardashian is more salient, and very little we can ever do is going to change that. Wishing will not make it so. A legion of Carl Sagans will not make it so. A 40-page Tuesday Science Times delivered to your doorstep or to your iPad every week will not make it so. A mandatory two-hour block of science programming every night on the CW channel will not make it so. Adult Americans pay attention to science only when they think it directly affects them, not when we think they should pay attention. And their minds, lives, and careers are generally packed with plenty of other stuff that they think is more important. In no universe I know of will science out-compete this other stuff.
That’s just how it is. I wish it weren’t, but it is. Maybe I’m just being too negative, but I have a gut feeling that no amount of scicomm by practitioners or third parties is going to move the needle any further than Borchelt or I have seen it move over the past several decades. Sure, I personally would love to read more scientists’ writings, but I have not believed better communication will have any great impact on science literacy since the 1980s.
Now, where’s that one person in five who is science attentive?
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