The exact reason I’d had at the time for typing “define:academia” into google now escapes me, but fortunately it’s irrelevant. The second definition that turned up was:
Academia: A chronic disease characterized by a compulsion to write lengthy specialized treatises in unintelligible vocabularies, for the purpose of rising in the esteem of those similarly afflicted.
I agree that it’s pretty funny. But perhaps it’s more than just a joke. Like many good jokes, I think it has an ounce of insight at its heart. It’s painting a picture of a certain demographic that separates itself from the general public. A subgroup that only interacts with itself by talking over the heads of “regular” people. Of course, I don’t believe this is the truth; it’s a stereotype, and everyone makes fun of stereotypes. But I think it’s a stereotype that deserves a bit more attention because stereotypes exaggerate differences. Stereotypes are the product of a population’s struggle to make sense of a subgroup it doesn’t understand.
The scientific community, of course, has several stereotypes stapled to it. They portray us as awkward antisocial nerds, absent minded brains dressed in lab coats separated from “real life”, or even mad scientists. Look at the picture to the right. That is how a large chunk of the population sees us. This is not a picture present in the front of their minds, but it’s surely a picture that many construct in their subconscious when they encounter a scientist.
These characters and themes saturate the media. This is understandable. Who doesn’t like a story about a kooky scientist? Some examples include: Frankenstein, Professor Frink (from the Simpsons), and most recently, the crew from the TV show, The Big Bang Theory. The problem with this saturation is that it tends to reinforce the barrier between reality and stereotype. Clifford from Asymptotia writes:
My point is not that they get the types wrong… just that there are more “types” that hardly ever get an airing. My central thesis is that we’ll never get far in improving public appreciation and understanding of science if its practitioners are constantly portrayed as weird and part of an elite class of strange people.
So…why is this important, you ask? Well, I think that it’s important to deepen public understanding of science and the only way this will happen is if the public can relate to scientists. As it stands, not all, but too much of the general public has a deeply ingrained skepticism about scientific research. The paramount example of this is the recent ridiculousness about the LHC destroying the world. The very fact this has spawned so much media attention, in my opinion, speaks volumes about public trust of scientists. Take this excerpt from Time:
Critics of the LHC say the high-energy experiment might create a mini black hole that could expand to dangerous, Earth-eating proportions. [ … ] Last March, two American environmentalists filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Honolulu seeking to force the U.S. government to withdraw its participation in the experiment. The lawsuits have in turn spawned several websites, chat rooms and petitions — and they have led to alarming headlines around the world (Britain’s Sun newspaper on Sept. 1: “End of the World Due in 9 Days”).
It seems as though many members of the general public would rather listen to, and believe, a few quacks rather than the world wide network of specialists in the area who also, by stunning coincidence, live on this planet! Scientists are people too.
So, what should we do? Create our own TV show as part of a PR campaign that portrays scientists as “regular Joes”? Well, we could, but who would watch it? As scientists we would probably do better to put our efforts towards something we have more control over. Some have advocated that, so called, Open Access would be a tactic to create greater familiarity with science in the public. The idea is that by using the Internet as a tool to provide free access to scientific papers, the public could gain a better knowledge and appreciation of science because of the ease at which one could acquire the information. I should mention that there are more reasons for moving to an open access framework of scientific publishing, however, any feasible implementation of open access for the purpose of promoting science to the general public can’t just consist of giving out scientific papers for free. Chad of Uncertain Principles explains it nicely:
I’ve never been all that fired up about the idea of Open Access publishing, for the simple reason that I’ve seen the physics arxiv. I have a Ph.D. in physics, and I can’t make heads or tails of 80% (or more) of what’s on there. [ … ] I don’t really think that the free access to preprints will have any hugely transformative effect on the general public, because the knowledge base required to read any of those papers is so large and specialized.
John Willinsky of UBC gave a nice talk (video here) at the Science in the 21st Century conference about Open Access publishing. He mentions two things people require to learn: motivation and context. Wikipedia has many articles written up nicely that provide references to reputable outside sources and these sources actually get huge numbers of hits due to Wikipedia. But unfortunately many of these sources are inaccessible by the public. The public already has motivation, but giving access to these sources is not enough in and of itself (it’s a start). The public also needs context; background information given to them about the topic. The Public Knowledge Project seems to be a good start to providing both access and context in a transparent manner. It provides some tools to facilitate user acquisition of outside information (word definitions, cross references, etc.). Here’s a link to their demo journal.
But, of course, I can’t leave out another obvious source of scientific information and context: scientific blogs! The beauty of blogs is that they are likely to be written in a layman friendly manner. In fact, I think blogs have many attributes that allow them to engage a general audience. For one, the informality and personality that characterizes many blog posts show that scientists are people too. They also allow direct and immediate feedback from readers, which is as close as you can get to raising your hand in a classroom, without the classroom. Most importantly, however, science blogs are most likely to be maintained by scientists that are truly motivated to share their knowledge with the public. I think this is really the major key to bridging the gap. As researchers, we spend years of work achieving a high level of specialization in our field. We are driven. So why not share with the public the very thing which drives us: our intense curiosity about the inner workings of our world; its origins, its subtle mechanics and its mysteries. Scientists, like all people, have a passion. If we can communicate that passion then we create a different kind of context; why we do what we do. I think that to a person who truly understands this, we will seem a lot more human.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” — Einstein
Edit: For a nice post that deals more specifically with increasing popularity of science blogs, see GrrlScientist’s post here. For an open access journal article that talks about blogs bridging the gap between academia and the public, go here. (Both links via Uncertain Principals).
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