On the pitfalls of science outreach to the public
There was a time when I cared about spreading the gospel of the periodic table. I was a believer in the inherent good of knowledge and in chemistry in particular. I knew in my heart that the examined life was a good life and that knowledge of chemical phenomena could enrich ones life greatly. And for me it has for the most part.
I flamed out a few years ago in the public outreach of science. I was involved in an organization that had some astronomy equipment that was available for public use. I was enthusiastic about science and gave a lively talk that was often well received by members of the public. I had been an astronomy hobbiest since I was a boy.
But over time, I began to see that a sizeable fraction of people weren’t really too interested at all. Parents there with their kids usually just sat there waiting for it to be over. The kids, usually boys, wanted to hear about black holes. In fact, we could have gone “All Black Holes All the Time” and could have kept the attendance up. All people wanted to hear about was black holes and aliens, it seemed. On occasion there would be some interest in eclipse phenomena. But how fascinating can a shadow be, anyway? It’s just a shadow people. Let’s move on.
Being bored with black hole talk (or my superficial understanding of them) I began to talk about matter and how it seems to have come about. I read about nucleosynthesis and stellar novae phenomena. I read about the insanely energetic Wolf-Rayet stars and tried to introduce the matter side of things. People would politely sit and listen for a while, but eventually the squirming kids would blurt out a request to hear about black holes. So, I would relent and give the canned spiel. Nobody was interested in hearing about matter. I was on a fools errand.
Space science people and astronomers would come by now and then and speak about star stuff to the community during an open-house. I became increasingly impatient with this and began to ask questions about the star stuff. What the hell is it? What do you mean when you use the word “ice”.
I finally realized two things. That I’m not an amateur astronomer and I have no interest whatever in being one. And I was bone-weary of the public. I was not indifferent to the public. Rather, I was annoyed by the public and had no business standing in front of them trying to sell science because, in the end, I just didn’t care if they got it.
Why was I annoyed? Because they didn’t want to work for their insights. They just wanted to pick through it like a box at the flea market. Screw ‘em, I thought. The ones who go home and continue their search will eventually get the prize. That I could respect. The rest are out of luck.
I realized that as a PhD scientist I was a member of a small group of actual freaks who were set well apart from the rest of the bell curve in at least one regard. The willingness to dive into deep and prolonged study on really basic concepts and phenomena. I imagine a similar situation for a sculptor facing a block of marble. The answer is in there, but you have to work to bring it out.
All this being said, what about chemistry? I have done some classic demonstrations for the public. People like watching flash-bang demo’s or other fairly superficial displays. But what everybody wants to see is razzmatazz. The underlying principles are where the deep and meaningful beauty is. But this is to be enjoyed by the few who are willing to hike deep into the bush for a glimpse of it. I can’t say for the life of me if my talks and demos made a whit of difference to anyone beyond simple entertainment.
Fact is, society doesn’t need a lot of actual scientists at any given time. It doesn’t even need too many to be even moderately educated in science. But we do need to provide opportunity for some to learn and grow in scientific concepts. I’m inclined to think that those who show a natural interest in science are the ones we should take care to educate and cultivate. Most people can lead a perfectly happy life without knowing the work of Newton or Einstein, Seaborg or Woodward. For most of human history, this has been the case. Yet we got to the moon and developed the microprocessor.
The real motivation behind broad science education is in the matter of public funding. We need public funding to support the scientific culture. The public needs to feel that it is important to justify the expenditure. So, to keep up appearances, we beat the drum.