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.

About gaussling

Gaussling is a senior scientist in the chemical business. He occasionally breaks glassware and has been known to generate new forms of hazmats. Gaussling also digs aerospace, geology, and community theatre. View all posts by gaussling

26 responses to “On the pitfalls of science outreach to the public

  • Neil

    Great post Gaussling, hope it gets read really widely.

    Have you seen this post in a similar-ish vein http://solarsaddle.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/how-to-make-chemistry-look-dumb/ from Andrea Sella (chemist at University College London who is pretty handy at flash-bang demos himself)?

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  • Paul

    In the past month, there has been a lot of sentiment expressed on chemistry blogs that we need to do a petter job engaging the public. I don’t think the importance of “beating the drum” can be underestimated. While it might be depressing on some level (e.g., scientific merit), we need to use whatever handle we can grasp to bang home the idea that chemistry is important and worthy of public/taxpayer support.

    Now, what the hell is the chemical equivalent of black holes?

  • gale

    How to put this politely? Gaussling, have you considered that your audience’s lack of interest might have something to do with the manner of presentation and finidng the sweet spot of neither talking over their heads nor condescending to them? Are there ways in which you could have better made your talk relatable to their lives? Did you try metaphors? Visual aids? Demonstrations? Group participation? Just wondering.

    OTOH, other than making a living at it, I’ve fallen completely out of love for Science. I dumped him and am having a wild affair with Art. These days, science cannot be extracted from its funding mechanism, and the results of most research can be predicted based on who funded it. I hate that it has become so politiczed. Or perhaps it was always so. At least Art admits to being subjective. At least he admits to the limits of understanding. So too a good researcher, but that seems rare these days and I am sick of hearing phrases like “the science has been settled.”

    • gaussling

      My ability to communicate or lack therein is always an issue and cannot be cleanly factored out. I might have been overly pedantic or speaking at a level that was too high. But I never claimed to be Mr Rogers. I also felt some responsibility as a member of the applied science community to comport myself in a manner consistent with reality. In other words, I wanted kids to see and hear what one scientist looked and sounded like. I spoke of the importance of using language and of clear writing. I spoke of being persistant and of understanding the basics.

      To what end I don’t know.

      I did see you flirting with Art. You kept flashing him that impish grin. The question I have is, does Art know what he is in for?

  • lbf

    You know what? I think you are spot on..we are a group of freaks who enjoy dabbling in the minutia of things. Last night, I was watching NOVA where they were describing various small and nano technologies (a great episode, by the way). My wife, sitting next to me on the bed, said after about 1/2 hour had passed: (paraphrasing) how can you watch this stuff you weirdo!! Yet, I suffer through her nightly viewing of TMZ!!

    • gaussling

      I watched the same thing with my wife. She got up and went to bed. Naturally I sat there and watched it. Fascinating.

      • lbf

        My wife kicked me out of our bed and made me watch it downstairs. Meanwhile she was fiddling around on her laptop (made possible by the very chips that NOVA was describing!)

  • Joanne

    Thank you for the post. Sometimes I wonder when my enthusiasm will wane, too. It is difficult to continually engage the lay public when you are a cell biologist because cells don’t explode or suck the universe into a miniscule of nothingness. :) Gummy bears will run out of ways to explain science, make-up has a fascination, too, but you have to go deeper to appreciate what it really does for you.

    I love the analogy “Because they didn’t want to work for their insights. They just wanted to pick through it like a box at the flea market.”

    I review popular science books in my stubborn insistence that science is not just all 30 second flashes and there is so much more about science that can be cultivated by a certain level of concentration and stick-to-itiveness that is marginally replicated by taking 15 hours to read a book now and again.

    Happy to be introduced to your blog. Oddly enough, my latest video is recommending three chemistry books. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3D8pFwSIu-o
    My next post is about the IYC2011 and will refer my readers to your site and your comprehensive list of engineering blogs.

    • gaussling

      Hey, I saw the video. Really nice work. I wish you the best of luck with this.

      I have been toying with the idea of doing video posts myself. There are lots of possibilities with this medium, but it would not work if it were just a video recitation of me reading a post. Given that we live in the video age, it would be a shame not to try it out.

      Th’ Gaussling

  • Joanne

    Um, I mean chemistry blogs (Chemical Engineering was in the corner of my eye as I typed).

  • Michael Meadon

    But there’s a complication: often the few who *do* become Ph.D scientists get inspired by exactly such public outreach. Even the superficial kind. (Star Trek, anyone?). If one of the kinds asking incessantly about black holes ended up a cosmologists because you told her something cool that really inspired her, isn’t that worth quite a bit?

    • gaussling

      In the end my cynical condition is neither desirable or sustainable. I’ll relent and get back on the horse and do my bit for science and humanity.

      • Michael Meadon

        Glad to hear it :-)… If all you achieve is 1 out of 10,000 decides to become a scientist and half of the rest conclude “science is pretty cool”, that’s worth it.

        I didn’t say this originally, but I do sympathize btw. IT reminds me of a scene in West Wing where the president wants to mention Schumpeter’s creative destruction in a speech, but his advisors all balk (“more and better jobs!”) and he screams “What? Must I explain it to them with fucking crayons??”

  • Al Dove

    Its a struggle, to be sure, but it’s up to us to persist in reaching across the “understanding divide” to help the public get why what we do is cool. I’ve had a few realisations about this, including that THEY WILL NOT MEET YOU HALF WAY. YOU are the one who has to find a way to engage, to get through and (ultimately) to educate. It’s not fair but there it is. The reason is that you have access to all of their knowledge and language, plus a whole other magisterium of knowledge and language that they DON’T have. They CAN’T meet you half way because they lack the knowledge base and language tools. On the other hand, not reaching out is not an option, because what’s at stake is only the entire funding system. Look how much NASA gets for their exploding stars and black holes, compared to bacterial genetics or new slug species in the deep sea. The truth is that the public funds what they find engaging, and its up to us to do the engaging, however wearisome it may be.

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  • Ruth Seeley

    As an English major who’s always freely described herself as a literary snob, I can’t help but think an equivalent post would be for me to write something scathing about the worst of genre fiction – romance novels, say, with their formulaic characters and plots, only the names and settings changing and to say that they’re bad for literacy in general and literature in particular. But in fact, most of the avid and discerning readers I know have taken the opposite approach when raising their children. They haven’t banned Harry Potter, they’ve encouraged their children to read something and have rewarded them when they’ve tackled books that are long if not necessarily good. I often read things I know I’m not going to like precisely so I can stay informed not only about what’s popular but about what’s not good about it. The next step is to lead the way by showing a better example of essentially the same thing. And in the hands of the right communicator – one who’s truly gifted – even space dust can be interesting. So I agree with what Al Dove says about having to go way more than half the way. It’s a lot of work. It’s an amazing amount of work, really. But when you’re actually successful? There’s nothing more rewarding.

    • gaussling

      Hi Ruth,

      I can’t dispute your words- I agree with you.

      I was equally burned out by excessive contact with other volunteers with whom I was tired of being around. When I hit 50 a couple years ago a great and overpowering motivation swept me away. I realized that a person’s heartbeats were just too precious to burn up around difficult or annoying people. I got enough of that in my day job. When the satisfaction is gone in volunteer work, or if your participation is restricted by problematic co-workers, it’s time to move on.

  • Chris P

    After 30+ years in science education I’ve learned a few lessons from scientists and the “public.” There’s no such thing as “general public.” Any audience consists of people with different levels of interest and understanding. Get off your high horse, learn something about your audiences, and start relating to them as individuals. Showing people that you care about your work and about them will usually garner positive responses. Making your topic relevant by connecting to their lives or connecting them to yours will spark interest. And don’t do it because you should. Who wants to listen to someone doing his/her “bit for science and humanity”? Appreciate the people taking their time to listen to you and they’ll likely reciprocate. Science needs good scientists. The rest of us need caring, enthusiastic scientists who patiently share.

    • gaussling

      I think I’ll let the long term polyannas like yourself carry on with this march. I’ll ride my high horse to a quiet location and enjoy the view apostate and without the crowds. It’s very liberating.

      The rest of us need caring, enthusiastic scientists who patiently share.

      I suppose if you knew me you would already know that I’m happy to share all day long. It is the incurious that I have no time to merely entertain.

  • gaussling

    CHris P;

    Are you a K-12 educator or college educator? Are you presently retired after your 30+ years? What are you presently doing in science outreach?

  • Chris P

    I’m an independent science writer and educator working mostly on informal ed projects (aquariums, etc.) and on online ed/outreach resources for scientists and educators. Not retired… will be working till I drop probably.

  • melvin Goldstein

    Numbers are the Supreme Court of science. However Godel proved that we may not prove everything. There are Physics Foibles!!

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