Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What to do about public perception of science

From the comments on my last post, it's clear that there are some number of science types out there who view the situation as hopeless: the public is poorly informed and his bigger things to worry about; despite having direct evidence every day of the importance of science (ubiquitous computers, lasers, GPS, MRI, DNA testing) the public feels that science is somehow not relevant to their lives and finds even the basic concepts inaccessible; because there is no financial incentive for people to learn about science they won't; etc. While there is a grain of truth to these comments, there is plenty of evidence that is more hopeful. There is no question that certain science topics capture the public imagination: Mars rovers, using genetic technology to cure diseases or identify relationships between individuals or species, the LHC (talk about an effective marketing job, at least to some segment of the population).

Chad Orzel has many good things to say about what scientists can do to help improve the situation, and I won't repeat them here. If you are personally trying to do outreach, I do have one suggestion. Remember that people like a compelling story and interesting characters. The story can be a scientific one (Longitude), a personal one (Genius), or a large-scale drama (The Making of the Atomic Bomb), but it is possible to capture and hold people's attention on scientific subjects. I'm not suggesting that everyone should go out and try to write a popular book on science, but try to remember what makes the best of those books successful.


Aaron said...

I just read on MSNBC that Steven Chu is going to be named Energy Secretary. This could certainly help create a short-term interest in physics as people attempt to learn who Steven Chu is. Any thoughts on the selection?

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