Science Outreach is Alive and Well

indexTrying to explain why Canadians’ perception of science is not as favorable as it can be,  a scientist on CBC’s Cross-Canada Checkup blamed it on himself and on the rest of the scientific community. He claimed that scientists do not engage in sufficient science outreach. What an odd thing to say! And yet I have heard that unfounded complaint before.

Here is some evidence to the contrary.

Walk into any public library and you will find several shelves filled with popularizations in every scientific discipline, and a fair percentage of those books such as Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series are written by researchers. Many of those scientists may be in the twilight of their careers, but that does not make them less qualified to communicate with the public. There are also younger and active scientists who maintain blogs or youtube channels, and although some may not find the time for such a medium, it’s been my experience that most respond to emails about their research.

Every week on CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, scientists share their latest endeavors . With the help of the show’s producers and host, the jargon is kept to a minimum to make things understandable. The British Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation have comparable quality programs such as Crowd Science and Ockham’s Razor, both of which involve active researchers. Even in pre-World-Wide-Web days, university science departments held free public lectures, which are still ongoing. In addition, accessible to anyone with an internet connection are free introductory and first year undergraduate online courses in earth sciences, chemistry, biology and physics at and at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Other institutions such as the University of Waterloo specifically reach out to physics and chemistry teachers through their Chem13 News newsletter and the Perimeter Institute, respectively.

We can extend the list by adding popular science magazines such as Scientific American and Natural History which still have articles directly written by researchers; television programs such as Nature of Things and Nova who consult scientists; science museums such as the Exploratorium and the Boston Museum of Science and Technology who collaborate with outreaching professionals; and NASA’s astronomical efforts to educate the public. And if my list of examples seems to exclude certain continents, consider the long list of researchers involved in Science Circus Africa.  It is a pioneering science-outreach project that brings fun-filled science exhibits, shows and teacher workshops to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Malawi.

So why do we have a persisting belief that scientists in general don’t do enough outreach? Prejudice, if we borrow a razor-sharp definition from a recent Philosophy Now editorial, “is a preliminary opinion that is mistaken for a final conclusion.” In the same way that people of a certain ethnicity are not immune from prejudices that do not favor their native culture, scientists can also hold mistaken beliefs about their own kind.

OSCAt the root of our discussion is last year’s (August 2017) Ontario Science Center’s Canadian Science Attitude Research poll. Leger’s online panel was used, and they interviewed 1,514 Canadians. (A probability sample of the same size would yield a margin of error of 2.5%, 19 times out of 20). The poll unfortunately revealed that 75% of Canadians believe that “scientific findings can be used to support any opinion” and 43% believe that scientific findings themselves are “a matter of opinion”.

Source: National Audubon Society

Almost half of our citizens, 47%, believe that the science behind global warming is still unclear. If you consider what the poll reveals about Canadians’ sources for confirming scientific resources —-only 44% rely on scientists and professors, while 50% rely on the internet, media and family—that could be the crux of the problem. The voices of scientists and professors on the internet, in the media and within their families are often overshadowed, not because scientists don’t do enough outreach, but because their voices are largely outnumbered by those of non-scientists. Special interest groups and the general population can easily express themselves online, dominate comment threads and publish blogs and websites. And when a minority of scientists engages in disingenuous outreach, if they become effective, it’s only because their opinions resonate with political and economic viewpoints. If quality-science outreach is like the voice of a songbird amid the noise of major highway traffic, all we have to do is get away from the road.