Science Outreach: Two Ends of the Spectrum

CokeMost readers are familiar with the term greenwashing in which certain companies use the jargon from the environmental movement on their label to boost sales. But meanwhile, with regards to packaging and/or manufacturing, they do not implement the ecological practices required to significantly cut waste and pollution.

The worst form of science outreach is actually science-washing. Science-washers make it seem like their sole objective is to enlighten people about the science surrounding an issue. But in reality they are more concerned with self-interest and/or some economic or political objective.  The world of science media is filled with little fires, issues that seem potentially threatening.  In some cases, science can tell immediately if they are staged. But science cannot always tell which of the real fires will die out by themselves and which ones will grow to be devastating. But the science-washer will act 100% certain when some inner belief or vested interest is threatened.

I have notes regarding a 7-year old Montreal Gazette newspaper article about the endocrine disruptor, bisphenol A (BPA). It started with the line, “Relax – food chemicals can’t hurt you.” That was one heck of a general assertion! Did the author, who is a well-known educator and media personality to this day,  forget things like the botulinum toxin, a chemical that can show up in food that hasn’t been preserved properly. Of course incidences of botulism are rare, but the compounds glucose, sucrose, sodium chloride and sodium nitrite are common additives and are far from being innocuous.

There are enough people out there who hate nuances. They will tolerate details as long as there is a clear-cut answer at the end of a short article. The author of The Gazette article did not disappoint. He totally dismissed the concerns about the particular endocrine disruptor. Unfortunately, he failed to mention that there were other compounds in its class, some far more powerful, and that even at that, he failed to look at the problem ecologically where, for example,  extremely low doses had effects on fish.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website currently(2020) states:

Human health effects from BPA at low environmental exposures are unknown. BPA has been shown to affect the reproductive systems of laboratory animals. More research is needed to understand the human health effects of exposure to BPA.

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Ed Elmos and the real Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver 

My criticism of his article was online. How he quickly found out about it was a mystery to me at the time, but the important thing is what he whined about. He said that the details I provided, although accurate, would have confused the public. Here was an educator forgetting the famous line from  Stand and Deliver based on a real-life outstanding teacher, Jaime Escalante who said, “Students will rise to the level of your expectations.”

I wish that article was an isolated incident. There are many people with academic credentials online who blur the line between science outreach and just straight-out public relations. For example, defenders of the health and ecological safety of glyphosate or Enlist Duo’s (glyphosate + 2,4-D and other additives), never get into the nuances. Try arguing with them. When they realize that you are not a communist, anti-vax, anti-science or even an activist, they will try persuade you with bizarre conspiracy theories that smear reputable journalists and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

So what does excellent science outreach look like? It looks like the Youtube series Sixty Symbols from the University of Nottingham.  These guys are the real McCoy. Why?  They are not trying to sell you nuclear power or a bigger particle accelerator or the misconception that science is the only way of acquiring knowledge. They are genuinely teaching you one way of looking at the world, and it’s obvious that they have put a lot of effort to step away from their research or other activities to make their knowledge more accessible. In one video by Phil Moriarty, I saw a completely original way of teaching the uncertainty principle.

An extended musical note versus a short one. The frequency range of the latter is wider. This is related to the uncertainty principle.

It is counter-intuitive but true that a short musical note (like the one created when you chug an electric guitar string to stop it from vibrating) has a wide frequency range. In contrast, if you whistle the same note for an extended period of time, there is just one frequency. Frequency and time are inversely proportional. The momentum of an atomic sized particle, which has significant wave properties, is a kind of spatial frequency. If the wavelength is short, like that of the abrupt musical note, there are a number of possibilities for momentum. If the wavelength is longer, the momentum is known with more certainty, but the particle’s exact location becomes much harder to pin down. It’s stretched like the extended whistle.

When the Nottingham physicists are asked about how well-prepared students are for university physics, they don’t get into a whining session. Given that they are genuinely committed to student-learning, they give constructive criticism. They point out that the topics covered by A-Levels physics teachers (in England) are adequate, but that the math courses are a bit broad in scope and exam-centered with not enough rigorous calculus. It is an important point that, if addressed, will help students as much as it will help professors. In contrast, those who do poor outreach rarely give useful tips. One particular individual, who went on to work for the front group ACSH, once criticized an article revealing that lots of science Nobelists are alumni of public high schools. Why? He worried about the bad impression it would make on private schools.

Authentic and quality outreachers are not afraid to show the human face of science. In Falsifiability and Messy Science, another Sixty Symbol video, ( maybe go for a coffee during the Master Class advertisement by Neil Tyson!) Phil Moriarty argues that there is no clear-cut definition of science. Different teams have different approaches. They don’t necessarily seek what’s falsifiable (a la Karl Popper), and are not always looking to verify hypotheses. They are often poking around, trying to find something.  And yet they still produce science that’s valuable and reproducible. Later, when he mentions that science, like all human behaviour, is not only determined by rational thought but by social context, the interviewer takes exception, “Aren’t you stoking the fires of people like climate change deniers?” Moriarty countered that although he looked at some of the evidence for man-caused climate change and found it strong, he is ultimately convinced of the phenomenon by having faith in specialists’ opinions.

Although Moriarty doesn’t delve into the issue, what’s relevant is that it’s also perfectly reasonable and necessary to consider conflicts of interest. What makes man-caused climate change increasingly convincing to the majority, is that it has far less hidden and/ or dubious motives than those of the skeptics. It is for the same reason that I take the President’s Cancer Panel seriously when they concluded in 2010:

“the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated” and strongly urged action to reduce people’s widespread exposure to carcinogens.


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.

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