Monday, April 09, 2007

My Two Cents Worth

... on the Great Framing Debate.

I've been reading the heated (and sometimes outraged) discussion in ScienceBlogs and other sites. The question under consideration, as I understand it, is whether scientists have been at fault in their communication of science topics to the general public; whether (or not) they need to re-package their output.

And I would like to add my tiny voice to the racket. Now, I am not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV, although if I'd had my "druthers", I would have, should have become a microbiologist. Too late now. But I have always read science books and news, and now, blogs. So, as an interested lay person, with a few decades of history to remember, I think I have something to say.

Brian Larnder, of Primordial Blog, is dead on, in my opinion. He writes,

"After all the dust has settled and the ruffled feathers put back in place, the only valid thing that will come out of this whole sorry mess is the point that scientists need to somehow become better at getting their message out to the public. Most would agree, but I think the thing that everyone is missing is that it is not the messengers, but the message that the public has a problem with."
Note that bolded part. (His bolding.) I repeat; it is not the messengers, but the message that the public has a problem with.

Take it through history, as I remember it. I grew up in the 1940s, 1950s. "Science", back then, was almost miraculous; people's voices changed when they said, "Scientists say ..." It was the age of the "miracle drugs", antibiotics and hormones. Everything that ailed you would eventually be fixed with these two, it was thought. "Science" would give us speed, communication, dialogue; in short, a chance at peace. As long as we steered clear of the "Atom bomb" and then the "H-bomb", but that was science, too. "Science" held our life or death in its gloved hands.

It was the age of advertisers donning lab coats, of "9 out of 10 doctors recommend ..." It was the heyday of Popular Science magazine, full of drawings of futuristic car/airplane hybrids and walk-on-water boats. Science was where it was "at".

And people listened, and learned.

Then came Sputnik. Remember that? The Russians putting the first satellite into space? I was in high school at the time, taking Math and Physics and Chemistry because they were fun. But I was the only girl in Math or Physics; the other girls took typing and "Home Ec."

Sputnik changed all that. Suddenly the push was on to train "scientists"; to out-do the Russians, of course. As many as possible were encouraged to consider a career in science. Even girls.

And scientists were courted and praised and invited to "give a talk". We talked DNA at parties, quantum physics in church. (Oh, yes, the latest in science was co-opted to spice up the sermons.)

Fast-forward to today.

We have learned that science has not fulfilled all our dreams. Life is still hard. The bugs are resistant to our antibiotics. The atom hasn't killed us all yet, but it has given us Love Canal and Chernobyl. They tell us that the toys they gave us will poison us, that the flu season will bring new super-bugs, that the oil will run out and the temperature will go up.

This is not what people wanted to hear. "Science" is no longer reassuring. There are no more "miracle drugs".

So they have stopped listening. Or wanting to listen. Better to sing happy songs about God's love, and learn "The Secret". Better to get the latest cell phone and download ever more new songs and pictures. Or hear the trumped-up "intimate secrets" of the no-name-brand celebrity of the day.

Don't talk to them about "science". They will call you "elitist" and "in the pay of ...". They will not invite you to "give them a talk". Not any more, they won't. It's not fun anymore.

And that, in my opinion, is where the problem is; not with the communication skills, or lack of, of those earnestly expounding scientists.

My opinion only. Rant concluded.

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3 comments:

ordinarygirl said...

I came here via Brian's blog. I like how you expounded on the commentary with the history of how science has been perceived. Great post!

robin andrea said...

A great rant! I agree with you. The great promise has not come to fruition. We still suffer, and science has not only not solved the problem, but some has become part of it. Of course, The Secret won't really help, but it's easier than having to understand the details of science.

If I had my druthers, I would have studied biology as well.

Wanderin' Weeta said...

Welcome, ordinary girl!

I read your deconversion stories on your blog; very interesting.

Robin; the problem, or one of the problems, is that even though The Secret won't help, people want to believe that it will, whereas they don't believe any more that science can.