An interesting report has wafted my way on the topic of science and interacting with the general public, although the report was actually more about scientists talking to journalists who then write stuff that the general public read.
It was contradicting a widely held view that scientists are loathe to speak to “the public”, either directly or via the medium of journalism and it has resurrected some thoughts of mine about the issue.
To a degree we are moving increasingly into a world dominated by specialists, and the old order of the gentleman scientist is passing away as topics become so incredibly arcane that it takes the specialist to firstly understand what is already known, then to be able to expand on that. Which I feel is a bit of a shame, as the old generalists were often able to leap between different fields and hence bring wider insights into science. Obviously, that is offset by the huge leaps forward made in the past 50 years by the specialists.
Anyhow, getting back on topic… I was reminded of a blog posting over on the Nature website by the Londonist’s M@, which certainly resonated with me at the time I read it. The comment dealt with the disconnect between how scientists try to explain what they do, and how artists often seem to live in a rarified atmosphere where words that look like English are uttered, but comprehension is denied to the layperson.
A scientist will expect a modicum of intelligence when explaining an issue, but will try to avoid too much jargon, and I can cope with their lectures. Indeed it is one of the key reasons I expanded my own diary into the events guide on this website – to share the wide range of interesting lectures that are available (often free) around London most weeks.
When I am compiling the listings, there seems to be three types of source I use.
- Detailed and useful
- Detailed and incomprehensible to the layman
- A headline and nothing else
Unsurprisingly, the first option is the one that gets written up on my events guide as I can be reasonably sure what it is about and that the language used probably won’t scare people. The second option sounds too technical and I won’t list them as I doubt that they would work for the average Joe with a casual interest in the topic. These are for students of the subject who have a detailed understanding of the issues, and as a layperson, I can’t always be that sure what they are about!
Option three is actually the most depressing one, as it usually applies to the smaller local community groups and makes it very difficult for me to promote their activities. Even when I contact some of them for more information, I rarely get anything usable. Which is a shame as there are some lectures that sound like they might be interesting, but I am just not sure.
However, if I try to read up art listings, I am totally baffled by the language used. They just don’t seem to want to appeal to the layperson with a casual interest in a subject who could be lured into learning more. Not to mention the very arty way that many art groups present their listings (single image in an email?), which makes converting them into something more usable a torturous process.
In conclusion, while I do despair at times of the dumbing down of science shows on television (glares at BBC2′s Horizon), the range of lectures around London are a wondrous resource that more than make up for the loss of decent TV programming. After a quiet summer, I am looking forward to a busy few months ahead listening to scientists who genuinely want to explain what they do, and explain it in a language that we curious lay people can understand.
Science and wine, what a perfect combination!