What do people think of science?
What are the forces shaping those opinions?
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Science permeates modern life: technology like the microchip and the Internet has profoundly changed our relationship to information, while scientific endeavors like the Human Genome Project, the Large Hadron Collider, and the Hubble Space Telescope have challenged bedrock conceptions of our world and ourselves. Still, though the public consistently rates careers in science as prestigious, many people continue to feel distant from science and scientists. They and their work appear confusing, opaque, difficult. Only by understanding why science is perceived in this way and how those perceptions may be changing, can science fare better in the court of public opinion.
Claudia Dreifus, award-winning journalist whose interviews with scientists regularly appear in the New York Times
How has talking with so many capable researchers and learning about their lives changed your own perceptions of science and scientists?
For one thing, it's been remarkable to be in the middle of one of the greatest revolutions in human history, a revolution not created by people barricading the streets, but by scientists repetitively trying things over and over again and using their brainpower to solve difficult problems. Scientists tend to be nonconformists. They tend to be very original. And they make great sacrifices for their work. If you saw this in an artist you'd say, "But of course! Artists sacrifice, artists are driven!" In fact, scientists have the same kinds of minds as great artists.
So why do so many people in our culture have such dismal views of science?
Well, everyone starts off liking science. What kid doesn't like animals and rocks and dinosaurs? Yet by the time they're 15, many of the kids who could tell you about every type of dinosaur are failing biology. If science is badly taught in K-12, you're not going to have a friend of science later on. The problems with college science education are the same problems of higher education, in general. Teaching isn't really valued. Research is everything.
So should there be more emphasis on teaching and communication when scientists are trained?
Yes. People within the academic culture, in general, do not know how to speak to the public. And that's not only scientiststhat's English professors, too. Some of the political problems the scientific community encountered in the past decade had to do with scientists not getting out into the public square to tell their stories. I think scientists realize this has to change, but I'm not sure they know how. The short answer is: Keep it simple. Interviewed by Lee Billings
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The Fundamentals: Public Perception
Posted November 20, 2008
Originally appeared in Seed 19