Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Does Science have an Image Problem?

In your mind, what does a scientist look like?

Chances are, you’ll think of an older man or woman in a lab coat, using big words and talking in a cold tone.  However, for someone who works with other scientists every day, I wonder if this stereotype is in fact hurting both the communication of exciting science or promoting critical and rational thinking.
Contrary to the stereotype, this is not a typical scientist.


There is a war of sorts going on – it’s a war of words, of the mind and most importantly of education. A large cohort are doing their very best to promote belief over scientific method, that thinking is effectively toxic, and that if you dare question your faith, you will give up your spot in a glorious, rose-tinted afterlife, or won’t be cured of your ailments.  The reasons as to why people promote religion over science, or ‘alternative’ therapies over actual medicine are many, but it all starts at education, usually at a young age. This agenda is about trying to push aside science in favour of promotion of non-scientific concepts as the truth. However unscientific these claims are, much of the misinformation and blind belief is touted as ‘scientific’ in order to take all the benefit of the connotations of calling something science, without it standing up to any of scrutiny of the scientific method.

But in examining the problem of the promotion woo over science, and faith over critical thought, the question of why people actually fall for the misinformation almost has been overlooked in favour of arguing that critical thinking and promotion of reason is more beneficial, and attempts to correct the misinformation.  The reason is quite simple. Think about the stereotype of the scientist, that cold factual type with who writes reports and performs meticulous experiments.  People don’t like facts, they don’t like large words and most of all, there appears to be an endemic of non-thinking going on.  The woo-meisters, the evangelists and those that peddle nonsense have a brilliant skill – the ability to appeal to emotion and to actively discourage any form of critical thought. People like emotion, they like passion, they like personable, warm words.  People also like they like the promise of a better life and rock solid promises. These are all things that delusional belief promise, whether it a God who loves you or a so-called miracle treatment for a debilitating condition.

The Creationists, the homeopaths, the psychics – they all use a language which doesn’t say much but that is warm, and people fall for it.  It is the language that promises happiness and health and therefore appeals to what people like.  However in standing up to the mis-information and personable language used to peddle nonsense, scientists tend to get angry. This response is totally understandable – scientific fact is being thrown out in favour of lies and unsupported. Scientists are under attack by those who have little understanding of the scientific method but regardless declare scientific knowledge wrong, and then peddle false claims in the place of scientific knowledge.  To have one’s credibility and life’s work dismissed is definitely worth of defence and the misinformation needs to be corrected. However, in combination with  the cold stereotype of the scientific boffin, an angry response to the warm personable language of those who peddle the misinformation and false hope may not be the most productive approach.  Take Richard Dawkins – when I hear him speak, I see him as a purveyor of fact, a promoter of science, and extremely articulate. However, quite a number of people I know find him arrogant. Is this because he is intelligent? Or that he argues from a logical and rational standpoint? Or is it because he is a scientist who has a Oxford accent? Or that he speaks in facts and is angered by misinformation? I think part of the problem is that people see scientists as being people out of touch with the ‘real’ world, and that intelligent endeavour is dangerous or should be feared.  Furthermore, based on the responses against the personable, warm language, scientists are angry, cold people who don’t understand the human condition. As for science, well science doesn’t have the miracle cure, or it is too hard, or it is too boring, therefore, people turn back to the lovely warm promises of woo and faith.

The misnomer is this – scientists are warm, they are passionate, they are friendly, some are even young, some play musical instruments, some like football and I even know a number of them who are keen about the show “Glee”. Scientists are just like anybody else; but we need the rest of the world to know this. We need to stand up, not in anger that mis-information is being spread, but rather promote that science is full of people from all walks of life and that science isn’t just for boffins in lab coats. Science affects everyone one of us everyday and scientists should be focused on the personal relationship everyone has with science.  Science is amazing, it is awe-inspiring, and most of all, we all have a relationship with it. Thinking for oneself opens up ways to looking at information in a new light, and allows people to learn how to look at the world rationally. Even with reasoning, rational thought and skepticism, the universe is still a crazy, unbelievable, majestic place.

Intelligence, critical thinking and questions should be warmly embraced, not shunned. Discussion should be based on reason, not appeals to emotion, and facts are not cold – facts come about due to the journey of discovery. This is what science is, and this is the image we should be promoting. I’ve spent many days seeing science in action – everyday scientists are making a difference, and filling in the gaps about what we know about the world as well as uncovering totally new questions to be answered.  Science evolves and it is ever changing.  Showing people this incredible side of science, and some of the wonderful and diverse individuals that have chosen the pursuit of scientific knowledge is probably one of the key ways the scientific community can polish its image.  This will hopefully help in inspiring the minds of children and adults, and allow them  to understand and even enjoy science, and in turn this will enlighten people about how interesting the scientific method actually is. The text of the message is not only important but maybe more importantly is how we deliver it. The delivery will go a long way in preventing the continued blind belief in false promises  and a very long way to winning the war on misinformation.

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