It's certainly true. Adult science literacy has tripled since I was an adult, science scores have gone up for American kids every year for the last decade and the American science audience alone is 65 million people.
But the public don't know who any current scientists are. They can name Einstein. The public are certainly not stupid and, obviously, most scientists are not in the public relations business. I contended in my meeting with the advertising folks that science content for the broad audience was simply not very good - Science On Television needs a 2.0 also. The folks in the room could only list 'Nova' as a television show but not who hosted it. They knew Alan Alda hosted something but not what it was called. They remembered "Cosmos".
Scientists may also be living in the glory days of "Nova" and "Cosmos" (Fox is even doing a "Cosmos" sequel with Neil Degrasse Tyson) and in the meantime, the public is watching shows about the science of ghosts. Due to that, the NSF will contend it must spend billions of dollars on STEM projects rather than funding transformative science projects.
Young people are inspired by names, not taxpayer dollars. Yes, young people in the 1970s were inspired by space but that was because they knew the names and faces of the people going there. When technology became the NASA fetish instead, like with the Space Shuttle, young people only learned names when one of them blew up. Astronomers don't get this, or they at least vocally deny it, but Hubble pictures generate very little excitement. However, if you put Carter Emmart, the astrovisualization guy for Hayden Planetarium, in front of a group of people of any age and have him zip them through the universe, that is darn exciting to people.
We can't blame networks for a lack of television science content any more than we can blame CNN for having no science department - in both cases the content has been pretty terrible. Enough with the 'look how weird physics is' stuff and tell a story. How is it that "Pawn Stars" and "American Pickers" can make an interesting narrative about people desperate for money and junk yards but with all of the interesting science out there, no one can do the same?
Well, we can, but there are two aspects of science culture at work holding that back. One is covered by Cornelia Dean in hew Times piece, where she interviews Dr. Vernon Ehlers, a physicist and Michigan Congressman who discusses the 'reverse snobbery' he saw. “You have these professors struggling to write their $30,000 grant applications at the same time there are people they would never accept in their research groups making $100-million decisions in the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy,” he said.
He's a Republican so he saw a lot more snobbery from the modern science community than most. Serious scientists are okay doing outreach, like here on Science 2.0, but participation in politics is something else entirely. They don't want to look like they are not objective. The problem with that approach is they leave the discourse to militant kooks who are overwhelmingly partisan by not participating.
Reverse snobbery may be one aspect but overt snobbery is the other. The AAAS, the NSF and the National Academy of Sciences are all trying to get scientists to run for public office, seemingly forgetting that it has little value in policy once they get there. U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu is a terrific physicist but his staunch advocacy of taxes on CO2 got him a job in the Obama administration and alienated 50% of the public as soon as he was selected. Insider efforts at outreach by the groups I mentioned are similar failures, because they want to convince a PhD to do something else. And sometimes PhDs then pressure each other; how many times have you heard a Ph.D. in microbiology not answer something basic about genetics because it is not 'their' field? You have a Ph.D. in biology, you can answer a genetics question, people.
Successful pop culture shows that get attention like the ones I mentioned above don't have Ph.D.s being jammed into uncomfortable roles, they have knowledgeable people who are good communicators. Getting the public engaged in science, culturally or politically, requires communication skill before a degree.
There are 5,000 Ph.D.s working as janitors right now and 8,000 waiting tables, a Ph.D. is not as special as a keen ability to communicate science. I think those organizations are focusing on the wrong things. We don't need to convince smart people who want to become doctors that they should become biologists and we don't need to convince researchers they should want to be politicians or host television shows, what we should do is get the best people with the best skills in those fields talking about science.
- End US Nationalism And Let Foreign-Born PhDs Stay
- Cosmos Ratings Are Not A 'Disaster' For Fox
- Obama's "Gainful Employment" Rules For Colleges And What It Means For Science
- STEM: In Academia There Is A Glut, But There Is A Shortage In The Corporate World
- 3 Reasons We Can Stop Spending $5 Billion To Recruit Scientists