The numbers bear me out - science literacy in adults has tripled since I went to college but even that was framed in a "it's not enough" context by some science writers and while there are 65 million people just in the US who are interested in science, the perception by scientists is that people don't care.
Prof. Chad Orzel at Scienceblogs reaffirms this point again. His outlook, and that of his peers on Scienceblogs, is fairly cynical about the knowledge of the public. But, refreshingly, he does not engage in the deficit thinking common to most when they talk about the public. He instead blames the culture of science itself.
Our entire academic system is set up to reward everything but talking to a broad public. At major research universities, teaching is something to be actively avoided as much as possible, particularly at the undergrad level.He has a point. Science 2.0 was founded due to widespread distrust of journalists by the public and distrust by scientists of journalists. Yet most scientists do not want to replace journalists, in that "I would rather light a candle than curse your darkness" sense. They are completely happy to complain about the darkness.
If you get a job somewhere other than a research university or a national lab, people within the field will cock their heads sideways when you tell them, like a dog hearing an odd noise. Actively seeking to be at a smaller school that gives greater weight to teaching is often regarded like some sort of character flaw, and forget about outreach to the general public. Too much involvement in education and outreach activities is often looked at as a sign that you can't handle "real" science.
Scientists are happy that the NSF funds STEM outreach, for example, but most don't want to do it. Try living in northern California and getting someone - anyone - to do one of those Science Cafe type events. It's not a knock on scientists - when I started Science 2.0, I had no media experience, no science pedigree, not even a mockup of what this site could look like, just a fuzzy concept that took a long time to explain, but I called up world-famous scientists and asked them to write for free and, by golly, they did it. I can't say enough about the generous, gracious nature of a large number of scientists and writers. Orzel has been writing for half a decade so clearly he is also an outreach guy.
But most scientists did not sign up for a science career to be advocates, they signed up to do creative work and transformative research. I get that. And many of the people who do science outreach are not doing it because they love science but rather because they hate something else - the plethora of science bloggers devoted to bashing religion and Republicans is testament to that. Orzel also advocates a more positive approach:
And support science education across the board, not just on the fun culture-war topics. It's not enough to make sure that the biology books have correct information about evolution, you also need to make sure that biology teachers have the resources they need to do their jobs.Hot button topics are easy; they generate pageviews and comments and 'fame'. But in the case of religion, they turn off 95% of the large audience and even 60% of scientists, and bashing Republicans is a loss of 50% of the people we need to be on the side of science when it comes to constructive policy decisions.
I'm not contending we need to make great researchers become great communicators or great teachers - like STEM efforts to convince smart people not to be doctors and instead be physicists it is cannibalism to distract from a strength.
But perhaps if researchers (and bloggers) could be a little more diverse, culturally and politically, there would be a lot more tolerance - including for careers that now get quiet derision, like corporate science and teaching.