Monday, October 02, 2006

You need to be Perky, Shallow, and Superficial

It would be nice if we all could just work on things that we like, maybe even important, without having to justify or keep reporting on why we need to do these things. But we do not live in such an environment. Doing science is still a large, public endeavor that sometime requires huge amount of public funds. In tough times of restricted budget, scientists need to learn to sell their program, not only to funding agencies, but also to the politicians and the general public.

Unfortunately, the communicaton between scientists and the rest of the general public isn't as smooth and easy as it might appear. While scientists in general tend to emphasize on facts and details, the public on the other hand tends to be more persuaded by what I could call "fluff". It is not the substance that is important here, but rather style! Pat Dehmer, who at the time that I heard her spoke, was the US Dept. of Energy's Research Grant Manager (or something to that effect), once said that whenever she has to meet the politicians in Washington DC to talk around scientific research fundings, she has to be "shallow, perky, and superficial" to be able to get through to them and sell these research proposals. It isn't how important or what that research is about that is crucial, but rather how well one can sell it that may determine its fate.

So why is this happening?

Many recent surveys in the US of the public's opinion of science and technology reveal an interesting schizophrenia.[1] When asked about the importance and interest in science and technology, an overwhelming majority of the people surveyed indicated that they believe science and technology are important. However, this is where it gets interesting. A survey on the scientific literacy of the american public also reveals that the level of such literacy is quite low! For example, only HALF of the respondents to the survey knew that:

(i) the earliest humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs;
(ii) It takes Earth one year to go around the Sun;
(iii) Electrons are smaller than atoms;
(iv) Antibiotics do not kill viruses;
(v) Lasers do not work by focusing sound waves.

So on one hand, they show an overwhelming support for science. However, on the other, more than 25 percent believe in astrology, at least half of them believe in ESP, 1/4 believe in haunted houses and ghosts , and faith healing, etc. As one science reporter noted:

"Without a grasp of scientific ways of thinking, the average person cannot tell the difference between science based on real data and something that resembles science—at least in their eyes—but is based on uncontrolled experiments, anecdotal evidence, and passionate assertions. What makes science special is that evidence has to meet certain standards"

Now, what this means is that, while the public in general supports science, and scientific endeavors, they are doing it NOT because they are aware of what science is and what it does, but rather based on the PERCEIVED importance of science and technology. This is extremely important to keep in mind, because this implies that the support for science is built on an extremely shaky foundation. Such foundation can be easily eroded either via a mishap, or simply good "Public Relations" done by people against science.

A case in point happened recently at the Brookhaven National Laboratory that was in the major news. A radioactive leak from a storage area connected to a research reactor into the monitoring well caused major public upheaveal in the surrounding communities on Long Island. One would think that a major disaster occured. However, if one were to look at it carefully, one noticed that (i) the monitoring wells were doing what they were supposed to do and (ii) the amount of radioactive material that leaked was so low, it was less than the radiation one would get from an EXIT sign at a movie theater!

Unfortunately, those two facts were buried in the massive campaign by several organizations that included a few well-known movie stars. While the scientists at Brookhaven repeatedly reported on the facts, famous celebrities went on TV and various other public media with scare tactics that were devoid of valid facts. Guess who won?

Most of the scientists made the error into thinking that if we just tell the public these facts, they'll realize that there's nothing to be worried about. This failed miserably. They over-estimated the public's ability to analyze and comprehend the facts of the matter. As a result, the Brookhaven's High Flux Beam Reactor, the site of two works that resulted in Nobel Prizes, is now decommissioned and closed for good. This shows that the apparent public support for science can turn in a blink of an eye, because it is not based on a solid understanding of what science is, but rather on something more superficial.

If you are lucky enough to be in this profession, you cannot assume that others know, understand, or even appreciate what you are doing, and why it is important. You can play a small part in eradicating this ignorance by continuously "selling" your work. Add bells and whistles to your presentation to the public. They are more effective than the content in most cases. Do not assume the facts will always win.


[1] See


Unknown said...

Excellent article. I keep track of it.

see video

Anonymous said...

Thats an eye opener!