REPOST: Do scientists have a duty to engage the public?

This was first posted on April 20th 2009 on v2.0 of this blog. It’s still relevant.

Is there something about being a scientist that means we are obliged to deal with public misconceptions of science? Should we be rising up and defeating all examples of bad science or pseudoscience in the media, on tv or in the newspapers?
The main purpose of wider engagement for scientists is to recruit more scientists. It is to portray a career in science as an achievable goal for anyone who wishes to try, and to break down the barriers that decades (centuries?) of negative stereotyping have created. Yes, I did say that anyone who wished one could have a career in science. You don’t have to be a professor to be a scientist, what about the lab techs and similar? As scientists we generally feel that the world would be a better place if there were more scientists, more discoveries, more people able to comprehend our elaborate experimental elucidations. I’m reasonably sure that most vicars feel that the world would be a better place if there were more respectably religious people and bigger congregations on Sunday mornings.
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But is this need to engage the public a function of the public’s supposed scientific ignorance, or that of science’s need for recognition and praise? The media act as a useful intermediary, able to screen the vast quantity of scientific research that is published annually and select the most relevant stories. That sounds like a pretty useful tool to use, and yet we don’t use it. We view the media as the enemy, the people who distort the science, the people who perpetuate bad science and the people who are somehow out to get us. Historically, has there ever been a period of good public engagement? (Think carefully about that because class differences had significant impact on who had access to what knowledge in previous centuries). What if things are really better now than ever before?
Back to duty then. If we are funded by tax payers, through academic positions and research grants, are we obliged to give something other than the results of study in return? Should we present all of our methodologies and findings to the lowest common denominator as standard practice? An academic job is still just a job, with responsibilities and pressures like any other. Do some scientists feel that they need to give back to society because of the long training they have benefited from? If that’s the case, then why don’t medics do more public outreach? Or is there a major difference between treating the sick and educating the undergraduates?
Perhaps some scientists view public engagement as a means to achieve science’s rightful place in society, or scientist’s rightful place in society. Would it not be better to get the message out there that its OK to be smart, that you can be clever and still like everyday things like pop music and pizza? More to the point, that you can be a scientist and still have a normal life. But perhaps we can’t promote that view because we don’t believe it ourselves. We don’t believe that we do lead normal lives, because we’re working 60 hour weeks, doing jobs that people don’t seem to understand and constantly having to justify ourselves to our peers and funding bodies alike. Perhaps as scientists we need to stop trying to convert the public to our cause and start converting ourselves to theirs: fitting in and being part of a community. Could something so simple really make more difference than every outreach and engagement activity combined?

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