I almost included “Good” in the title – as in Good Pop(ular) Science. But of course, good goes without saying. Just as we like good science, we should also demand good science communicated in ways that the general public can understand & appreciate.
Wanna speculate about why a recent poll shows that over the past 30 years, there’s been no appreciable change in how the U.S. public views human evolution? The good news is that the percentage of those polled who understand that humans evolved without any intervention from God increased from 9% to 15%! Hey, if I were a journalist, my headline about this poll would have read: “Nearly 70% Increase in the U.S. Public’s Understanding of Human Evolution”.
But that’s not how the headlines went. Because the not-so-good news is that most Americans polled (78%) still think that either God created humans as we are today (46%), or that God guided evolution (32%). I can try to blame these jaw-dropping numbers on poll methodology (not enough cell phone numbers vs. land lines?) but even so, can’t help a Big Sigh. The public’s grasp of fundamental science still has a long way to go when it comes to accepting the basics of how we got here. It probably didn’t help that in 2006, the Bush Administration tried to outlaw evolutionary biology as an acceptable field of study.
But, back to my question: Why are we – the American public – still in the dark ages when it comes to the science of evolution? Of course, the answer is complicated. Life is complicated. While it’s easy to blame the producers of Fox News (& I do), it also, imho, has to do with scientists being so focused on being scientists that they’re neglecting their role as communicators. Poll numbers like these (even if they’re off by +/-4%) should be a sobering reality check for those of use who like to say ‘show me the data’. Scientists and their compadres, science journalists, need to become better communicators about the Amazing Story of the Evolution of Life As We Know It.
I know, there are those who disparage storytelling when it comes to science. I’ve even heard talk of the “fetishization of brain science”, as if some of what we’re learning from neuroscience (e.g., that humans love stories) is too coarse for the dignity of intellectual and scientific discourse. I disagree. We need to keep trying to figure out better & more engaging ways to communicate what scientists are learning about how our brains & bodies & environments work, and about how they work together: via stories that can help us understand why human primates (and other fellow creatures) do as we do, & think as we think, & feel as we feel; and by transmitting these stories via the various communication modes that humans are now using (even if we may disparage some of those modes).
I have huge admiration & respect for the day-in & day-out exacting & meticulous work of scientists. I really appreciate that they do what they do well so that people like me can accept their conclusions as my world-view. I even (sometimes) enjoy their debates about the (sometimes) obscure-but-no-doubt-key details. But apparently the big picture is not getting through to folks on the street, nor to kids on the tweet.
C’mon y’all, let’s do a better job at learning & sharing the Amazing Story!
This is an important topic and I will add my “Yay!” to good popular science. When it comes to the subject of communicating the complexities of various scientific disciplines, I’m reminded of a quote by McCluhan: “Those who think education and entertainment are different don’t know the first thing about either one” (I may be paraphrasing a bit here, but this is the essence). I couldn’t agree more.
There was never a subject that really excited me and captured my attention – at all levels of my education – that wasn’t inspired by a teacher who knew how to commnicate their passion in an engaging manner. They personalized their subject through stories – always it’s stories – how the subject affected them, our culture, our history, our future, etc. in ways that made the subject immediately relatable and relevant to my inquiring mind. Yes, it was fun, and that’s part of this discussion, too: If science and math are taught in a dry, uninteresting way, science and math are going to be dry and uninteresting. True of any subject…
The teachers who really understand that teaching is all about communication draw huge crowds whenever they’re lecturing (well, at least back in the day when students actually had to attend lectures) because when students can relax and actually have a good time learning, I’ll wager they learn and retain much much more than when the opposite is true (I’ve no stats on this, but that’s the way I’m betting).
Back in the Day (bitd?), Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, Issac Asimov, Kenneth Clark (“Civilisation”) and Joseph Campbell were prime examples of this, each of them passionately sharing their expertise, ideas and theories in an engaging and entertaining way. They succeeded in raising the profile of their disciplines across a broad public spectrum. These days, it’s teachers like Neil de Gasse Tyson, Niall Ferguson, Jared Diamond to name but a few, who are doing a good job following in their footsteps, and I hope any person who is thinking of teaching as a profession take your essential point to heart – learn to communicate! – and applies it to every aspect of their pursuit.
I am thoroughly enjoying your ‘Everyday Primate’ blog, Linda. You are a very good writer and – no surprise – you communicate your thoughts and ideas in a clear and entertaining (there’s that word again) way. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to reading more.
i love bitd – go boomers! Jared Diamond is one of my all -time heroes. You know much more about this all than I do, old friend…I deeply appreciate your feedback.