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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Welcome to The Year ...
January 4, 2009 - 8:59pm

... of Science.

Please note: not just a year of science, but The Year of Science!

Did you miss all the hooplah? Did you not know how special 2009 is? Is it possible you're not sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for Darwin Day? (2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.) Can it be that you've forgotten this is the 400th anniversary of both Galileo's first use of a telescope to explore the heavens and Kepler's publication of the first two Laws of Planetary Motion?

Me, too.

See, as much as we all need a Year (or a couple of Decades) of Science, if only to eliminate the after-effects of eight years of pedestrian theology/political theater, the Year of Science is only slightly more prominent in the public eye than is the bottle drive for the high school wrestling team. As a matter of fact, if you want to see where the public eye is really focused, run a poll -- due to budget shortfalls, we must eliminate the Science Club or the wrestling team. The wrestlers have nothing to worry about. According to one recent article announcing the YoS, fully 50% of the American public doesn't believe in evolution. What I found even more surprising was that 20% don't believe Galileo's conclusion that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Recent scientific discoveries may be too abstruse for the public consciousness, but that's not the problem. The problem is that even the very simple, basic stuff hasn't been communicated well.

Of course, scientists don't have much of a reputation in the communication department. To the extent that they have any reputation at all, it's epitomized by Sheldon (Jim Parsons) on The Big Bang Theory. (It's a TV show. On network. My mom pointed it out to me. It's really funny.) No people skills, no personal life, no noticeable sense of humor, that sort of thing.

Now, I interact with scientists all the time, and not all of them remind me of Sheldon (or vice versa). Most of them are more like Leonard (Johnny Galecki) -- intelligent, somewhat self-absorbed, mediocre social skills, but still more or less likeable. Nerds, it's true. So what?

Well, when it comes to swaying public opinion, nerdiness doesn't help. Nerds (and I speak with a certain native authority on this subject) have a high tolerance for complexity. The American public has been coddled into a low tolerance for complexity. When the anti-intellectuals are selling slogans that fit on bumper stickers and all we've got to offer is a set of equations full of Greek letters, guess who wins every time. When the average know-nothing reporter for a general-interest magazine or newspaper tries to write a science story, (s)he is totally befuddled, and the result is a public which is competely bored, confused and/or misled. (Oh, great, now I've got the journalism profs mad at me!)

Unfortunately for us nerds, public perception matters. If the public doesn't perceive a problem, they won't help solve it. If the public doesn't perceive a problem with their own behaviors, they don't change those behaviors. And when the explanation for why public behavior is problematic depends on science, well, the message (as I've described before) is easily disrupted and so doesn't get through.

In a real sense, what Greenback and other universities need to be turning out is not more scientists (although that's not a bad thing), but more and better science communicators. A large batch of truly informed and effective science reporters who can talk to the general audience. Science story-tellers who can grab the public by the figurative throat, and force it to pay attention. We need to take some of those folks who wanted to major in physics but couldn't pass Calc III and turn them into communications majors. And teachers. And preachers. And TV writer/producers.

 

 

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