I’ve recently been thinking about this: There are a lot of Americans who don’t know a single scientist.
This is one of our biggest failures as a community. When we March for Science in April, we’ll be fighting for our right to freely communicate with the people whose taxes fund our work and the legislators who we hope will use our work to inform policymaking. But we haven’t done a good job of actually communicating with people about what we do.
As a first-year graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, I’m spending the year trying out different laboratories before picking the one where I’ll do my thesis work. Along with observing experiments, I get to watch how senior scientists interact with the public. The depressing truth is that many don’t.
They’re busy. They’re running labs, teaching students, applying for grants, and communicating their work to other scientists. Sharing what they do with everyone else falls by the wayside. And this matters, because when researchers don’t explain how we do our jobs and what the scientific method means, it’s harder for you to compare our conclusions and how we got there to stuff that’s dreamed up on the internet.
This is how it plays out: As a nation, we cannot separate the community consensus that vaccines are safe and beneficial from voices hawking the disproven idea that vaccines cause autism. It’s easy to dismiss climate scientists talking about the impact of global warming when the people who profit from it constantly assure consumers that one source, fossil fuels, isn’t really that bad.
Even worse, scientists are often quick to judge those who don’t agree with them. When people don’t want to reckon with the role of their cars in fueling climate change, when they can’t believe that we share a common ancestor with gorillas, we often treat them with disdain.
It’s been nice to see the #actuallivingscientist movement gain steam on Twitter. I’m hopeful that it will put more faces to what we do every day.
Explaining the way we actually do science, especially to people struggling to come to terms with what the evidence points to, is challenging. The science most of us learn in high school and even college is foundational, but often not enough, because it gives you a conclusion and not always the trial and error of getting there. The science performed on TV shows gives people an idea of the types of technology we use to ask questions about nature and the universe, but it leaves out experimental design, synthesizing information from multiple sources, troubleshooting, and repeating experiments again and again to get information.
I sometimes wonder if explaining research is hard because there’s an experiential gap that helps me understand, for example, that the technology used to create GMO food is more or less the same technology used to create certain medicines. I’ve used that technology in my research. Knowing the latter is safe makes it easier for me to reconcile that the former is safe.
And now we have a president who has questioned the overwhelming evidence of vaccine safety. A president whose policy keeps brilliant minds out of the country for fear of the corrupt ones. And he is supported by people who far too easily dismiss what we do in favor of “alternative facts.”
So, to protect what we do and its value in society, more and more scientists are becoming activists. This, again, is a hard thing to do, and not everyone thinks it will help. We’re having to set aside the dispassionate observations we make in the lab for passionate arguments for our freedoms. This is the battle for the legitimacy of science, a battle we helped create because we still haven’t figured out how to show people what we do, why we do it, and why it’s important.
So we’ll march. And then we have to get to work. Going forward, we have to be stewards. We have to share without condescension and be patient and helpful as people balance uncomfortable truths. We have to integrate into our communities as voices on the ground. We’re people who care about the health and well-being of the human race. That’s why we sequester ourselves in our labs working for cures, or in front of computers trying to understand weather patterns, or out in the ocean, gathering samples of water, fish, and plants. But we have to do a better job of communicating if we want the default to be evidence-based policy for us, the people, and not for profit. I hope it’s not too late to reverse our failings.