Why Scientists Need to do a Better Job Explaining Themselves

Why Scientists Need to do a Better Job Explaining Themselves

During the 2008 presidential campaign, I found a fail-proof cure for low blood pressure—I just listened to any of the candidates talk about the wasteful spending in science. “They spent 3 million dollars on bear genetics” was one favorite phrase for the politicians, and every time I heard it, I felt the desire to throw something bear-sized at the wall (or a politician). “Do they not know how expensive science is? What is wrong with them that they don’t see how important that study is?” were my most frequent utterances.

The months following the numbing onslaught of talking heads gave me some time to think, though, and I concluded that while I could spend energy accusing politicians of being idiots, it might be more productive to understand the role scientists play in the debate about science policy. Unfortunately, that role is limited. Scientists, as a group, tend to be more interested in doing science than taking about that science—egoism (“this is far too complicated for the plebians to understand”) is most definitely involved, although limitations posed by the number of hours in a day play a role as well. However this separation between scientists and non-scientists is created and maintained, it serves neither group in the long run. Scientists must do better at explaining both how we go about doing science and why what we do is important (and exciting), or we can expect the 2012 presidential election to be as full of misleading anti-science sound bites as was 2008. One of my favorite questions to ask when I learn new information is “But how do we know that?” Usually, the answer is so obvious to the expert presenting the information that he or she hadn’t even considered someone might be curious about it.

For example, at a science fair a few years ago, a visitor to my table was learning about Lucy, a 3.2 million year old fossil human ancestor, and asked me, “How do you know she wasn’t carved out of stone by a faker?” At the time, I stuttered through a response, so taken aback by the question that I couldn’t form a very coherent answer. But a few hours later, I thought, “Actually, that’s a pretty good question—how do I know that?” The biggest scandal in paleoanthropological history was the 1912 discovery of a fossil skull in Piltdown, England that was revealed to be a hoax only after decades of shaping the opinions of scientists as to the evolutionary history of humankind. Why should a visitor to a science festival accept that the fossils I brought were actually the remains of long-dead ancestors?

The answer for Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, is fairly straightforward. We have fossil fragments representing more than 300 individuals, found at several sites by many different scientists over the past forty years, and the techniques used to date the fossils replicate the 3-4 million-year-old age range again and again.

But the more complicated the science, the more important it is for scientists to translate the answer to the “how do we know?” question into words everyone can understand. We can’t expect politicians untrained in the scientific method to respect (or fund) what goes on in our labs if we lock ourselves in and refuse them entry. A study of bear genetics is an easy target for accusations of wasteful spending when people don’t understand all that goes into such a study or why it’s important., I’d like politicians to have a better understanding of science so my walls can stay safe from flying objects come next election.

Lynn Copes spent four years in the skull room at the American Museum of Natural History, opening 10,000 boxes each containing a human skull. During that time, she also earned a BA in Anthropology fro ...read more

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