Leaving it to the societies

Carl Zimmer, giving a quick synopsis of three recent books on science communication, begins his post:

On August 11, 1999ten years ago tomorrowthe State Board of Education in Kansas voted to take evolution out of the states science curriculum.
This came as quite a shock to a lot of biologists I spoke to at the time. A lot of them couldnt understand how it have happened. Some decided to get together to plan what to do in response. With lightning-fast reflexes, a meeting was arranged over a year later. Representatives from major scientific societies gathered to make a plan. They invited a number of other people to join them. I was one. And, frankly, I felt like I was observing a meeting of representatives of tribes from some New Guinea highland forest, who were following rules and speaking a language that I could not begin to understand. At the end of the meeting, these dozens of scientists made a momentous decision. They wouldwait for itgo back to their societies and suggest that they post on their web site a statement that evolution is good science.

To be fair, many biologists reacted by taking action – publishing letters to the editor in local newspapers, scheduling answer sessions with religious organizations or local school boards, and participating in advocacy organizations like the various states’ Citizens for Science. Sometimes those efforts worked – helping to energize local political opposition to creationism in schools. In the long run, they haven’t made much impact on Americans’ attitudes toward evolution. But it’s pretty obvious that they work better than having a subcommittee of an academic society post a statement on a website.

The sad thing is that the rigid, hierarchical, “speak through the society” approach is perceived to have more academic cred. I say “perceived” because I don’t think it’s actually true – your dean is a whole lot more likely to see what you’re writing in the local paper (or have somebody else mention it) than to pay attention to your academic society’s webpage. If you want to have an impact in a democracy, start acting like a citizen!

I’ll tell you one thing that irritates me – every time you see somebody complaining about “scientists not communicating well”, you’ll see the suggestion that graduate programs should require some kind of training in science communication.

Yeah, right, that should work. How do you think all those otherwise-smart people decided to take the issue to their professional societies in the first place? As if it’s some kind of spontaneous thought, “Gee, we have to do something! Let’s call the association board!” No, graduate school beat it into them.

If you make graduate students pay with their time and money for a course in “science communication”, you’d better not advertise that to prospective students. Because they’d be smart to go somewhere else.

So how do you become a scientist who is good at communicating science? Same way you become a good scientist – find someone doing good work – work that you’d be proud to do yourself – and talk to her. If she’ll talk to you, give you time to learn how it’s done, be grateful. Reverse-engineer the process. And practice doing it yourself.