Talking to the public is essential to the future of science

2 minute read

Susanna Martinez-Conde, Stephen Macknik and Devin Powell have a short article with advice for would-be science popularizers: “How Scientists Can Engage the Public without Risking Their Careers”.

Daniel Kahneman, who published Thinking, Fast and Slow nearly a decade after he won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, went to almost heroic lengths to ensure that traditional academics would approve of his book. “It took me four years to write my book—four exceedingly miserable years because I was explicitly trying to do two things,” he says. “I wanted to write a popular book, without losing the respect of my colleagues. I paid a lot of money to have my book reviewed anonymously by young associate professors, four of them, I paid them two thousand dollars each, to tell me whether this would damage my reputation. And interestingly enough, it did damage my reputation among a subset of my colleagues.” Even so, Kahneman feels that the academic reaction to his book was by and large, very positive

I admire scientists like Kahneman who make the decision to reallocate their time toward public activities. By doing so, they advance the work of their colleagues and their field in general. His solution seems a little extreme, but I am glad to see how he values the referee work and the opinions of other scientific colleagues.

Interacting with the public is hard work. Being effective at public communication is a skill that scientists develop only through extensive practice, talking and writing honestly about the value of scientific work and its implications. Being an effective teacher is equally challenging, and while the skillsets do overlap, they are not identical.

I do a lot of public writing, blogging, documentary consulting, and filming. This work has made me a better scientist. I see the effects throughout my research. I make discoveries, and as much as possible, I get to take lots of other people with me. I don’t want to work any other way.

Most academics in my field have been totally supportive of the way I work. I do everything I can to promote the great work of friends and colleagues around the world. It’s always great to hear about connections made, and I’ve found so many friends in unexpected places.

I can’t deny that I’ve heard some criticism over the years. That kind of criticism is what stops many young scientists from even trying to engage outside their narrow subdiscipline. It’s entirely rational to keep your head down and stick to academic journal articles.

But honestly, most critical comments come from a small number of professionals who spend a lot of effort trying to become “academic celebrities” themselves. Some people assume that a certain degree of success in science will automatically cause people to listen to everything they say. The world doesn’t work that way, nor would anyone sensible want it to.

I’ve learned a lot from those interactions. I’m still finding out new ways to persuade people that our origins matter, to show them how our scientific work makes a difference.